More Changes in Store For DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate
Since then, the agency’s track record has been spotty. Lawmakers and government watchdogs have expressed disappointment with the organization. It has gone through several directors, each with his or her own idea of how the organization should function and its place in the larger DHS enterprise.
The second director, retired Navy Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, former chief of the office of naval research, took over the young organization in 2006 and attempted to instill Defense Department acquisition practices.
Its third director Tara O’Toole did a major restructuring of the organization, eliminating research projects that didn’t have a future and attempted to remake the organization into the department’s one-stop shop for for the testing of new technologies acquisitions.
Her tenure was marked by sharp reductions in the directorate’s annual budgets, forcing it to concentrate on a few key sectors such as cyber security and border and maritime technologies, and drop or consolidate several divisions.
Meanwhile, the directorate never had complete authority over the department’s research-and-development enterprise. Early in DHS’ history, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was created in order to concentrate its efforts on advanced nuclear radiation portals. That program ended in failure.
The BioWatch Generation 3 program, a “lab in a box” which was designed to sniff out deadly pathogens in real time, was handed over to the department’s office of health affairs. It was recently scuttled.
The Coast Guard has its own research-and-development program as well.
All this prompted the Government Accountability Office to note in a 2012 report that DHS did not have a handle on all the research-and-development occurring among the components. There was no overarching strategy and a lack of coordination. The Science and Technology Directorate in the 2013 appropriations language was tasked with tracking all ongoing R&D in the department in order to mitigate redundant programs.
The newest director who will have to take on these challenges is Reginald Brothers, who has spent his career in the Defense Department technology development realm. He began at federally funded research labs, and he went on to work at BAE Systems, where he specialized in wireless communications and radar. He was a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager and, until recently, served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for research.
At a recent joint House Homeland Security and Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing, Brothers testified that he wanted to take some of the experience he gained in the private sector and apply it to the directorate. Namely, he wanted to break down the barriers between the scientists and the end users. Corporate labs are cycling researchers between business units, he noted.
“This is precisely the model I intend to implement at S&T with DHS’ operational components,” he said in his written testimony. “We need scientists who break down firewalls between R&D and operators and who become fluent in the language of operators and end users.”
Brothers did not anticipate any major restructuring of the divisions within the directorate. The five major areas under the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency are: borders and maritime security; chemical/biological defense; explosives; cyber security; and resilient systems. In addition, there is an enterprise dedicated to supporting new technology and interoperability for first responders.
Apex programs, high priority research-and-development efforts that were first introduced by O’Toole, were intended to deliver technologies in two-year cycles. Brothers said they will expand to five years.
He also will implement “30-year horizon points to build toward.”
Such long-term visionary goals were first championed at DARPA, and serve to invigorate the research-and-development enterprise, he said.
DHS’ four R&D horizon points will include: screening at speed — or noninvasive technologies that will scan people, baggage or cargo for threats; trusted cyber future where network security is protected; enabling decision makers with data delivered ahead of incidents; and the “responder of the future” where emergency services personnel are connected to information networks and protected from harm.
These four categories will not necessarily encompass all of the directorate’s efforts, he said.
“The visionary goals are devices to capitalize on creativity and serve as North Stars to drive innovation within S&T and our broader community,” he said.
David C. Maurer, director of homeland security and justice at the GAO, said the directorate still does not have a good grasp of all the development programs within DHS. It has not implemented metrics that could help it understand if developed technologies delivered to components are working as planned.
Brothers said that he planned on delivering by the end of the year a new Science and Technology Strategic Plan that will be a roadmap for the next five to 10 years. The last plan was released in 2011.
One of O’Toole’s goals was to make the directorate the go-to organization within DHS when it comes to new technology acquisition. The office of the director of administration and support, which has test and evaluation and standards under its purview, was part of her reorganization, and intended to provide rigor in procurement processes.
Maurer said that has yet to be achieved.
“The components don’t necessarily think of S&T as their first stop shopping center for meeting their … mission needs. And that’s a challenge that is going to have to be overcome,” he said.
He noted a morale problem in the organization as well. The Partnership for Public Service ranked the Science and Technology Directorate second to last of 300 sub-agencies in terms of the “Best Places to Work” in the federal government.