Aides outline ways to improve Homeland Security R&D

Officials must do more to develop partnerships with owners of critical infrastructure and work with private companies to develop technology processes that support resilience.

Congressional aides today cited a handful of ways to improve the Homeland Security Department's science and technology programs, such as increasing the involvement of private companies in research and development and helping to make the nation's critical infrastructure more resilient.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Overall, the department's science and technology directorate is on the right track, the aides said at an industry conference sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

"The S&T directorate I would say is in many ways the most important part of DHS," said Rachel Jagoda Brunette, who works for the Democratic majority of the House Science Committee. She said the committee is concerned that Homeland Security is not doing enough to include outside organizations, such as private companies and academic institutions, in its R&D efforts. "We will work together to help the S&T directorate meet its full potential," she said.

One of the priorities for House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson has been looking at ways to ensure that the nation's critical infrastructure can withstand a disaster or terrorist attack, said Christopher Beck, a senior adviser to Thompson on science and technology matters.

"The fact is that we can't protect everything all the time but we can mitigate a lot of possible consequences by trying to ensure some resilience in the system," he said. "It's a difficult issue. It's slippery and it's a situation where the economic business model and the security model are at odds with each other." For example, he said, many companies do not carry stockpiles of supplies and the nation's power grids lack redundant generators for power.

"We are finding that it is possible -- and DHS demonstrated this to the electric industry -- to exploit a cyber vulnerability to actually cause real severe catastrophic damage to a generator," Beck said. He said Homeland Security officials must do more to develop partnerships with owners of critical infrastructure and work with private companies to develop technology and processes that support resilience. He noted the auto industry now embraces building safety features into vehicles, after initially rejecting them. "It's a hard problem to get your hands on because it's not a product or a specific research program. It's more an attitude," Beck said.

Tind Shepper Ryen, who works for Republicans on the House Science Committee, said sometimes Homeland Security's science and technology directorate is too "techno-optimistic" as opposed to prioritizing R&D efforts that lead to practical products. He said lawmakers on the committee are working to ensure that the department's research and development efforts are "not a silo but an active contributor to homeland security."

Jagoda Brunette added that the department also must maintain a long-term science and technology strategy while contending with social or political demands to meet a new threat. She noted, for example, that social and political pressure was placed on the department to develop technology to detect liquid explosives in response to a suspected terrorist plot in 2006.