S&T budget woes could blunt DHS research

The mission of the research arm of the Department of Homeland Security isn't helped by new budget priorities, a former undersecretary told a House Homeland Security subcommittee.

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Uncertain budgets for cyber- and biosecurity research and development could put the Department of Homeland Security in a tight spot in an era of rapidly evolving threats, according to the former head of the agency's Science and Technology directorate.

"One of the things that DHS S&T's cybersecurity division did well was to think ahead," Dr. Reginald Brothers, a former head of S&T, told a House Homeland Security Committee Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee hearing on Nov. 7.

That ability to look ahead and keep ahead of a widening range of technological threats from a deepening pool of bad actors, from individuals to nation states, would be crippled by budget cuts in the wrong places, he warned.

The 2018 budget would cut S&T's budget by $144 million, funding it at $627 million for 2018. The directorate was funded at $771 million in 2017.

The reductions would come primarily in research and development, as DHS ramps up spending on border security and counterterrorism capabilities. S&T's National Urban Security Technology Laboratory and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center faced possible substantial reductions.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) noted that some program funding had been restored in recent months.

But even with the restoration of some programs, the uncertainty those proposed cuts instilled hasn't helped S&T's mission, according to Brothers, who was S&T undersecretary from 2014 to January 2017.

Brothers also wants S&T to obtain "other transaction authority" to allow funds to be more freely spent on pressing issues. When a privately piloted drone landed on the White House lawn in 2015, S&T wanted to go after the problem with research but ran into roadblocks.

"It was a concern, but my funding was already committed," Brothers said. "Black Swan events are challenging" under the directorate's current spending capabilities, he added.

Industry experts testifying alongside Brothers agreed that uncertain funding for S&T projects and efforts can blunt its nascent efforts to get more notice from commercial tech suppliers and innovators.