Panel plans bill to address Homeland Security research efforts

The bill is expected to promote the ability of small and minority-owned businesses to win contracts or join existing contracts for burgeoning technologies.

The Homeland Security Department does not have an effective way to measure the success of research and development projects, as most efforts never blossom into proven new technologies, according to an analysis by the House Homeland Security Committee.

To help correct those problems, the committee plans this month to write and approve an authorization bill for the department's science and technology directorate.

The bill is expected to promote the ability of small and minority-owned businesses to win contracts or join existing contracts for burgeoning technologies.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has made no secret that one of his top priorities is helping those businesses obtain work from the department.

"We found that in spite of investing in hundreds of research projects, most technologies are never transitioned into acquisition programs," said Homeland Security Emerging Threats Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., during a hearing Wednesday. Her panel is heading up the authorization bill.

"This makes it difficult to evaluate the directorate's success in mitigating security vulnerabilities," Clarke added. "Our analysis suggests that DHS does not have a clear risk-based methodology to determine what projects to fund, how much to fund, and how to evaluate a project's effectiveness or usefulness."

Tara O'Toole, the department's newly confirmed undersecretary for science and technology, said the directorate has launched a strategic planning process.

In an effort to unify science and technology efforts, the directorate is taking over applied research on radiological and nuclear detection technology from the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, O'Toole said.

The department recently determined that advanced radiation monitors under development by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office are not adequate for conducting primary inspections of vehicles and cargo, and will only be used during secondary inspections, O'Toole said.

She added that the department has suspended another troubled program designed to consolidate data from federal biological surveillance systems. That program, which is known as the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System and is intended to improve the detection and characterization of biological agents, had been under criticism for years for being ineffective.

Clarke said provisions of the authorization bill will closely track recommendations made last summer in a congressionally mandated report from the National Academy of Public Administration.

That report said the science and technology directorate had made improvements but suffered from a "fragmented and unwieldy structure."

In a written statement for Wednesday's hearing, Thompson outlined several priorities he expects the authorization bill to address.

"First, I'm concerned that the department does not have adequate training for personnel to identify capability gaps and write operational requirements," Thompson said. He also expressed concern that the directorate does not have a process to gauge the success of research projects and collect feedback from end users.

"Third, I can't tell you how many times a company will come to me and complain about how difficult it is to work with [the directorate]," he added. "We have to make it easier for companies to find opportunities and do business with [the directorate]."