New Report on Homeland Security’s S&T Directorate

Fact: “The Directorate of Science and Technology is the primary organization for research and development (R&D) in the Department of Homeland Security. With a budget of $830.3 million in FY2008, it conducts R&D in several laboratories of its own [and] funds R&D conducted by industry, the Department of Energy national laboratories, other government agencies, and universities.”

Analysis: The quote above comes from my hot-off-the-press copy of the new Congressional Research Service report (a pdf version here) on the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. Bottom line: CRS notes that “Congress and others have been highly critical of the directorate’s performance. Although recent management changes have somewhat muted this criticism, fundamental issues remain.” 

By the way, you’ll get a special bonus for reading to the end of this post, derived from an obscure footnote in the report.

The report is being reported in short-hand in the Beltway technology media, as criticizing DHS S&T for not being receptive to industry.  “DHS Directorate Elusive, CRS Report States,” is the headline in Federal Computer Week. The sister pub WashingtonTechnology has the same story with a different head: “CRS: DHS Directorate Lacks Collaborative Spirit.”  And yes, the report does detail the poor job DHS does at providing an open door to new ideas and technologies from the private sector.

But there’s a lot more in the report and it deserves more thoughtful reading & reporting, as it goes into some detail into the difficulties in bringing powerful and effective new technical and scientific approaches to bear for homeland defense and the war on terror.

For example, the well-footnoted report indicates concern about how the money’s being spent:

“The extent to which the S&T Directorate invests in basic research in particular is an issue of continuing congressional interest…. The directorate’s R&D portfolio has been criticized as being skewed too much toward development, with not enough expenditure on basic research. As noted below, the directorate’s stated goal is to increase basic research to 20% of its budget. This goal was not reached in the directorate’s FY2008 budget request, which included 13% basic research.”

There’s also good discussion of the role of “extramural” R&D funded by the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA).  I’ll note that during the discussions over the past two years about whether the Intelligence Community should set up its own DARPA-like IARPA, there were many questions raised about the effectiveness of HSARPA, which originally was established to manage the external R&D activities funded by DHS; it also runs the Homeland Innovative Prototypical Solutions program, which is “designed to demonstrate prototypes of high-payoff technologies in two to five years with moderate to high risk.”

According to the CRS report, as part of a “reorganization of the S&T Directorate,” HSARPA’s work has been “redirected….  The role of HSARPA is much reduced from past years….It is now focused on activities with high risk and high reward…. HSARPA now performs research activities more in the DARPA model.” 

In a telling comment which I gather raised hackles over at DHS S&T, the CRS report recommends that “the best way to use HSARPA and its attendant funding may continue to be a topic of congressional interest.”

By the way, a personal observation on the “responsiveness to industry” concerns: it’s hard to connect government with industry, or at least to do it right.  It’s easier to do it the old-school, back-door way, criticized well by retired Navy admiral Jack Shanahan, former Second Fleet commander and now head of the Military Advisory Committee of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities.  It’s often very tempting – just look at the Darlene Druyan case.

I came from Silicon Valley to DIA after 9/11, specifically intending to improve the ability of creaky bureaucracies to identify and adopt new technologies. I found that it is difficult but doable, and that the key to success is a government-side persistence and passion for finding the best and acting quickly. (You can always count on persistency on the vendor side, of course.)  But that’s hard, given the disincentives acting against government agility.

At the Defense Intelligence Agency, there’s been a decade-old practice in the “technology innovation” wing of holding a weekly Business Review Board, stretching back to the old JIVA days (the some-would-say infamous Joint Intelligence Virtual Architecture program, which spent millions into the nine figures, with some successes and many question marks).

When I ran the BRB from 2004 through 2007, we added a weekly two-hour segment of industry presentations, inviting briefings and product-pitch demo’s from large and small companies.  The IBM’s and Lockheeds of the world (classic Beltway Bandit vendors) jostled with garage-based startups from California or Texas to get on the slot; one week we hosted a middle-aged woman from Mississippi who lived next door to the DIA-run Missile and Space Intelligence Center, and had spoken with them about a novel and intriguing data-mining algorithmic approach she had developed literally at her kitchen table.  Essentially an auto-didact higher mathematician, she had gleaned much about intelligence data-mining approaches and had come up with a Bayesian approach that showed some progress.  We wound up passing on her idea, but it was an eye-opening and thought-provoking session. 

Often the briefings and demo’s served only a background-knowledge purpose, keeping DIA’s IT professionals current on leading-edge technologies across the spectrum of infrastructure, storage, processors, middleware, applications, data visualization, etc.  But occasionally, bucking the quicksand-slow “acquisition process,” we were able to go quickly from elevator pitch to demo to pilot to purchase. And vendors knew that you had to “get in front of the BRB” to ever have a hope of adoption.

Oh, about that special bonus: according to the CRS report, “Entrepreneurs with technologies potentially applicable to homeland security problems have sometimes had difficulty identifying appropriate contacts at the S&T Directorate.”

Let me help startups through some of the difficulty, by pointing out that in footnote 97 (I kid you not) of the report, it is revealed that the Directorate’s email address for unsolicited new ideas, concepts, and proposals is: S&T-Transition@dhs.gov.


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4 Responses

  1. I think most observers would agree Lewis, that the BRB @ R2 is/was one of the better examples of the government speedily screening and evaluating new and innovative capabilities. At the risk of gross simplification, the Government’s approach across the board seems to be “Bring us your huddled ideas yearning to breathe free and we will evaluate them.” Then you crunch the math of who is better managing the general mailboxes and get some results. However the real challenge is how does the Government better reach and access the capabilities, innovation, research and intellectual property that may not have the Government / IC as constituents. When the product / capability has the persistent sales force you mention, the problem may solve itself – but waiting until the innovation gets to that stage may be waiting too long in many cases.

  2. Paul – excellent points. And since joining Microsoft, I’ve certainly seen the reality of your second point – this company is working on things and doesn’t have the government in mind as a user, when in fact the marriage would be ideal, yet government is unaware… not to say “clueless.” Most govt employees are fairly busy and govt agencies rarely have the insight needed to reach out successfully. Your group (www.cit.org) by the way is among the best at that kind of “relationship management.” Kind of like speed dating!

  3. Us Texans have persistence. But few startups (or their investors) can really have the patience for a 3 year cycle – there must be a lot of value ship wrecked on the rocks of epic purchasing cycles that make the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like an afternoon tea party.

  4. Uncontestable point, Justin. Undeniable that there is a LOT of value foregone by government. However, sometimes I ask myself if I or most Americans would actually want a government that was hyper-efficient, friction-free in following its own interests, and able to spend taxpayer money with a finger-snap. Probably not….🙂

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