TechFest and its Value

I am spending much of the week at Microsoft Research’s annual TechFest, which is proving to be an absolutely mind-blowing experience.  So much, so cool, so out there….

There’s been some good press about the show already (ComputerWorld, and ITWorld for example), and the official Microsoft TechFest site has a wealth of material.  The media were allowed in on the “Public Day” to report on a carefully selected subset of the projects being displayed. But I think the coverage has missed an important difference between this show and something like COMDEX or CeBIT.

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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.

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IARPA’s First Director: Dr. Lisa Porter

Fact: IARPA has a new Director.

Analysis: The well-known DARPA (part of DoD) will now at last have a full-fledged intelligence-community counterpart. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity – prosaically called “IARPA” – was created last year, but has been stepping out slowly because [/opinion on] of lack of leadership [/opinion off], with only “interim” place-holder leaders.  Many of my friends who were recruited or absorbed into IARPA at the beginning, as it swallowed the old Disruptive Technologies Office for example, felt that the new org was spinning its wheels without traction, for lack of a strong and stable hand at the helm.  [Note also this recent post on IARPA.]

Today the Director of National Intelligence named Dr. Lisa Porter as IARPA’s first Director. She’s been at NASA, and before that DARPA itself.  She and I were at Stanford at around the same time, although hanging in different crowds – she working on her doctorate in Applied Physics while I was over doing the real heavy lifting in the hardest of all sciences, Political Science 🙂  

I’ve never met her, unless I don’t recall from old DARPA visits, so I did a tiny bit of surfing to clip a few salient tidbits from her DARPA work.

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