Lawmaker unhappy with Homeland Security research agency

Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., says he is concerned about the lack of a plan or risk assessment to help prioritize projects.

The Homeland Security Department's research and development program is making progress but is still in need of improvement, a key lawmaker on the House Science and Technology Committee said Thursday.

During a budget hearing before the Technology and Innovation Subcommittee, the panel's chairman, David Wu, D-Ore., said lawmakers are "familiar with management problems that have caused a lack of focus on important research and development priorities and the attrition of the best and the brightest minds from the Science and Technology Directorate" at the department.

He also said that he is concerned "about the lack of a strategic plan or risk assessment that should be the basis for research priorities within [Homeland Security] ... I strongly encourage you to carry out a detailed, scientific risk assessment soon."

For fiscal 2008, the Bush administration has requested $799 million for Homeland Security's science and technology directorate, a 9.5 percent decrease from the amount allocated for 2007. The directorate helps coordinate all federal homeland security related research, and carries out R&D projects to support Homeland Security initiatives.

During the hearing, Jay Cohen, undersecretary of the science and technology directorate, said he has spent his first six months at his job "laying the foundation in organization, people and processes." He said he has made an effort to improve fiscal responsibility at the directorate and established international program officers to help coordinate global efforts to combat terrorism through science and technology.

Cohen added that the directorate has focused on leveraging R&D efforts across the federal government to benefit homeland security first responders.

But Wu said "only time will tell whether the changes Undersecretary Cohen has made will bring about the radical improvements to the S&T Directorate that our nation needs."

Jonah Czerwinski, managing consultant of IBM Global Business Services, focused his testimony on investments at Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office that he said challenged the assumptions regarding the limits of technology.

The president's budget proposal calls for increasing funding for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which conducts research on detection of nuclear and radiological materials, by 17 percent over 2007, to $569.1 million.

Czerwinski said the office has led a number of efforts meant to improve the nation's ability to combat nuclear terrorism. These include a technology demonstration called the Verification of Shielded Special Nuclear Material, which the Bush budget proposes allocating about $12 million toward, and a technology he said "represents a move from search to surveillance." The administration has requested $11 million for the project.

"The country needs a strategic framework to overarch our R&D investments for maximum benefit to both our homeland security interests and our economic competitiveness," Czerwinski said.

Homeland Security and its nuclear detection office "lack this strategic framework today. Nevertheless, [the office] has chosen successfully several important pilots. ... Congress should view DNDO's work as being on track after three years."