By Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for the Science and Technology Directorate
The start of a new year is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the past and set new goals for the future. 2021 was a year of significant change and growth for the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), evolving our organization to rapidly pivot to provide technical and scientific advice, assistance, and solutions to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operations as an active response partner and advisor on the myriad of critical national-level challenges faced today. We can all resolve to improve with each and every year, and S&T never misses an opportunity to evolve…that includes how we think about ourselves and our mission. Science is all about asking questions, finding answers, and then asking even better questions. S&T fully embraces questions, as evidenced by our suite of Master Question Lists for COVID-19, African Swine Fever, and Synthetic Opioids.
We already reflected on the past year in our 2021 Year in Review, which focused on what we learned and accomplished (hint: it was A LOT). As for the year ahead, leadership has set a clear foundational strategy to meet our mission. First, though, let’s get back to basics. I’d like to start off 2022 by reintroducing S&T—who we are, what we stand for, and our strategy for continued transformational improvements in identified areas of opportunity.
- Who is S&T?
S&T is the science advisor to the Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and DHS operational components, and is the research and development arm of the homeland security enterprise. We offer vast expertise; research, development, testing, and evaluation capabilities; and access to a well-established network of worldwide public and private partners for use in providing operational solutions to our DHS components and the Secretary.
- What does S&T do?
S&T provides evidence-based scientific and technical perspectives to address a range of current and emerging threats—from aviation security to chemical and biological detection to resilience for our critical infrastructure related to climate and natural disasters, cybersecurity, and beyond. We work hand-in-hand with fellow DHS component agencies, emergency management and public safety personnel, and partners from across the public and private spectrums to develop timely and innovative solutions to meet today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.
We are in the business of identifying and delivering innovative solutions. Some of these, cultivated by our Technology Centers, may be commercially-available or nearly market-ready. In other cases, we collaborate with partners from a broad network of federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments, our national laboratories, industry innovators, academia, and international agencies to pinpoint capability gaps and then build technologies and publish guidance to address them.
Throughout the entire research and development (R&D) lifecycle, we strive to connect partners with end users across the nation to ensure our products can be transitioned to the commercial market for operational use.
- How is S&T R&D organized?
S&T has three critical workstreams of investment that focus on our responsibilities to the homeland security enterprise: (1) The Customer Near-Term workstream includes projects/activities that focus on near-term (3-5 years) high-priority gaps or needs identified by DHS operational components and first responder communities. We employ customer-integrated product teams to collect, prioritize, and implement efforts throughout their R&D life cycle; (2) The Foundational Science workstream consists of enduring research that often results in data sets, knowledge products, and publications to support other scientific endeavors. This is where we use our core lab, university program, small business, and tech center research capabilities to support the homeland security enterprise; and (3) Our Future Needs and Emerging Threats workstream explores emerging science and technology areas and their potential threat and/or application to DHS missions.
- Where does this work happen?
S&T prides itself on not just being an entity unto itself, but rather being the conduit to a well-established, worldwide network of public and private partners all working together to keep the nation safe through R&D. Our work is supported by two Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, five National Laboratories, seven Technology Centers, and 12 Centers of Excellence (COE), interagency engagements, and a network of domestic and international partners in the private sector and academia.
- When was S&T started?
With the passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress in November 2002, the Department of Homeland Security formally came into being as a stand-alone, cabinet-level department to further coordinate and unify national homeland security efforts. DHS opened its doors on March 1, 2003, and S&T was established within the department at its inception.
- How does S&T do what it does?
S&T works as an effective catalyst, leveraging relationships with our extensive network of domestic and international partners to bolster the strength and resilience of the homeland. We do this by supporting critical near-term requirements of DHS components, and serving the department and broader science community in the areas of foundational science and advancing innovation ahead of emerging threats.
With that established, let’s explore what’s in store for 2022!
Public Health and Physical Safety
- Is S&T still supporting COVID-19 response?
Yes. S&T is unrelenting in our COVID-19 response support. As long as our nation needs S&T expertise and capabilities to fight this disease, it’ll have it. S&T just recently released two Supplemental References to the Master Question List (MQL) for COVID-19 that consolidates what we know so far about the Delta and Omicron variants. S&T’s Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats Hazards and Risks (PANTHR) program will continue to refresh the COVID-19 MQL to include updates for emerging variants; coordinate response through established relationships with research partners; and when needed, will execute laboratory research to close key data gaps.
- What is S&T doing about domestic violent extremism?
As the domestic violent extremism threat environment continues to evolve, we must continuously strive to understand the use of online platforms to spread narratives and the role academic institutions and the private sector can play in countering violent extremism. The threat environment today is dynamic, complex, and rapidly evolving. How S&T approaches these threats must keep pace, as they morph and change.
S&T conducts evidence-based research to improve the effectiveness of public safety and violence prevention efforts, analyzing the threat environment and providing crucial data to determine how to build resilience. This research, including the ongoing work at the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education COE, will enable policymakers and operational end users to make informed decisions to divert vulnerable individuals, prevent potential offenders, mitigate vulnerabilities, and enhance community resilience in the face of various social and behavioral threats, all while ensuring the privacy and civil rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens.
- How else does S&T protect us from terrorism?
S&T supports the terrorism prevention mission by conducting applied research and evaluation, and by integrating scientifically derived knowledge to inform policy and programs throughout DHS. With the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, S&T develops resources for government and local partners to better understand the motives that drive engagement in violent extremism. Additionally, we evaluate existing terrorism prevention activities and policies to improve their effectiveness.
- What does the future of air travel look like?
S&T continues to work with DHS operational components to improve the air travel experience. Results from our third annual Biometric Technology Rally revealed that advances in technology may mean organizations performing photo ID checks could allow individuals to keep their face masks on, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Facial recognition technology tests showed up to 96% accuracy. In addition, two next-generation checkpoint screening technologies, the R&D 100 award winning Shoe Scanner and the High Definition – Advanced Imaging Technology systems, were recently licensed for commercialization and could be coming soon to an airport near you.
- How does S&T protect our borders?
Safeguarding the geographical landscape at and between ports-of-entry at our borders presents a number of challenges, such as human trafficking and smuggling of illicit drugs and other substances. S&T and a coalition of federal partners assess technologies that inform our ability to monitor airspace and secure the border. Monitoring threats is essential to preventing illegal and dangerous entry into our country. Air Domain Awareness (ADA) consists of the aerial surveillance technologies, sensors, and capabilities necessary to protect us from such activities. S&T has held a series of demonstrations and test events in various geographic regions to increase our security and ensure our safety. ADA is one of many S&T border security initiatives.
Key Stakeholders and the Environment
- How does S&T support first responders?
S&T addresses first responder mission challenges such as interoperability. For example, Computer-Aided-Dispatch (CAD) systems that support emergency response agencies are unable to electronically exchange information. This prevents critical data from being shared by the various organizations responding to an incident. S&T is helping achieve a public safety CAD-to-CAD ecosystem that is resilient, efficient, and supports multi-discipline response to regional, multi-state, and national events.
- Are there any new first responder technologies transitioning soon?
It just so happens that a cutting-edge new capability will be available in 2022: the Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER), which provides a reliable, accurate locating capability in 3D-space. This was the top mission priority requested by our First Responder Resource Group members. POINTER can find a firefighter’s location inside a multi-story building within one centimeter and from 70 meters away.
- Is S&T doing anything to help fight wildfires?
Absolutely! Our wildfire sensors will provide early warning of smoke and other particulates in the air that could signal impending flames. We’re also developing a new Wildland Firefighter Respirator, which has the potential to be a real game-changer. The device is lightweight, runs on AA batteries, and uses inexpensive high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters to protect the lungs of frontline workers as they fight wildland fires.
- Is S&T helping combat climate change?
Climate change is a major threat to the security of our nation and indeed our entire planet. S&T has prioritized addressing the climate crisis with a strategy of building resilience that aligns with administration priorities to address climate change challenges. The Cooling Solutions Challenge, a joint effort with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and White House, is just one instance of S&T efforts aimed at climate change. The prize competition seeks out innovation solutions to mitigate the effects of extreme heat—a significant health risk in the wake of many natural disasters.
Other Top Priorities and Focus Areas
- What is S&T doing to strengthen infrastructure?
Infrastructure is a broad term encompassing numerous sectors that enable the functioning of our modern society and critical infrastructure resilience is a primary focus of S&T R&D efforts. At S&T, we are engaged in world-class research projects through an interconnected network of partners across government, academia, research institutes, industry, businesses, and other stakeholders to ensure all 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, communications, and transportation systems, are secure and resilient.
Critical infrastructure is typically owned and operated by the private sector, though some is owned by federal, state, or local governments. This explains why S&T is so broadly engaged with diverse partners to develop solutions to help secure these sectors and protect them from natural and human-caused threats. As one example, the Resilient Electric Grid (REG) system installed in Chicago in the fall of 2021 will ensure reliable power by suppressing power surges, while also connecting substations without the risk of a cascading fault current.
- What about strengthening cybersecurity?
S&T improves cybersecurity capabilities through strategic R&D in the areas of mitigation, solution development, and resilience. In line with DHS’s cybersecurity strategy, S&T brings together leading innovators in academia, industry, and government to identify new tools and tactics that can help network owners and operators overcome emerging cyber-threats. S&T often teams up with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to mitigate these threats. Just one instance of this partnership is the Secure and Resilient Mobile Network Infrastructure (SRMNI) project, which addresses top CISA priorities of securing critical mobile supply chains and networks.
- How does S&T protect us from chemical, biological, and explosive threats?
S&T’s investments support prevention and protective strategies, as well as the coordinated surveillance and detection of chemical, biological, and explosive (CBE) threats. R&D includes prevention of terrorism, reduction of vulnerability of critical infrastructure from terrorist attacks and other hazards, and the prevention of illicit movement and illegal passage of unauthorized persons and contraband by providing technology capable of detecting CBE threats. S&T’s efforts in the Project Jack Rabbit chemical release trials and computer modeling studies, identifying critical data gaps for toxic inhalation hazard emergency response procedures, are a prime example of this work. Jack Rabbit I in 2010 and Jack Rabbit II in 2015-2016 laid the groundwork for Jack Rabbit III, which is currently underway and set to continue through 2024.
- What R&D will S&T be prioritizing in 2022?
S&T will be pursuing its strategic goals of leadership, partnership, capability delivery, and developing tomorrow’s workforce in 2022. This means becoming the driving force of innovation for DHS and engaging in deliberate relationships with science, engineering, and technology communities to equip DHS for success. It also means re-affirming the authority and trusted provider of science and technology expertise and solutions while advancing the S&T team to lead, develop partnerships, and deliver solutions to the Department.
Collaboration and Partnership
- Who will S&T partner with in the coming year?
Like always, we will partner with everyone from other DHS components and federal agencies to state, local, and tribal governments to academic institutions and private industry. We will certainly also continue our trusted relationships with international allies, such as our 5RD counterparts, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as our national labs, the interagency, universities, the private sector, and ALL of our worldwide network of partners.
- How can I partner with S&T?
There are a number of ways to team up with our innovation experts and work with S&T. The Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Silicon Valley Innovation Program reach out to entrepreneurs across the nation to find new solutions to mission challenges. We have new prize competitions on the horizon, which help S&T crowdsource unique perspectives, and a standing, open Long Range Broad Agency Announcement.
- How can I learn more about S&T?
Follow us on social media @dhsscitech and continue to visit our website for the latest news and updates!
Looking ahead to 2022, S&T will be focusing on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to address our most pressing current challenges and mitigate future threats. We’re prioritizing climate change solutions and critical infrastructure resiliency. We’re partnering with colleagues across federal, state, and local governments and around the world. We’re doing the science and were advancing technology. And we can’t wait to share it all with you.