The new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, announced last week by President George W. Bush, would--on paper--oversee billions of dollars worth of federally funded research and hundreds of government researchers. But the hurriedly assembled plan is sorely lacking in details, leaving government research leaders scrambling to find out if, or how, their labs might be affected.
The plan was hatched by a small group of White House officers meeting secretly for several weeks without input from most cabinet members, presidential science adviser John Marburger, or the institutes most affected by the proposal. It would pull together in one new $37 billion department hundreds of programs now scattered across dozens of federal agencies. But apparent mistakes and inconsistencies in the plan have agency managers and researchers wondering exactly what the White House wants to do. "They didn't do their homework," says one government official.
For example, the White House report assumes that the new department would gobble up most of the $1.5 billion annual budget of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory--but only 300 of its nearly 8000-strong workforce--to work on radiological and nuclear countermeasures. In fact, says Marburger, the majority of the lab's funding goes for work on the U.S. nuclear stockpile and won't be transferred to the new department. Livermore's outgoing director Bruce Tarter said in a statement issued a few hours before the president's evening television address to the nation, "We have not yet received any official details on this proposal."
Bioterrorism researchers were also unclear about the plan's impact. A total of $1.9 billion in research to develop drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics--both at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--would be transferred from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to the new department. But only 150 researchers of the thousands working in this area would be directly affected. An HHS spokesperson says that the new department will control the money, while the vast majority of scientists would work "on a contractual basis" without leaving their current institute. Exactly how this would work remains unclear. "The details are currently being worked out," says NIAID director Fauci.
Marburger says that researchers shouldn't expect many details at this stage. "This was done in a way to dramatize the scope of this change, and generate support for a bold initiative," he says. "It is still very much in the abstract, and will be refined." The proposal must still work its way through Congress, where some lawmakers have already put their own ideas on the table.