Homeland Security R&D Head Takes the Reins

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The U.S. government's newest research funding agency is getting up to speed. Last week the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) formally welcomed its new science chief, one-time AT&T Bell Labs director Charles McQueary, who spent his first official day on the job telling Congress how he planned to spend a proposed $800 million budget. Among the priorities: evaluating off-the-shelf antiterror technologies, deploying the most promising ones quickly, and recruiting his team.

Congress created the DHS last year in response to the 11 September terrorist attacks. At the urging of the scientific community, it includes an R&D directorate that will coordinate the testing and development of antiterror technologies (ScienceNOW, 20 November). McQueary was sworn in on 9 April as DHS's new undersecretary for science and technology.

McQueary said his first task will be to sift through existing technologies. His goal is to get new sensors, software, and other equipment as quickly as possible into the hands of everyone from border guards to local police. McQueary fleshed out that message the next day to House and Senate appropriations panels reviewing the president's request for the 2004 budget year that begins 1 October. McQueary hopes to spend $365 million countering bio- and agroterror threats, including establishing a nationwide monitoring system for bioagents. The rest of the $800 million would be funneled into projects such as chemical sensors and a rapid prototyping program that would turn promising ideas into practical--and cost-effective--devices. “Initially, you won't see [DHS funding] much in the very forward-looking scientific areas,” he said.

The first impact felt by university researchers is most likely to be $10 million for a fellowship program and at least one academic center dedicated to homeland security research. Guidelines for the fellowships are still being worked out, and McQueary says that the center may actually be a collaboration among teams at several campuses working in particular fields, such as cybersecurity.

Lawmakers said McQueary faces a “major challenge,” noting that--among other pressing tasks--he needs to hire roughly 100 tech-savvy staff over the next 18 months. And DHS Secretary Tom Ridge noted that his new science czar will be responsible for “building something that's never existed before.”

Related sites
Department of Homeland Security
National Academies report on terrorism

Posted in Policy