DHS Assistant Secretary Details Tough Decisions Required by 2006 Spending Plan
Parney Albright, the Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security
It is not easy deciding how best to spend research money on tools to help anticipate and prevent what could be truly apocalyptic events, says Parney Albright, the Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security.
"Most of our money is going into the big threats"chemical, biological, nuclear and radiologicalAlbright said during a 1 March seminar at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. He outlined a White House budget request for his department that seeks $1.37 billion in research and development funds in fiscal year 2006, including $362 million for research on countermeasures to biological attack and $227 million for a new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to help spot and report any terrorist attempts to transport or use radiological or nuclear materials.
But Albright acknowledged that choosing priorities is tough. "How do I decide what's more important, nuke or bio?" he asked. If a nuclear weapon were to be detonated in the U.S., he said, "think what it would do to this country for centuries", in terms of our political landscape and societal consequences. Similarly, he said, if there were to be a major anthrax attack that killed many thousands, the impact would be profound.
"It's very difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis" on how to apportion research resources in anticipation of such events, he noted. It becomes a judgment call, based on risk to a large degree but "also based on whether or not there is actually some useful investment that can be made."
Albright outlined some of what his department deems useful R&D investments at the seminar, which was organized by the Washington Science Policy Alliance, a loosely-knit coalition of institutions, including AAAS, with an interest in science and technology issues.
While the S&T Directorate has some operational responsibilities, Albright said, at the request of Congress it has become much more focused on the research, development and testing of tools that can give the U.S. a better edge in the domestic war on terrorism. But Congress has left the selection of R&D priorities largely to the department.
"Our budget has been remarkable in the nearly total lack of 'earmarking' over the last three years," he noted.
Among some of the department's budget priorities:
- $102 million, a 92 percent increase, to develop countermeasures against chemical attacks, including $20 million to develop detectors that can spot chemical threats with low vapor pressures that elude current detectors.
- $100 million to develop and test countermeasures against shoulder-fired missiles that pose a threat to commercial airliners. The request represents an 80 percent increase over the current budget.
- $94 million for key technologies, such as surveillance tools and protective equipment, in support of other DHS units such as the Border Patrol, Secret Service and the Coast Guard.
Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS, told the seminar that the president's proposed budget would slow the growth in R & D funding for the Department of Homeland Security in 2006, although the agency still would gain ground in an era of tight budgets.
The large increases in some programs would be offset by cuts in other R&D efforts within the Department, according to a preliminary AAAS analysis, including threat and vulnerability assessments (down 29 percent to $47 million); standards development (down 11 percent to $36 million) and rapid prototyping (down two-thirds to $21 million.)
The Department of Homeland Security, which combined nearly two dozen Federal agencies into one cabinet-level department, has become a focal point for security-related R&D. However, according to the AAAS analysis, the biggest slice of security-related funding in the proposed 2006 Federal budget remains at the National Institutes of Health, which would receive $1.8 billion for biodefense work, mostly at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That is more than the entire R&D portfolio for DHS.
The NIH's large budget for biodefense research has brought some criticism. More than 700 scientists signed a letter to NIH director Elias Zerhouni this week protesting what they see as disproportionate emphasis on bioweapons agents at the expense of projects of high public-health importance, including basic research on microbial physiology and genetics. Koizumi said scientists at some institutes within NIH have been disappointed that their units did not experience doubled budgets.
7 March 2005