How Homeland Security plans to put boots on science and get it out the door

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The Science & Technology Directorate at the Homeland Security Department has two names for a reason. It funds science, but the goal is to transfer science into deployable technology. Now the directorate has awarded grants to two universities — one on each side of the country — to improve how research and development activities transition to products. The project is called S&T Analysis and Management of Innovation Activity, or STAMINA. Michel Kareis, the directorate’s acting director for technology scouting and transition, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Miss Kareis, good to have you on.

Michel Kareis: Thank you for inviting me.

Tom Temin: All right, I made a brief description of STAMINA, let’s hear how you describe it.

Michel Kareis: So DHS, as you had mentioned, has the Science & Technology Directorate, which is responsible for conducting basic and applied research, and then developing those mission capabilities to coordinate R&D activities. STAMINA is a project that is helping us accelerate the success of our technology transition to our DHS components, our headquarter offices, and our state, local and tribal first responders. So STAMINA is aiming to bridge the gap between New R&D output and getting those capabilities into the hands of our operational end users. We do have the two performers on STAMINA; we have the University of Southern California and Virginia Tech. And they will be helping us in developing management capabilities for the transition process, and also to assist us in coaching our project managers and our other team members in thinking about transitions and how to improve the success rate and the speed of getting the technology into the operational components.

Tom Temin: Now a lot has to happen between the end of research and development, if it ever ends. And it gets into the hands of people as technology. You have to turn it into a product — somebody has to turn it into a product. Someone has to get a contract to supply it. And then there is the whole issue of the intellectual property and how that’s disposed of. Are these some of the elements that they’ll be taking into account in order to give advice on how to transition?

Michel Kareis: That is correct. As you had mentioned, transition does not start at the end of the R&D process. It actually begins when we first start working with our customers defining what capability gaps exists, and what kinds of requirements are necessary to fill that capability gap. So at the very early stages, we do consider the transition feasibility, and what paths would actually be most effective for making sure that we can get the technology fielded or into the operational environment. We then work with the project manager to conduct transition planning, and we engage our customer organization at that time also. It’s important when we transition that the end user is prepared to integrate that technology into their existing environment. We may be integrating a product or a knowledge product, so it may be going into a system or systems of systems. And so we have to make sure that our end user is prepared with a training that they have the funding available for not only acquiring the technology, but also then conducting the operational and maintenance responsibilities.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michel Kareis. She’s acting director for technology scouting and transition at the Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate. Maybe you could give us an example of the type of product that started as an R&D project and ended up in the hands of operators.

Michel Kareis: We conduct a variety of r&d activities for our DHS enterprise. And we conduct transitions for over 300 projects during a normal fiscal year. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. But we are looking at solving, across the DHS organization, gaps that exist in areas such as cybersecurity, community resilience and disaster recovery, passenger and cargo screening, public safety and violence prevention, drug and illegal substance detection and information sharing. So in those areas, we are looking to develop technologies that help reduce the threat and provide a more secure nation. So a couple of examples that we could provide is developing port of entry screening technologies, to make sure we’re combining imaging technologies and rapid data analytics to identify threats in luggage and cargo for both CBP and TSA, opioid fentanyl detection technologies to increase interdiction of these and other illicit materials for law enforcement, and then new sensors and data sets, imagery and data analytics for FEMA operations to improve outcomes. So it’s just a subset of what S&T is responsible for. But really, the impact of our work occurs when someone in the homeland security enterprise is actually using the technology. And it has a positive impact on the ability for us to actually conduct the work that we’re responsible for.

Tom Temin: I was chuckling a little bit when the President’s executive order on customer experience came out a couple of weeks ago. It said one of the projects specifically was improving passenger screening times, and they said “due to new technology.” So I thought that sounds like an assignment that you’ve got, to make sure that new technology is there to speed up screening.

Michel Kareis: So it is a responsibility of DHS Science & Technology Directorate to assist with the improvement in screening. And one of the interesting examples was when we had to adapt to screening with COVID, we looked for standoff technologies so that our TSA agents didn’t have to touch materials that were responsible in terms of clearing passengers. And then also how could we more effectively screen baggage and passengers from a standoff distance. The other thing that is another example of what S&T puts into action in terms of our R&D is now assessing can you actually identify a person using biometric technology when you’re wearing a mask? What kind of accuracy is there if we improve the algorithms based on the new environment with the traveling public?

Tom Temin: And when you mention artificial intelligence added to some of the physical technologies, it sounds like many of the R&D efforts and some of the items you’ll get advice on from the universities is almost systems integration. That is to say, enhancing an existing machine with AI, for example, is not new technology, but new capability resulting from the combination of existing technologies.

Michel Kareis: That is correct. And we are effective through the vast network of partnerships that we are able to effectively utilize. The variety of technologies that we need to address is something that really requires us to go out and seek subject matter experts and expertise that’s available through a variety of different partnerships. So that can include our public sector, the private sector, and also our academic institutions and our international partners. And so being able to access the expertise is one of the reasons that we put these kinds of vehicles in place, and it is one of the reasons that STAMINA will be incredibly effective in supporting our S&T mission, in that we can access experts that are able to help us with research and development capabilities that exist in their organization and bringing that expertise to help us be more effective in serving our customer base.

Tom Temin: The grants went to Virginia Tech and to the University of Southern California, and what are their deliverables?

Michel Kareis: So the lead institution is actually the University of Southern California, and they will be assisting us with transition planning support, identifying risk factors and mitigating activities that will help us in more effectively transitioning technologies. And then also supporting us with post-transition assessments to include customer satisfaction feedback to allow us to do better process improvements in the future. The Virginia Tech partnership will permit us to train our project managers, and to provide the assistance in creating greater capabilities in our transition management.

Tom Temin: So they’ll work directly with people within the Science & Technology Directorate as almost coaches, it sounds like

Michel Kareis: That is correct. We also have the responsibility of making sure we’re working with our end users so that they are prepared in the same timeframe that we will be delivering the technology to accept it and integrate it. And so that’s also part of the transition planning capabilities that we’ll be accessing through this project.

Tom Temin: Michel Kareis is acting director for technology scouting and transition at the Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michel Kareis: Thank you very much. I appreciated the opportunity to speak with you today.

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