Congressional watchdog criticises US Department of Homeland of Security's research record but chemists disagree

Chemists have defended the US Department of Homeland Security’s record on security research after a congressional watchdog said the department had been slow to identify and develop countermeasures for terrorist threats.

The 6 September report by the Government Accountability Office also says that the department has made ’limited’ progress in pushing forward its science and technology program. 

But chemists working on counterterrorism technology argue that it is too soon to judge the performance of the four-year old department because it takes time to develop useful and cost-effective devices.

’First I must perfect a device so that I can use it in the lab, then I have to get it working in the field, and then an instrument company has to make it profitable enough to be successful,’ explains Brad Jones, a chemistry professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, US. 

Although many anti-terror technologies have been developed that work well in the laboratory, the difficulty has been to demonstrate their effectiveness in a realistic setting complicated by, for example, dust particles and contaminating vapours.

’There are not a lot of things that are ready for the kinds of environments and demands that are necessary to put sensors out in the field,’ David Walt, a chemistry professor at Tufts University, Massachusetts, US, told Chemistry World. When they have to perform under real world conditions, the technologies that he is familiar with all ’failed miserably’. 

’In defence of DHS, it is not easy to weed through the systems that are really worth investing in versus those that have hype associated with them,’ says Walt, who is also the scientific founder of Illumina, a biotechnology company based in San Diego, California, US. 

But some researchers share the GAO’s worries over whether the DHS is spending its resources wisely. There is concern that the department lacks a cohesive, top-down plan for its research.

"We are making investments in some areas that are very duplicative and may not have big payoffs" - Cindy Williams

’We are making investments in some areas that are very duplicative and may not have big payoffs,’ warns Cindy Williams, a former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office now with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. ’At the same time, we are leaving gaping holes in areas that are vital, and amenable to R&D.’ 

Responding to the report, the department said the GAO presents ’a distorted and incomplete’ picture of its progress and ignores the ’tremendous’ scientific and technological advances is has funded. 

’The department’s efforts to assess emerging vulnerabilities and develop countermeasures will always be ongoing and are not designed to reach a final end-goal completion,’ said Laura Keehner, a spokeswoman for the DHS. 

Rebecca Trager is US correspondent for Research Day USA