Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee Convenes Open Session

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee (HSSTAC) met in open session on December 4 for the first time in two years.

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee (HSSTAC) met in open session on December 4 for the first time in two years. SPIN readers may recall that there was considerable angst within the scientific community when the HSSTAC charter was allowed to lapse in November 2005 during Dr. Charles McQueary’s administration as Under Secretary for Science and Technology.

Thankfully, buried in the SAFE Port Act of 2006 (HR 4954), the charter was revived and extended through December 31, 2008, but this time narrowly directed at port security issues. Science Government Relations staff coordinated with other scientific and professional associations to urge the new Under Secretary, Admiral Jay Cohen, to reconstitute the HSSTAC in a letter of December 11, 2006. On January 11, 2007 we received a positive response, indicating that Cohen valued the sort of outside expertise HSSTAC could provide and planned on re-convening the Committee again early this year.

Rather than using the HSSTAC to rubber stamp S&T initiatives, Under Secretary Cohen is currently asking the HSSTAC to provide more focused advice on a single high priority threat - domestic Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Concerns that IEDs, like those used in London and Madrid, are likely to be used here in the US, has made IED countermeasures among the highest priorities for DHS. HSSTAC Chair Norman Polmar described his Committee’s charge as “staying ahead of the threat.” However, because much of that discussion is classified, the HSSTAC has been meeting since mid-summer in closed session, and several meetings have taken the group, or subgroups, on site visits to hear about security issues in diverse locales, including the United Kingdom, Israel, and New York.

During the December meeting, there were frequent references to psychology and behavioral science. Whether or not that was because APA was the only external scientific association represented in the room is unclear. Nonetheless, all the questions appeared to reflect a genuine recognition that many of the issues under consideration were people problems that could/should draw on the social sciences, whether it’s understanding the motivation of terrorists, or encouraging greater vigilance within the citizenry.

For example, one discussion focused on the unique technical challenges for command and control of emergency personnel in New York City. Although portable Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can provide fantastic resolution of an emergency responder’s location in a horizontal plane, they’re terrible at providing location vertically, which may render the information useless in a high-rise environment. Further, line-of-sight limitations in the canyon-like streets of NYC makes surveillance and radio communication particularly difficult, and moving masses of people off of an island like Manhattan would prove extremely difficult if bridges or tunnels were unusable. When one HSSTAC member suggested that perhaps they should look to the behavioral sciences to see what might be of value in training emergency personnel, the HSSTAC Co-Chair, Dr. Mike Andrews, gave an unequivocal yes, pointing to the large long-term investment the Department of Defense has made in using the behavioral sciences to improve human performance.

More controversial was a program recently reported that would train firefighters and emergency medical personnel to gather intelligence that might be related to terrorist planning or activity in the course of their day-to-day activities. Because they respond to emergencies and enter private spaces without needing a warrant, it was suggested that these emergency personnel are in a unique position to gather information, but, as HSSTAC committee members noted, at the risk of losing their trusted status in the communities they serve.

Continuing on that theme, HSSTAC member Major General Tom Garrett admitted to at first being a skeptic of the relatively new “Human Factors” Division within S&T, but recognized the need to look to psychology on a range of issues, from developing communication strategies that would foster greater public engagement, to preserving civil liberties and preventing racial profiling when law enforcement and security personnel are trying to detect suspicious behavior.

Staff from the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation were on hand for the meeting and seemed pleased to hear the discussions surrounding Human Factors. On November 15, the Subcommittee held a hearing on Next Generation Border and Maritime Security Technologies in support of a bill with that focus (H.R. 3916) introduced in late October. Beyond border and maritime issues, the bill would also reauthorize the HSSTAC through the end of 2012. Other hearings in the next session of congress may focus more directly on the Human Factors research portfolio.