Taking Control of a "Rudderless Ship:" Jay Cohen as New Homeland Security S&T Under Secretary

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Publication date: 
10 November 2006

Jay Cohen, the new Under Secretary for Science and Technology of the Department of Homeland Security, was formerly the highly respected Chief of Naval Research. Cohen's 35 years of experience in various Navy positions will be pressed into service as he takes control of what Senate appropriators called "a rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course."

The FY 2007 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security was one of only two funding bills passed by Congress before it left in September. While the Science and Technology Directorate's "Research, Development, Acquisition, and Operations" budget was cut significantly from the FY 2006 level, the final number was higher than might have been expected.

In FY 2006, this budget category received $1,406.8 million, a figure that had grown significantly since the Directorate was established in 2003 as an entirely new unit within the Department of Homeland Security. The Bush Administration's FY 2007 request was $806.4 million, reduced, in part, because of the proposed transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars from the S&T directorate to a separate account for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. For reasons outlined below, congressional appropriators initially recommended budgets that were still lower: $775.4 million and $714.0 million. The bill signed by President Bush last month provided more than what was requested: $838.1 million for Research, Development, Acquisition and Operations.

The outlook this summer was not promising. House appropriations detailed their criticisms about the Directorate in the report accompanying their version of the FY 2007 bill. Among their comments: "The Committee is very disappointed by S&T's poor response to Congressional requests for information . . . there has been no measurable improvement in this area, which is unacceptable." "Despite its promise, S&T has failed to adequately convey its role or how it supports missions of DHS component agencies." "[I]ndependent financial auditors reported that during fiscal year 2005 S&T had financial reporting deficiencies. . . ." Senate appropriators were even more critical in their report: "The Committee is extremely disappointed with the manner in which S&T is being managed within the Department of Homeland Security. Despite the efforts of the Acting head of S&T [Jeffrey Runge] this component is a rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course." A background report by House Science Committee staff reached the same conclusion, explaining "Congress has become increasingly concerned that the S&T Directorate is not providing adequately technical support to the operational units of DHS or effectively engaging the scientific community and private sector in targeted research and development programs." Concerns were voiced about a large number of high-level vacant positions and a lack of transparency about research funding. Outside observers have been equally critical, complaining about the lack of a strong strategic plan, slowness in disbursing funding, and bureaucratic red tape.

House appropriators completed their FY 2007 bill in May. On June 27, the day that the highly critical Senate subcommittee report was prepared, President Bush announced his intention to nominate Rear Admiral Jay Cohen to be Under Secretary. Less than two months later, the Senate confirmed Cohen by unanimous consent.

Cohen has appeared at several hearings since his nomination was approved, and has been well-received. His move into this new position was called a huge step forward for the Directorate by a key Senate appropriator. At previous defense-related hearings and meetings Cohen's grasp of the issues and his straight-forward manner have earned him high marks.

"We're at war," Cohen told House Members at one hearing this fall. "We have not gone far enough. We can go much further." In testimony on Capitol Hill, the new Under Secretary began by explaining, "The S&T Directorate has a significant role in bringing to bear solutions to the Department's homeland security challenges. During my tenure at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), especially after 9/11, I learned first hand the incredible value that a sustained, customer focused balanced basic and applied research program adds to America's ability to bring advanced technology to our (and our allies) asymmetric advantage against the enemies of freedom. It can mean the difference between life and death, victory and defeat." Cohen's early mention of the value of basic research is notable, as previous Directorate budgets have strongly favored the development and deployment of technology.

In this testimony to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Cohen said, "To accomplish this mission and be successful we need to make changes to mature the organization, as pointed out in the language in both the Senate and House 2007 appropriations committee reports. I intend for the Directorate to become an organization that is a customer focused, output oriented, a full service organization as envisioned in the enabling legislation that must be cost efficient, effective, responsive, agile, and flexible. To advance the organization I intend to make the following adjustments which I call ‘The 4 Gets'." These 4 Gets are: "Get the Organization Right," which beside a realignment of the Directorate into six divisions also must include "a change in organizational culture," "Get the People Right," "Get the Books Right," and "Get the Content Right."

Cohen's testimony elaborated on the interplay of research and applications, stating, "This structure will allow a healthy balance between research and applications, risk and time to delivery. Investments will span across Transition Readiness Levels (TRL), including short -term (under 3 years); mid-term (3-8 years); and long term (over 8 years). This push and pull between research and application as well as tension over applied research resources will allow for a balanced portfolio of investment." Importantly, he also later stated, "My years at ONR have taught me that an R&D organization must take to heart customers' insights, priorities, and goals. Too often those in science and technology fields say ‘we know what you need.' They do research because it is interesting and holds potential for future capabilities not because it meets a specific goal or objective. While this type of unfettered scientific research is important the S&T Directorate must also focus and prioritize resources to be output oriented and customer driven. We must set our priorities to align with National and Department of Homeland Security priorities. S&T's work will be targeted at enhancing capabilities and customers needs."

The final conference report, House Report 109-699, accompanying the FY 2007 appropriations bill, H.R. 5441 (see http://thomas.loc.gov/home/approp/app07.html), outlines the appropriators' management expectations, calling for a "Five-Year Research Plan and Business Model." The report states: "The conferees expect S&T to greatly improve its research strategic plan and its budget documents. These documents should reflect the new vision for S&T as proposed by the Under Secretary. The conferees direct the Under Secretary to develop a five-year research plan, which outlines its priorities, performance measures for each portfolio and resources needed to meet its mission. This plan should also incorporate a business model for its output of services and technologies to its end user. The conferees expect the Under Secretary to brief the Committees on Appropriations no later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act."

The conference report outlines FY 2007 funding levels for various budget activities within the Research, Development, Acquisition and Operations component (biological and chemical and explosive countermeasures, standards coordination, etc.) Conferees provided $50.0 million for University Programs (FY 2005 budget: $70.0 million, FY 2006 budget: $62.4 million, FY 2007 request $52.0 million) and stated the following: "The University program has the potential to facilitate cutting-edge research on homeland security issues. The conferees encourage S&T to solicit a wide variety of research projects from the plethora of universities engaged in homeland security research that focus on the greatest risks facing the nation. The conferees direct the Under Secretary of Science and Technology to brief the Committees on Appropriations, no later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, on the University-Based Centers of Excellence Program goals for fiscal year 2007 and outcomes projected for each center for the next three years."

With this budget cycle completed for the Department of Homeland Security, attention now turns to FY 2008. Cohen's concluding remarks at the House hearing provide insight into his objectives, saying, "My goal is that, as a result of this S&T Directorate realignment, when the President's fiscal year 2008 budget is sent forward to Congress, this Committee, and the Appropriators, will see that DHS S&T is a more responsive, agile, customer-focused organization, one that better enables our nation to prevent, protect, respond, and recover from acts of terrorism, natural disasters or other emergencies."