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Homeland techies enter survival mode

It’s not unusual for an agency director to want more funds for his organization, but it is unusual for that director to speak frankly about it.

And so it is with Paul Benda, director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, who was in Waltham, Mass., Nov. 13 to speak to technologists at the annual IEEE conference here.

Benda's big message was that to do business with his agency, technologists must focus on products that promise direct impacts on operators, such as border patrol agents, and in the near term, meaning the next three or four years. Delivering the same capability with less money definitely counts as an impact, he said.

“I am not interested in science projects,” Benda explained. “My survival as an S and T organization depends on my ability to brief in terms of what the operators care about, that the secretary of Homeland Security cares about, and that the Hill cares about,” he added. “That’s kind of the evolution of where we’re going – much less of an advanced research projects agency.”

Benda’s PowerPoint explained the shift with an f word – foraging – as in foraging for technologies that can be assembled into products.

Is this constrained mission okay with Benda? I asked him that after his talk, and it didn’t sound like it. He pined over the hundreds of millions of dollars the country spends on “one Joint Strike Fighter,” and he said the country “needs to do some nation building here at home.”

Benda’s annual budget is around $500 million – the equivalent of one office at DARPA, where Benda used to work. That’s in a good year, when Congress hasn’t slashed his spending, as it did for fiscal year 2012 to the tune of 48 percent.

Benda said the cut provided funds for FEMA disaster response. It might also have inspired his determination to make a difference to operators sooner rather than later.

Of course, Benda’s agency is far from the only U.S. group looking at national security technologies. There’s DARPA; there’s the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity; the CIA’s InQTel venture capital arm; and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s InnoVision directorate

Maybe they’re digging for the breakthroughs that HSARPA can’t afford? Benda and others here don’t think so.

“DNS Security is a perfect example,” Benda said, referring to his agency’s program to secure the Internet’s domain name system, which has been targeted by malware. No other agency has the mission to protect that system, Benda said. Ditto for the “bio attack response stuff,” he said.

At least for now, though, Benda leads an advanced research group that doesn’t do advanced research, and one that’s nestled in the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate, but does not do science projects.

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