Defense Media Network

DHS Centers of Excellence – A Maturing Initiative

In the ongoing effort to secure the United States against all threats, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies have pursued various initiatives to strengthen America’s security and develop new ways to prevent and mitigate evolving threats. Some of these have dominated the public eye, such as the Transportation Security Administration’s airport screening approaches. Yet other no-less-important initiatives have seemed to fly largely under the national radar. The Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate’s Centers of Excellence (COE) are an example.

The COE, as the Homeland Security Act of 2002 mandates, are “a coordinated, university-based system to enhance the nation’s homeland security.” A consortium of universities work through 12 centers focused on multi-disciplinary research in different homeland security areas, the results of which give government agencies and organizations tools and methods for addressing security threats.

Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence (CHC)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Under Secretary for Science & Technology Tara O’Toole visited the DHS Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Oct. 20, 2011. Pictured: back (left to right), Gavin Smith (UNC-CH), Mo Gabr (NC State), Cary Caruso (NC State), Ward Lyles (UNC-CH); front (left to right), Rick Luettich (UNC-CH), Under Secretary Tara OToole, Dylan Sandler (UNC-CH), Margery Overton (NC State), and Tom Shay (UNC-CH). University of North Carolina photo

When a security or emergency response agency encounters a new or pressing challenge in their work, they can turn to a COE focused on their subject-matter area, soliciting a specific solution for their precise need. The Center for Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats (ALERT), for example, develops methods for protecting against explosive threats, and the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence (CHC) works on methods for safeguarding citizens, property, and economies from natural disasters.

The goal, said Matt Clark, director of university of programs at S&T, is to create “a homeland security university network that anyone in the homeland security enterprise can access whenever they need it.”

Now, a decade after the COE initiative was called for in the Homeland Security Act, S&T and the centers are embracing new approaches for making the network more valuable to America’s security and emergency response professionals. Indeed, the COE initiative is transitioning from a start-up effort to a lasting part of America’s homeland security landscape.


Engage to Excel

For the COE network, government agencies, organizations and first responders are “customers,” and the way the centers work with their customers is changing.

“We took a page from [Under Secretary for Science & Technology] Dr. Tara O’Toole’s Apex projects, where you develop the project by building a relationship with the client – a real partnership,” said Clark. “What we’re doing is relationship building. Particularly when you have such disparate groups [of customers], getting them to work together is a heavy lift.”

The heart of this effort – Engage to Excel (E2E) – is getting end users (aka customers) involved in the research effort early on in the project. This is not the usual way research and scholastic institutions develop solutions.

“Typically in university research, you find that researchers go out, use the scientific method, gather data, come up with a conclusion, and then they go seeking a problem,” said Erroll Southers, associate director for the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California.

Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE)

The Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California is developing partnerships with private companies, governmental agencies and non-profit organizations. University of Southern California graphic

Letting research results drive application may not always lead to the tools and processes that best resolve homeland challenges. E2E joins customers with researchers and scholars, letting their discussions and partnerships identify the specific challenges and ideal solutions.

“A lot of times,” said Clark, “we talk with people who say ‘I wish I had a widget or a piece of software’ for their challenge. But they might not need a widget or software. Maybe the solution is a process. It comes down to really examining more closely what they need.”

Working hand in hand with the customer provides results better tailored to the customer needs, engaged as they are throughout the span of the endeavor.

“When funding started, it was so frenetic,” said Gary LaFree, Director, Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), led by the University of Maryland. “Initially, there was some connection with customers but when we started, we got all our researchers together, looked at requests for proposals (from customers), offered our response, and there wasn’t all that much connection [with the customers] at that point.”

Now, however, START engages end users before a grant is even written. With customers, LaFree asks, how can the center produce something that will be useful and valuable, and what would that look like? Connecting the centers and customers and encouraging ongoing collaboration ensures projects and products are more precisely aligned with customer needs.


Win, Win, Win

While the CoE initiative was developed to provide security solutions for the nation’s homeland agencies, there has also always been an educational component to the initiative. Initially, said LaFree, there was reticence to offer “wholesale” degrees in terrorism research because there was concern that this would result in “watered down” homeland education. The better approach was to offer a certificate in homeland security, marrying a student’s scholastic work in various fields with an appreciation for how their knowledge can be applied to homeland security challenges.

National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START)

Gary LaFree, director, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, speaks at the National Institute of Justice 2011 Conference. National Institute of Justice photo

The result is America’s next generation of homeland security leaders, trained and educated early on in the kinds of specific challenges and needs homeland agencies and organizations face. At the University of Maryland, for example, the university offered an undergraduate minor in homeland security and made it highly competitive. As a result, of those who acquired the minor, 90 percent went on to work in homeland security-related organizations, from the Central Intelligence Agency to Fusion Centers.

“What’s fascinating,” said LaFree, “is you get some of these students, when they are properly motivated, they can set the world on fire. I once saw an open source research report from a student, and I knew as soon as an agency looked at him [and his work], he’d be snapped up. When you get these kids that are really motivated, it’s a wonder to see them take off.”

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...