DHS S&T Conference: Post Mortem

As you know, I was at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Conference in DC where I has the opportunity to chair two panels at the request of DHS. My panels were different than the rest, not just because I was the only “outsider”, but neither panel was on the one of the two main messages of the conference:

  1. Come check out the new and improved Science and Technology Directorate
  2. Let me tell you about a problem so you can make money with a solution

More on the panels in a moment. The general sessions were primarily about topic #1 above. Perhaps the best illustration of this was the session titled “A World in Change: A View from the Hill”. While “A World in Change” was intended to speak to the “new” threat environment, it also fit the new S&T under the Honorable Jay M. Cohen, Under Secretary, Science & Technology, DHS, formerly of the Office of Naval Research (as is much of DHS S&T who followed Admiral Cohen to the new post). For a short time more, video of the general sessions are available here and I suggest, if you’re interested in the politics of DHS, you watch the beginning (warning: the streaming video is high quality but doesn’t stream well at all) of the general from the Congressional staffer. He goes on about how bad thing were and why the Congress cut funding, etc, comments that were paired with praise with Cohen and the new S&T.

Other general sessions were interesting, but a comment on the breakouts. If they weren’t on #1 (come meet the new team), they were on #2 (here are the problems, make money solving them). One of the more interesting panels was the pair of Israelis discussing detecting (and the history of) worn IEDs. Also interesting was another panel on VBIEDs. I had wanted to get into the breakout on the Global Terrorism Database, but I found myself in the wrong room, a common problem for that room assignment and one that haunted me later as my blogging panel was in the same room.

Now onto the best panels of the conference. The Science as Diplomacy panel was a discussion that conceptualized S&T within a broader vision and deeper, if uncertain, ROI. Science and technology research and development relationships tend to be long lasting and cross-cultural and linguistic barriers.

Working with foreign scientists, as well as their communities, either here or abroad, not only taps into and develops additional research and development capacity, it also promotes changes in commercial, academic, infrastructure, and legal system that form the foundation of democratic institutions, a potential win-win for people and societies and S&T. A promising reality is polling showing American science and technology continues to be admired by countries that are increasingly opposed American politics.

SD creates knowledge and awareness for farmers to increase quality and yield of crops and livestock, helps create early warning, monitoring, and response systems for pandemics and other health issues, creates real educational opportunities, and improves the quality of basic infrastructure projects such as water, electricity, and sewage. In other words, S&T is essential to state-building, denying sanctuary, and supporting national security objectives.

So how did it go? Well, the panel, like all the other panels, was scheduled for 45min, but went long, ending 90min after we started (possible because we were the last breakout). The first 45min was presentations and the back half was a quality Q&A. I did a quick introduction to the panel and the panelists so the important people could talk: Bill McCluskey, Director of International Technology Programs Office in DoD, Jeffrey Lewis, ArmsControlWonk.com, and Brent Eastwood, analyst.

Bill, a major champion behind the Iraqi Virtual Science Library, presented great data and examples of reaching out in terms of acquiring new knowledge, the secondary benefits of partnerships outside of the initial conversation, new business opportunities, and the need to move the horizon further.

Jeffrey emphasized personal connectivity resulting from science as diplomacy as a monitoring device. The story of a photograph of A. Q. Khan brought from China demonstrated emphasized what we think we know may be wrong in a science we feel dominant.

Brent’s presentation looked at science diplomacy squarely as a tool of Soft Power and linked both Jeffrey and Bill’s presentations into the realm of public diplomacy and outreach.

Some of the questions were unsurprising, like “How do we measure this?” and “Prove to me how not talking to scientists that aren’t our allies isn’t helping the enemy.” The questions sought hard data but there isn’t any to be had but anecdotal. On the flipside, those wondering why we should talk to “Gap” countries raised Qutb and KSM as visitors to the US who turned around to hurt us.

Hopefully we’ll replicate this panel again at the DHS’s International Conference in London this December, but with substantial changes. The next time around, I’ll push for a “real” 90min (or 2hr) slot earlier in the day with a larger panel. I had attempted to get an Iraqi, Egyptian, Jordanian, or Palestinian scientist or technologist for this past panel, but there wasn’t one to be had. For the London conference, I don’t expect any problems in this area and already have soft commitments on this. The positive reception of this panel should grease the skids for a second play.

The Blogging on Science and Technology panel was also different from the other panels. This panel looked at the medium of informal yet surprisingly expert commentary that crosses the stovepipes. At the end of an accidentally long day where the entire after lunch schedule was pushed 45min, and in a room that was hard to find, as I noted above, it was more of a roundtable than a panel discussion. That said, first up was Al Mauroni with a presentation that really laid the foundation for the ensuing 90min (again, scheduled for 45min and going long by demand). David Axe presented on the more functional elements of blogging while Christian Beckner (formerly of Homeland Security Watch) discussed some of the problems of informal publication of information. Arlan Andrews was there (others from Sigma wanted to be there, but with the late start, they were done for the day), as well as some media, DHS, and others. Nothing earth shaking, but next time we’ll focus more on S&T discussions and less on the sociology of the blogosphere, as well as some nuts and bolts of blogging, as we did.

Overall, it was an interesting conference if you’re a vendor looking for business opportunities, which was its purpose. It seems S&T is on a new foot, which is the message they wanted to get out there.