Transportation Security R&D:

TSA and DHS Are Researching and Developing Technologies, but Need to Improve R&D Management

GAO-04-890: Published: Sep 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2004.

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Conducting research and development (R&D) on technologies for detecting, preventing, and mitigating terrorist threats is vital to enhancing the security of the nation's transportation system. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress enacted legislation to strengthen homeland security, in part by enhancing R&D. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are the two federal agencies with primary responsibility for transportation security. GAO was asked to assess the transportation security R&D projects that TSA, DHS, and other agencies have funded and assess how TSA and DHS are managing their transportation security R&D programs according to applicable laws and best practices.

For fiscal years 2003 and 2004, TSA and DHS funded over 200 R&D projects designed to develop technologies for enhancing security in most modes of transportation. In fiscal year 2003, TSA spent 81 percent of its $21 million transportation security R&D budget for aviation projects, and DHS spent about half of its $26 million for projects related to more than one mode of transportation. In fiscal year 2004, TSA continued to budget most of its $159 million for aviation, and DHS also budgeted most of its $88 million for aviation. According to the National Research Council, federal R&D programs should include some basic research, but TSA and DHS do not appear to be funding any basic research for transportation security. TSA and DHS have not estimated deployment dates for the vast majority of their R&D projects. Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also funded some transportation security R&D projects. Several members of an expert panel on transportation security and technology that GAO convened believed the distribution of R&D projects by transportation mode was reasonable, while others believed that aviation has been overemphasized at the expense of maritime and land modes. TSA and DHS have made some progress in managing their transportation security R&D programs according to applicable laws and R&D best practices, but neither agency has fully complied with the laws or implemented the best practices. For example, neither agency has prepared a strategic plan for R&D that contains measurable objectives. In addition, although TSA has completed threat assessments for all modes, it has not completed vulnerability and criticality assessments. DHS also has not completed risk assessments of the infrastructure sectors. Furthermore, both TSA and DHS lack complete, consolidated data for managing their R&D projects. Finally, although TSA and DHS have made some efforts to coordinate R&D with other federal agencies, their outreach to consider the concerns of the transportation industry has been limited.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To support efforts by TSA and DHS to maximize the advantages offered by basic research, help select and prioritize R&D projects, better monitor and manage their R&D portfolios, enhance coordination with one another and with other organizations that conduct transportation security R&D, and improve their outreach to transportation, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration should develop a process with DOT to coordinate transportation security R&D, such as a memorandum of agreement identifying roles and responsibilities and designating agency liaisons, and share information on the agreed-upon roles and responsibilities with transportation stakeholders.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS, DHS and TSA completed a memorandum of agreement with DOT in September 2005. DHS also said that this agreement resulted in the formation of a working group on technology standards and research for mass transit security, which meets monthly to coordinate efforts across agencies and optimize resources. This improved coordination helps provide assurance that R&D resources are being leveraged, research gaps are being identified and addressed, and duplication is being avoided.

    Recommendation: To support efforts by TSA and DHS to maximize the advantages offered by basic research, help select and prioritize R&D projects, better monitor and manage their R&D portfolios, enhance coordination with one another and with other organizations that conduct transportation security R&D, and improve their outreach to transportation, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration should develop a database that will provide accurate, complete, current, and readily accessible project information for monitoring and managing their R&D portfolios.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, DHS began using a database to track the progress of its R&D projects, including those related to transportation security. The database includes information on projects, budgets, expenditures, and achievement of milestones and deliverables. DHS told us that it uses this information during quarterly reviews of its R&D projects to identify issues for corrective action and to reallocate funds among projects as necessary.

    Recommendation: To support efforts by TSA and DHS to maximize the advantages offered by basic research, help select and prioritize R&D projects, better monitor and manage their R&D portfolios, enhance coordination with one another and with other organizations that conduct transportation security R&D, and improve their outreach to transportation, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration should complete (1) strategic plans containing measurable objectives for TSA's and DHS's transportation security R&D programs and (2) risk assessments--threat, vulnerability, and criticality--for all modes of transportation, and use the results of the risk assessments to help select and prioritize R&D projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DHS has not yet completed strategic plans for its R&D related to explosives detection or passenger screening which are two key areas for transportation security. Although TSA and DHS have made some progress in assessing risks to transportation modes, they have yet to complete the criticality components, and they are not yet in a position to use the assessments to help prioritize R&D investments.

    Recommendation: To support efforts by TSA and DHS to maximize the advantages offered by basic research, help select and prioritize R&D projects, better monitor and manage their R&D portfolios, enhance coordination with one another and with other organizations that conduct transportation security R&D, and improve their outreach to transportation, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration should ensure that their transportation security R&D portfolios contain projects in all phases of R&D, including basic research.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2006, DHS restructured each of its R&D divisions to include a subcomponent focused on conducting basic research. One of the missions of the basic research subcomponent of DHS?s explosives division is to enhance detection capabilities through better understanding of the composition and behavior of explosive particles and vapors, and the program has recently completed research to gain a better understanding of homemade explosive threats. As a result of its basic research, DHS?s R&D program is better positioned to help improve transportation security.

    Recommendation: To support efforts by TSA and DHS to maximize the advantages offered by basic research, help select and prioritize R&D projects, better monitor and manage their R&D portfolios, enhance coordination with one another and with other organizations that conduct transportation security R&D, and improve their outreach to transportation, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration should develop a vehicle to communicate with the transportation industry to ensure that its R&D security needs have been identified and considered.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS said that for its major project to develop improved explosives detection technologies for airport baggage screening, it formally solicited industry on the latest technological developments that may satisfy its requirements; held an industry day at which it discussed technological alternatives with vendors and other industry representatives; and continued to provide direction to inform industry's research efforts based on input from international airport security agencies, the intelligence community, and its aircraft hardening group. DHS also said that its working group on technology standards and research for mass transit security includes the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), whose membership includes government agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, state departments of transportation, academic institutions, and trade associations. As a result, the transportation industry's security R&D needs are more likely to be adequately reflected in DHS's R&D portfolio.

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