Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

DHS Research and Development on Radiation Detection Technology Could Be Strengthened

GAO-15-263: Published: Mar 6, 2015. Publicly Released: Apr 6, 2015.

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David C. Trimble
(202) 512-3841
trimbled@gao.gov

 

Timothy M. Persons, Ph.D.
(202) 512-6412
PersonsT@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

During fiscal years 2008 through 2013, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) started 189 research and development (R&D) projects that it grouped into various scientific or technological focus areas, known as portfolios. These projects are intended to address gaps in the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA), a U.S. government framework to detect and interdict nuclear smuggling. As of September 2014, DNDO had obligated approximately $350 million to these projects. For example, DNDO's shielded detection portfolio, which investigates methods for detecting shielded nuclear material, had the most projects start during this time—48 projects—and received the most obligations—approximately $103 million, or about 30 percent of obligations.

Because of limitations in DNDO's documentation, it is unclear to what extent DNDO's process for planning and selecting R&D projects to fund aligns these investments with gaps in the GNDA. According to DNDO officials, they developed high-level goals—known as research challenges—to align with gaps in the GNDA and guide R&D investment planning. Officials said they regularly discuss how ongoing R&D projects align with these research challenges and gaps in the GNDA. However, DNDO does not document this alignment, consistent with federal standards for internal control. Without such documentation, it is unclear to what extent DNDO's investments are positioned to address gaps in the GNDA.

DNDO has taken some steps to evaluate the outcomes of individual R&D projects, which may demonstrate the success of specific technologies, but it does not have a systematic approach for evaluating how the outcomes of projects may collectively contribute to addressing its overall research challenges. Under federal standards for internal control, managers are to compare actual program performance to expected results and analyze significant differences. Such analysis can help managers identify program problems, if any, and make improvements. Without a systematic approach for evaluating the results of its investments in R&D projects more broadly, DNDO cannot demonstrate the extent to which its investments contribute to addressing its overall research challenges.

Examples of DNDO-Funded R&D Projects

Examples of DNDO-Funded R&D Projects

Why GAO Did This Study

Preventing terrorists from smuggling nuclear or radiological material to carry out an attack in the United States is a top national priority. DNDO's mission is to improve capabilities to deter, detect, respond to, and attribute responsibility for nuclear terrorist attacks, in coordination with domestic and international partners. As part of this mission, DNDO conducts R&D on radiation and nuclear detection devices.

GAO was asked to review DNDO's management of its R&D program. This report (1) provides information on the types of R&D projects DNDO started in fiscal years 2008 through 2013, (2) examines the extent to which DNDO's process for planning and selecting R&D projects to fund aligns its investments with gaps in the GNDA, and (3) examines the steps DNDO takes to evaluate the outcomes of R&D projects in which it invests. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed DNDO program documentation and R&D project data for projects starting in fiscal years 2008 through 2013, and interviewed DNDO and other DHS component officials, among other actions.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that DNDO document how its research investments align with its research challenges and gaps in the GNDA, and that it take a systematic approach for evaluating the extent to which outcomes of its R&D investments collectively contribute to addressing its research challenges. DHS agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact David C.Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov or Timothy M. Persons (202) 512-6412 or personst@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Transformational and Applied Research Roadmap and Implementation Strategy for fiscal years 2016 through 2021 outlines a strategy for evaluating the outcomes of the Transformational and Applied Research Directorate's research portfolio. Specifically, TAR will sponsor a biennial independent review of its entire R&D portfolio using an assessment framework consisting of ten metrics tied to impact and feasibility. The results will be published in a report beginning in 2016.

    Recommendation: To improve DNDO's ability to demonstrate how its R&D investments contribute to addressing its research challenges, the Secretary of Homeland Security should instruct the Director of DNDO to develop a systematic approach for evaluating how the outcomes of its R&D projects collectively contribute to addressing the TAR directorate's overall research challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Transformational and Applied Research Roadmap and Implementation Strategy for fiscal years 2016 through 2021 describes priorities and the rationale for selecting its research topics.

    Recommendation: To improve DNDO's ability to demonstrate how its R&D investments contribute to addressing its research challenges, the Secretary of Homeland Security should instruct the Director of DNDO to document the TAR Directorate's rationale for prioritizing and selecting research topics.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 25, 2015, DNDO published the Transformational and Applied Research Roadmap and Implementation Strategy for fiscal years 2016 through 2021. This strategy describes how research projects in the Transformational and Applied Research Directorate (TAR) are selected, monitored, and evaluated, and how TAR's research investments are related to TAR's research challenges and gaps in the GNDA.

    Recommendation: To improve DNDO's ability to demonstrate how its R&D investments contribute to addressing its research challenges, the Secretary of Homeland Security should instruct the Director of DNDO to develop documentation, such as a research road map and strategy, that clearly defines how the Transformational and Applied Research (TAR) Directorate's research investments align with its research challenges and gaps in the GNDA and describes how the directorate will address its research challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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