Department of Homeland Security:

Oversight and Coordination of Research and Development Should Be Strengthened

GAO-12-837: Published: Sep 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not know the total amount its components invest in research and development (R&D) and does not have policies and guidance for defining R&D and overseeing R&D resources across the department. According to DHS, its Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), and U. S. Coast Guard are the only components that conduct R&D and, according to GAO’s analysis, these are the only components that report budget authority, obligations, or outlays for R&D activities to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as part of the budget process. However, GAO identified an additional $255 million in R&D obligations by other DHS components. For example, S&T reported receiving $50 million in reimbursements from other DHS components to conduct R&D. Further, 10 components obligated $55 million for R&D contracts to third parties and $151 million to Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories for R&D-related projects, but these were not reported as R&D to OMB. According to DHS, it is difficult to identify all R&D investments across the department because DHS does not have a department wide policy defining R&D or guidance directing components how to report all R&D spending and activities. As a result, it is difficult for DHS to oversee components’ R&D efforts and align them with agency wide R&D goals and priorities. Developing specific policies and guidance could assist DHS components in better understanding how to report R&D activities, and better position DHS to determine how much the agency invests in R&D to effectively oversee these investments.

S&T has taken some steps to coordinate R&D efforts across DHS, but the department's R&D efforts are fragmented and overlapping, which increases the risk of unnecessary duplication. R&D at DHS is inherently fragmented because S&T, the Coast Guard, and DNDO were each given R&D responsibilities in law, and other DHS components may pursue and conduct their own R&D efforts as long as those activities are coordinated through S&T. S&T uses various mechanisms to coordinate its R&D efforts including component liaisons, component R&D agreements, joint R&D strategies, and integrated R&D product teams composed of S&T and component officials. However, GAO identified 35 instances of overlap among contracts that DHS components awarded for R&D projects. For example, S&T and the Transportation Security Administration both awarded overlapping contracts to different vendors to develop advanced algorithms to detect the same type of explosive. While GAO did not identify instances of unnecessary duplication among these contracts, DHS has not developed a policy defining who is responsible for coordinating R&D and what processes should be used to coordinate it, and does not have mechanisms to track all R&D activities at DHS that could help prevent overlap, fragmentation, or unnecessary duplication. For example, S&T did not track homeland security-related R&D activities that DHS components contracted through DOE national laboratories from fiscal year 2010 through 2013; thus, it could not provide information on those contracts. Developing a policy defining the roles and responsibilities for coordinating R&D, and establishing coordination processes and a mechanism to track all R&D projects could help DHS mitigate existing fragmentation and overlap, and reduce the risk of unnecessary duplication.

Why GAO Did This Study

Conducting R&D on technologies for detecting, preventing, and mitigating terrorist threats is vital to enhancing the security of the nation. Since its creation, DHS has spent billions of dollars researching and developing technologies used to support its missions including securing the border, detecting nuclear devices, and screening airline passengers and baggage for explosives, among others. Within DHS, S&T conducts R&D and is the component responsible for coordinating R&D across the department, but other components, such as the Coast Guard and DNDO, also conduct R&D to support their respective missions. GAO was asked to identify (1) how much DHS invests in R&D and the extent to which DHS has policies and guidance for defining R&D and overseeing R&D resources and efforts across the department, and (2) the extent to which R&D is coordinated within DHS to prevent overlap, fragmentation, or unnecessary duplication. GAO reviewed information on DHS R&D budgets, contracts, and DHS spending on R&D at DOE national laboratories for fiscal years 2010 through 2012. GAO also reviewed DHS R&D plans and project documentation, and interviewed DHS headquarters and component officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS develop policies and guidance for defining, reporting and coordinating R&D activities across the department; and that DHS establish a mechanism to track R&D projects. DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

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Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS has developed policies and guidance for defining and overseeing R&D, as GAO recommended in September 2012. According to DHS officials, the department implemented an R&D portfolio review process as directed by committee reports accompanying the DHS appropriations act for fiscal year 2013 which was aimed at better coordinating R&D activities by reviewing components' individual R&D projects. According to officials from DHS's Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), S&T has participated in portfolio reviews with components. In April 2014, DHS issued a memorandum that included a newly developed definition for R&D and that also stated that S&T was responsible for coordinating and integrating R&D activities throughout the department. In addition, in August 2015, DHS issued a memorandum that re-established the S&T Integrated Product Teams (IPT). The S&T used IPTs from late 2006 to around July 2011 as S&T's primary mechanism for coordinating R&D. IPTs are tasked to identify DHS technological capability gaps and coordinate R&D to close those gaps across the mission areas of the department. IPTs are intended to help ensure that DHS is investing in nonduplicative technologies. Further the IPTs are to report to DHS management on DHS's ongoing R&D activities and guide S&T's R&D work to meet the needs of the operational components. In August 2015, S&T reported that it established five IPTs for Aviation Security, Border Security, Cybersecurity, Biological Threat, and Counterterrorism. In March 2016, S&T reported that DHS senior executives consider inputs from the IPTs to provide recommendations for a balanced and prioritized investment strategy for DHS R&D to the Under Secretary for S&T and the Secretary of Homeland Security. In addition, S&T presented a report in April 2016 to the Secretary of Homeland Security that consists of (1) a DHS-wide listing of capability gaps and descriptions, (2) high priority department-wide R&D solutions to address the capability gaps, and, (3) a profile of all R&D work being conducted in DHS. In August 2016, S&T also issued two guidance documents to implement the IPT process and define roles and responsibilities for coordinating R&D in the Department. These documents provide an overview on how DHS is implementing processes and mechanisms to oversee DHS-wide R&D efforts to ensure that R&D is properly coordinated, tracked, accounted for, and to ensure that duplicative projects are not undertaken. Additionally, in January 2017, DHS issued an R&D directive and instructions to formalize R&D reporting and coordination among components. These two documents are to provide the Department with the IPT construct, roles, responsibilities, and processes for coordinating R&D activities across the mission areas of the Department, and intended outcomes. Further, these documents contain the R&D definitions that are to be used by all DHS components. In December 2016, S&T officials reported that they used mechanisms to address DHS-wide R&D projects and costs that resulted in useful information. Specifically, in January 2016, S&T implemented both a R&D portfolio review process and an R&D project tracking system to better manage and track department-wide R&D. S&T's portfolio review process is to provide relevant information to leadership using a project tracking database to collect information on R&D investments. The project data is to collect information related to trend analysis, customer/end user engagement, portfolio health, resource allocation. In August 2017, DHS provided additional information on the mechanisms DHS recently implemented to track all DHS R&D project costs. The information sufficiently demonstrates DHS has established a mechanism that tracks all DHS R&D costs. As a result, DHS will know how much all of its components invest in R&D, making it helpful to oversee R&D efforts across the Department.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DHS effectively oversees its R&D investment and efforts and reduces fragmentation, overlap, and the risk of unnecessary duplication, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop and implement policies and guidance for defining and overseeing R&D at the department. Such policies and guidance could be included as an update to the department's existing acquisition directive and should include the following elements: (1) a well-understood definition of R&D that provides reasonable assurance that reliable accounting and reporting of R&D resources and activities for internal and external use are achieved, (2) a description of the department's process and roles and responsibilities for overseeing and coordinating R&D investments and efforts, and (3) a mechanism to track existing R&D projects and their associated costs across the department.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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