DHS fishes for biological, chemical ideas

The Homeland Security Department cast a broad net today, seeking new technologies to fight biological and chemical terrorism. Officials set a Dec. 5 deadline for receiving ideas from private industry.

With the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) wielding a big research budget — $350 million to spend in fiscal 2004 — vendors crowded into a session with DHS officials who explained exactly what they wanted and how quickly they wanted it. The agency earmarked about $200 million for biological tools and $52 million for chemical measures. The rest will be spent on detecting radiological and high-level explosive attacks.

"We're looking for generational change," said David Bolka, director of HSARPA, the funding arm of DHS.

Unlike DARPA — its Pentagon counterpart, which funds research that could take years to develop — HSARPA seeks ideas that can be developed within a narrow six-to-24-month time frame, Bolka said.

Among its goals are a next-generation biosurveillance sensor system that would provide wider coverage at reduced cost, and a fast, low false alarm system for biological defenses. In the chemical arena, HSARPA wants devices to continuously and automatically detect dangerous levels of chemicals.

"It's very easy to go out and spend money on things to be different," said Charles McQueary, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS. "But we want to demonstrate quantitatively that we have made the country safer."

McQueary said DHS also has the authority to hire scientists and pay them wages competitive with those in the private sector, as well as provide short-term appointments for outside experts.

The Dec. 5 deadline applies only to biological and chemical research. HSARPA expects to issue requests for ideas related to radiological and high-level explosive attacks in the near future, McQueary said. The solicitations would remain unclassified, if possible, he said.

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