Dan Gerstein doesn’t wear khaki any more, but his career in the Army still influences his approach to his current work: practical with a touch of inspiration.

As deputy undersecretary for Science and Technology at the Homeland Security Department, Dan Gerstein helps oversee a broad array of research and development activities. The common theme, ultimately, is effectiveness of the DHS mission of homeland protection both through its own people and through first responders at all levels of government. It does this by applying R&D to both knowledge-based and technology-based solutions.

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“We’re becoming much more practical with the fiscal downturn,” Gerstein said. “But rather than retreat, the way to ride through this is to develop partnerships, focus on the homeland security enterprise, and get operational capabilities to those on the front line.” Thus lean budgets in 2012 and likely in 2013 focus the directorate on developments closest to practical payoff, the soonest.

The Science and Technology Directorate, headed by Dr. Tara O’Toole, consists of four components:

  • The First Responders Group focuses on law enforcement, EMTs, fire and rescue and the technologies they need.
  • The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Activity (HS-ARPA) conducts R&D for border and maritime security, cybersecurity, chemical and biological threats, human factors, infrastructure security and explosives detection.
  • An Acquisition Support and Operations Analysis group helps components within DHS solve problems related to the named activities.
  • And the R&D Partnerships group focuses on working with external groups in other agencies and entities such as the national labs and universities.

Outcomes for the R&D Partnerships group go both ways, Gerstein said. Sometimes the R&D group “looks at what can be transitioned to commercial use by the Transportation Security Administration or FEMA,” he said. But analysis done by a Science and Technology Directorate partner on wave action and tidal surges was available to help local officials better predict what to expect in Hurricane Irene last year.

It’s what Gerstein called technology foraging ⎯ finding promising developments regardless of originating organization that can be converted to products quickly.

As you might imagine, Gerstein said his job varies, a lot. One day he might be looking at a project on how to detect pollen clinging to shipments. Pollen is sticky and its origin might yield a clue to illegal smuggling if residue came from a poppy field or illegal orchids.

On another day, he might be looking at research in how to combine behavioral analysis of individuals who might be hiding something with explosives detection for use as a systems deployment by local airport authorities in conjunction with TSA.

Other days, he might be considering developments at HS-ARPA. The focus: “Identifying projects necessary for completion.” HS-ARPA emphasizes technologies or process improvements that fill gaps in first responder capabilities. Examples are multiband radios that solve long-standing communications blockages, or a vaccine for hoof-in-mouth disease scientists can build chemically rather than using tissue. That was developed at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island.

“We’re all about getting capability into the hands of first responders and the homeland security enterprise,” Gerstein said. He added, the directorate staff particularly looks for technologies or processes that produce big payoffs from relatively small investments. Of particular interest, he said, are solutions to problems related in theme but widely apart technologically.

It’s a complex portfolio of activities, not only because of the range of threats and technologies under evaluation, but also because of the inter-relatedness of the directorate’s activities with other levels of government. But the inter-relationships are what make investment all the more valuable. Gerstein tries to look at the directorate’s activities holistically.

“The best way to be prepared is to have a healthy society and good first response capability,” he said. That type of thinking sees the continuum from detection of something like a SARS virus, through the response capabilities in the area affected, to the mitigation and remediation stages.

Gerstein spent 26 years in the Army, then worked for a while in industry specializing in defense and security at L3 before going back into the government. He has extensive experience in national security affairs, with a special emphasis on biological threats and weapons of mass destruction. He shares special expertise in bio-technology with his boss, Dr. O’Toole.

When not working, he quipped, “I write books that nobody reads.” He is modest in talking about his own biography, which you can find here. His wife works for a contractor in the Army’s Program Executive Office for Soldiers, fielding uniforms and materials in soldier kits. Gerstein has two daughters, one an Army officer and one working for a contractor supporting the Army.

Tom Temin is editor in chief of FedInsider.com and co-host of The Federal Drive on WFED AM 1500.