DHS nominee: science for security

Friday - 6/19/2009, 7:02am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

Senate Homeland Security Committee holds confirmation hearings for Tara O'Toole, President Obama's nominee to head up the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. O'Toole brings a background in medicine and science to the job overseeing the development of technology for the agencies tasked with protecting the nation.

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Tara O'Toole (US Senate photo)
By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio


The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is currently reviewing the nomination of Tara O'Toole to be Undersecretary of Science and Technology at the Homeland Security Department.

During her recent confirmation hearing, committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (ID-Conn.) cited her accomplishments and qualifications for the job.

After practicing medicine in Baltimore for several years, Dr. O'Toole earned a Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, spent five-years as a senior analyst and project director with the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and, from 1993 to 1997, served as the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the Department of Energy.

From 1999 to 2003, she managed the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. For the last six years, she has served as the Director and Chief Executive Office of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh. Today she is best known as a nationally recognized expert on biodefense and the actions what we must take to detect, deter and react to either a biological terrorist attack or a ruinous pandemic.

In her prepared statement, Doctor O'Toole told the committee that she is committed to a "stratregic approach to research and development" when it comes to investing DHS funds for development of new technologies for homeland security. She described a moment from her own life that ties in with that committment.

I sit here today in part because of the surprise launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and the subsequent investments the US made in science education. Those investments brought teachers, science fairs, and advanced placement science courses to my small, public high school in Massachusetts and essentially launched me into college and medical school.

In the end, Sputnik catalyzed the US triumphs in space and a new era of achievement in American science and technology. I believe it is possible to use science, technology and American ingenuity to better understand, prevent, and if necessary, respond to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. I would be honored to be a part of this effort.

During the question and answer session, Chairman Lieberman asked O'Toole for an example of how the work of the Science and Technology Directorate might help in the real world of protecting national security.

O'Toole responded that she favors the model set by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which she says helps develop technology such as stealth aircraft for the military.

She says that while visiting with the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, O'Toole learned about unmanned submersibles that are being used to bring in the majority of illegal drugs into the U.S. from Mexico.

"If we could detect and intercept those vehicles," she told Lieberman, "which are getting more sophisticated and numerous, we could turn off the drug trade, and even help with the stability of Mexico and securing our own borders."

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has yet to schedule a vote on Tara O'Toole's nomination to be DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology, but she is expected to easily win approval by the panel and the full Senate before the July 4th recess.

(Read past installments of DHS Science and Technology: A Vision of What's Possible)

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