DHS S&T director O'Toole leaving

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 5:55pm EDT

Tara O'Toole, the undersecretary of science and technology at the Homeland Security Department, is leaving her position.

Industry and government sources confirm O'Toole will step down after almost five years at leading DHS' Science and Technology Directorate. Her last day is Sept. 23, and she has not revealed her next plans, sources say.

Deputy Undersecretary for S&T Dan Gerstein will take over an interim basis until a new undersecretary is nominated.

Tara O'Toole, undersecretary of science and technology, DHS

During her time at DHS, O'Toole dealt with cuts to Science and Technology's funding as well as a huge change the agency's approach to research and development.

In 2012, she testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that the agency didn't have enough funding to build a new National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) on the campus of Kansas State University that would meet the requirements for the highest level of biosafety.

DHS S&T saw almost a $200 million decrease in funding for 2012.

In fiscal 2013, DHS S&T's budget rebounded to $838 million, from the funding level of $668 million in 2012. The president asked for $856 million in 2014, with the biggest increase coming to the research, development and innovation areas.

At her confirmation hearing, she told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that she was committed to having a strategic approach to R&D.

Over the last few years, DHS S&T focused on five priorities — bio-defense, cybersecurity, homemade explosives, first responders and resilience — and seen several successes.

S&T developed a foot-and-mouth vaccine that is now commercially available and created the technology behind the Domain Name System Security initiative to secure agency websites so users know it's an official site and note a spoofed site looking to steal information.

O'Toole reorganized S&T in August 2010, creating four groups each led by a director.

  • Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency
  • Support to Homeland Security Enterprise First Responders Group
  • Acquisition Support and Operational Analysis Division
  • R&D Partnerships Division

Additionally, O'Toole adopted a portfolio-based review of priorities to measure the effectiveness of the R&D investments, the Congressional Research Service said in a May 2013 report obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.

"This process includes written submissions on each project, an oral presentation by each project manager and analysis of the project's likely impact and feasibility as judged against specific metrics determined by the directorate," CRS wrote. "A review panel of S&T officials, representatives of other DHS components, and technical experts evaluates and rates each project. The S&T Directorate reports that it has performed this portfolio review at least twice, identifying places in the portfolio where program managers could combine activities to create synergies and cost savings, reprioritize funding, and speed projects to completion."

Before the Senate confirmed O'Toole in November 2009, she worked in the biosecurity, health and safety fields relating to the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

O'Toole was the founding editor of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science. She also was a principal author and producer of Dark Winter, an influential exercise conducted in June 2001 to alert national leaders to the dangers of bioterrorist attacks.

Earlier in her career, O'Toole was one of the original members of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and served as its director from 2001 to 2003.

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