An Overlooked Resource for Building Community Threat Resilience

Federal R&D centers have had a large role in everything from air safety to renewable energy. We need their expertise to deal with today's risks.
September 4, 2018 AT 6:15 AM
Arden Dragoni holds a photo taken on Oct. 5, 2017 that shows him with his wife, three children and dog, amid the remains of their home in Puerto Rico that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. He's standing in the same spot where, months later, the home remains in shambles. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)
By Katharyn M. White  |  Contributor
Senior vice president of MITRE Public Sector

We may never know exactly how many people lost their lives in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, but it's clear that the human toll was catastrophic: According to a new assessment of "excess mortality," nearly 3,000 individuals perished in last year's storm and its aftermath, and the cost for rehabilitating the U.S. territory's infrastructure will be measured in the tens of billions. In Houston, the cost of recovery from Hurricane Harvey is approaching $125 billion.

Hurricanes, of course, are hardly the only threat American communities face. Flooding, wildfires, hackers, terrorism and mass shootings all have exacted large human and economic costs while straining public resources to the breaking point. In response, cities and states are struggling to become more resilient, but it's not easy being a mayor or governor in this environment. There's plenty of outside advice and sales pitches for "solutions" to their jurisdictions' vulnerabilities.

Where should an elected official focus limited resources? Making the right decisions requires a deep understanding of acquisitions, policy, technology and systems. There are many options out there for localities to get advice and gather the facts to help with decision-making, including universities, think tanks and industry. Yet what's missing, in my experience, are outside entities with some essential qualities: a broad view of the threats communities face, deep technical expertise in tackling complex problems, an understanding of the need for integrating state and federal resources, and, critically, the mandate to offer unbiased advice with no investment in the answers, financial or otherwise.

In fact, such entities have been around for decades, and their technical experience has, in essence, already been paid for by the American public. Beginning in the late 1940s the federal government began working with specially created nonprofits through the federally funded research and development center model. FFRDCs address long-term problems of considerable complexity, striving to approach technical questions with a high degree of objectivity and provide cost-effective solutions.

Anyone who has ever flown in a jet or used GPS has benefited from technology with roots in an FFRDC. They've helped the federal government make spaceflight safer, develop and deploy renewable energy solutions, apply nuclear energy for non-military purposes and reduce air traffic accidents. Today, they're working in the fields of aviation, defense, energy, health care, space, federal agency modernization, homeland security and more. It would be a natural fit for them to take on the challenges of risk and resilience.

Importantly, FFRDCs are free from conflicts of interest. By law, they can't manufacture products, compete with industry or work for commercial companies. These restrictions mean government, industry and academia can provide them with sensitive or proprietary information without fear of improper use or disclosure. That information - when combined with technical know-how - creates a powerful tool to help governments acquire the right technology, objectively assess business processes and integrate complex systems.

What's missing, however, is the additional federal support and funding mechanisms needed to help mayors and governors access this objective technical expertise to build resilience. Providing those resources should be on the agenda of federal policymakers.

As we've seen from recent disasters, weak planning, outdated technology and insecure systems can have costly and deadly real-world consequences. That's why broader sharing of FFRDC expertise makes good sense. It could help localities become smart buyers and users of resilient systems and technologies. And it could spark new and repeatable innovations by piloting new ideas and sharing them nationwide, so that, for example, a cybersecurity solution devised in Chicago could apply to Los Angeles.

We should see the FFRDC legacy for what it is: a major opportunity to leverage an overlooked public asset to solve tomorrow's biggest problems. We'll do a disservice to the American public if we fail to share this deep well of applied knowledge and experience in new ways that can mitigate the next generation of risks our communities face.