The disruption felt during the global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a myriad of unprecedented challenges, which is forcing society to adapt and solve new problems. Take, for example, how the world is grappling with traveling, going to school, and caring for loved ones.
With the start of hurricane season this month, the need to adapt and solve problems is even more exemplified. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an above normal 2020 hurricane season, which means front line security operators will soon be facing compound pressures of responding to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis and managing hurricane response operations.
In moments of crisis like with COVID-19 and hurricane season, our colleagues at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and across state and local emergency response organizations are being called to draw upon their experiences and lessons learned from past natural disasters to update their resilience plans. As scientists and researchers, our job is to know how to effectively pivot to understand new problem sets, and to deliver solutions that save lives, property and the flow of commerce. We can only do this if we take a whole community approach by leveraging best-in-class thinking and capabilities from colleagues working in national labs, academia, industry, and state and local government.
Our ability to innovate our way out of a crisis starts with rigorous research and development (R&D) practices and cross-sector collaboration. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is proud to co-sponsor the National Science Foundation (NSF) Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC), which will provide communities new tools for adapting to changing environments and enhancing preparedness and resilience to wide-ranging disasters, including hurricanes, floods and wildfires along with pandemics. The CIVIC partnership provides a timely opportunity for S&T to engage on the ground community leaders and research groups to address local and regional priorities in response to COVID-19 and longstanding natural disasters.
My colleague Erwin Gianchandani, who serves as NSF’s Deputy Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, pointed out some of the unique and exciting elements of CIVIC: "The Civic Innovation Challenge will support projects jointly undertaken by researchers and civic partners in communities across the country. The program brings the funding that will allow for compelling projects to emerge and the structure for collaboration and scale. This effort comes at a critical time, as we face challenges across our civic systems and services that require research-based innovation and action."
The similarities with COVID-19 and natural disasters present new challenges that government has yet to face, especially when trying to enforce social distancing. Communities are preparing for potential evacuations, sheltering in place, and resource planning, while also securing life-line services of food, water, power, and critical infrastructure. Technology and partnerships are increasingly needed to drive new efficiencies and boost resilience. Efforts to enhance the resilience of our environment, the population, and the business community, creates new opportunities for applying technology to assist with new needs, such as neighborhood health monitoring, crisis communications, and real-time information sharing to front-line responders.
In the face of growing demands on DHS, my job is to know where our R&D investments are meeting requirements and making the most impact. CIVIC will make awards of up to $1 million to projects that bring ready-to-implement solutions to short and long-term needs and offer sustainable, scalable and transferable solutions. This is important because CIVIC will provide the scientific data we need to ensure future innovation cycles are meeting the specific needs of front-line security operators, who risk their lives to keep us safe and healthy.
To exercise agility and tap into different expertise, it is the role of government to shape the conditions for public and private organizations to partner, but both government and industry have a responsibility to reduce risk and focus on the “what’s next” challenges. These are important steps for strengthening resilience across our country and informing key issues for policymakers, which is why I encourage you to give CIVIC a close look and get prepared for the upcoming phase one deadline.
S&T’s ability to shift gears and embrace change is a challenge we are ready to confront. Our R&D methodologies are being tested and we are seeing powerful results in areas of threat assessment, resilience, workforce health, and technology development. For further information on S&T’s support to COVID-19 response go here. And to learn about S&T’s technology impacts to help communities build resilience to natural disasters go here.
Our capacity to respond to the next disaster depends our ability see the “big” picture, leverage state-of-the-art technologies, and work with stakeholders across the world. I look forward to seeing you on the road ahead as we protect the safety and well-being of our citizens and communities. In the interim, stay safe, healthy, and vigilant.