David Hendricks: Conflict-of-interest clause scuttles SwRI's Homeland Security bid

San Antonio Express News
Web Posted : 01/10/2004 12:00 AM

Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio will not be bidding for the Homeland Security Institute contract after all.

SwRI readied itself throughout last autumn to bid for the Homeland Security national laboratory by attracting research universities and private companies from throughout Texas as bidding partners.

A clause in the December request for proposals from the U.S. Homeland Security Department, however, prevents SwRI from making a bid.

The clause states that neither the contractor nor its subcontractors can conduct other commercial projects that are proprietary.

The reasoning behind the clause is that a conflict of interest would arise if the operator of the Homeland Security Institute were conducting proprietary research for private companies.

If research for a private company produces a technological advance useful for security purposes, it may be difficult to keep that a secret from the Homeland Security Institute. And vice versa for research done for the institute.

As much as that makes sense, it also eliminates many highly qualified bidders for the institute, including universities. In fact, a bid isn't likely from anywhere in Texas now, said Dr. Katharine Golas, the vice president who headed SwRI's effort to attract the Homeland Security Institute.

The Homeland Security Department issued a "sources sought" statement Sept. 12 to start taking names of qualified candidates for the contract.

That, in turn, alerted candidates that they should start finding partners and signing team agreements for the coming request for proposals. Once the RFP was issued, there would be little time to form partnerships.

The restrictive clause wasn't mentioned in the Sept. 12 statement. Most applicants nationally, therefore, probably were eliminated by the proprietary commercial clause issued with the RFP.

Responses to the RFP are due Jan. 28, said Craig Witherow, SwRI's communications director. That already is a delay from the initial deadline of Jan. 18.

It wouldn't surprise me if there were further extensions in the deadline, given the time needed to restructure partnerships at the few remaining possible bidders.

Since its founding in 1947, SwRI has performed research for government clients, mainly military and NASA, and for private companies. So have many of the research departments at universities that SwRI was courting for partners in the Homeland Security Institute bidding.

On Oct. 28, SwRI held a workshop at which 40 universities and private businesses made pitches to join its team, which appeared to be the leading contractor candidate from Texas.

The universities were the University of Texas at Austin, UT-San Antonio, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, UT-Arlington, St. Philip's College, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, University of Houston, University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and Texas Tech University Health Science Center in El Paso.

Private contracting companies that made presentations included Northrop Grumman, INCELL, Operational Technologies Corp., SBC Communications, General Dynamics and SecureInfo.

The Homeland Security Institute will be a think tank that will perform risk analyses, simulations of threat scenarios, analyses of possible countermeasures and plans for counterterrorism technology development.

Wherever it's based, it will be an economic development prize, a magnet for the growing security industry.

At the risk of sounding like sour grapes, however, it turns out the size of the planned Homeland Security Institute is not as massive as anticipated a few months ago. Instead of being in the billions of dollars, the five-year budget for the Homeland Security Institute will be $28 million — $8.5 million in the first year.

The attitude at SwRI, now that it is eliminated from the bidding, is "we win some and lose some."

An additional belief, though, is that the Oct. 28 workshop at SwRI will have benefits down the road regardless of the Homeland Security Institute. University researchers and security-related company representatives introduced themselves to each other and learned firsthand what everyone was doing.

In Texas, the security industry seems almost as big as the state itself, and new activities are popping up everywhere. Thanks to the SwRI workshop, partnerships and collaborations still will form to boost this expanding industry in Texas.