UTRGV applying to become DHS research center

EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court gave Hiram Moya his 31st letter of support for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s application to establish the first U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence (COE) in the Rio Grande Valley.

Moya, an assistant professor in the department of manufacturing and industrial engineering at UTRGV, presented the proposal during Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting.

“This area is (on) the front line for activities regarding homeland security — it affects our lives on a daily basis,” he told the commissioners. “What (research) we do here is going to affect a lot of other areas.”

If DHS approves UTRGV’s application for a Cross Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense center, it would be the first COE to study the relationship between the nation’s food supply chain and homeland security.

COEs are university-based research centers that study homeland security challenges and develop tools and technologies to address them.

Threats to U.S. food supply include invasive species that can destroy crops, harmful biological materials, infectious diseases that spread from animals to people and counterfeit goods, all of which Moya said “could cause significant harm to health and economic stability.”

Although the center’s initial focus would be Mexico, Moya said it would eventually expand to studying land, air and sea ports of entry nationwide.

“The entire United States is dependent on healthy and safe products coming into the country from Mexico,” Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia wrote in the commissioners court’s letter of support. “We expect that this (COE) will develop new and more efficient ways to improve quality testing of produce in a timely manner, which is critical for the maintenance of the integrity of the U.S. food supply chain.”

Various UTRGV colleges would conduct research projects for the center, including the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the College of Liberal Arts, the Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship and the School of Medicine.

Other universities would also collaborate with the center, and the University of Texas at San Antonio, New Mexico State University, the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas State University, Lamar University and Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education have already submitted project proposals.

“We want to do research that makes an impact,” Moya said. “We don’t believe in research that is just for an academic exercise… We want to transfer that research into actionable products and results.”

UTRGV will submit its application Friday, and DHS will announce the new COEs in March of next year.

If selected, UTRGV would receive a $35 million grant over a 10-year period.

The only other Texas-based COE is led by the University of Houston; its focus is on border management, trade and immigration.