Science & Environment

Chemist is new MoD science chief

Reaper UAV MoD
Image caption The defence science and technology budget has been falling over the last decade

A professor of chemistry at Imperial College London has been formally appointed as the new chief scientific adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence.

Prof Vernon Gibson will replace the MoD's outgoing science chief Prof Sir Mark Welland, who will return to an academic post at Cambridge University.

Prof Gibson will oversee the military's science and technology programme.

Among the many challenges he will face is working with a science budget that has halved in a decade.

The visiting professor at Imperial will join the department on 2 July, following a distinguished career in academia and a period in the commercial sector as BP's chief chemist. He will aim to ensure the UK military is supplied with the best possible equipment and scientific support for operations.

He said he was honoured to be joining the MoD, adding: "I'm looking forward to addressing the science and technology challenges that will help shape the capability of our armed forces in the 21st Century."

The outgoing science chief Mark Welland described the post as "extraordinarily attractive and extremely influential, both within the [MoD] and beyond."

But the MoD's science and technology budget has roughly halved from £800m to £400m over the last 10 years. In April, the head of the body which represents the defence industry warned of a serious skills drain if the trend was not arrested .

"We should be concerned about that as a nation, because the effects of such a reduction are not going to be felt in the next two or three years," said Rees Ward, chief executive officer for the Aerospace, Defence and Security Trade Organisation (ADS).

"They are going to be felt in five years and 10 years, when the brains, the skills, the knowledge, the understanding will have disappeared because that budget has reduced."

In February this year, a government White Paper, recognising the decline, introduced a 1.2% floor on science and technology spending as part of the total annual budget. However, many defence scientists are concerned that this should not represent a ceiling rather than a floor.

Prof Sir John Beddington, the government's chief scientific adviser, welcomed the appointment: "As former chief scientist at BP [Prof Gibson's] distinguished academic career alongside extensive industry experience will be invaluable to the Ministry of Defence itself, as well as further strengthening the network of chief scientific advisers across government.

"Expert scientific advice is critical to good policy-making and I am delighted to welcome someone with Vernon's expertise to the fold."

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) is also about to issue a new call for research proposals from academia and industry for innovative ideas with potential defence and security applications. The MoD will begin accepting applications for the call following a launch event in Cambridge on 12 June.

The MoD wants new rapid methods for manufacturing, electronics embedded in skin-thin layers of material, clothing that changes colour to alert the wearer to chemical agents and ways of harnessing advances in computing power.

The call, managed by the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), will remain open until 17 July.

Prof Welland will re-join Cambridge as director of its Nanoscience Centre.

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