Science & Environment

Warning over MoD science cuts

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

The UK's Ministry of Defence must invest in science and technology now or suffer the consequences in coming years, a meeting in London has heard.

Rees Ward, head of defence industry body ADS, said the effects of cuts in these areas would hit hard several years down the line.

Mr Ward was one of the speakers at an event to showcase innovative concepts for defence.

Spending on science has declined steeply over the last decade.

This has occurred as the overall MoD budget has come under increasing pressure.

"Our industry… has been supported in the past by science and technology budgets that have been substantial," Mr Ward said.

"It's a great sadness and it is a great risk that over the last 10 years the MoD's [science and technology] budget has gone from £800m to £400m.

Image caption The Boomerang anti-sniper device was introduced to the frontline last year following trials

"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.

"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."

Mr Ward, chief executive officer for the Aerospace, Defence and Security Trade Organisation (ADS), was speaking at an event organised by the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) to showcase defence innovations from small and medium-sized businesses.

These included alightweight soldier uniform woven with yarn that conducts electricity. The new approach provides a single, central power source to reduce the need for multiple batteries and cabling, thereby lightening the physical burden for soldiers.

Easy target?

In February, 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 in the sector will be hoping this does indeed represent a floor, and not a ceiling.

Defence Equipment Minister Peter Luff, who was also speaking at the event, told BBC News: "[The science budget] is less contractually committed further ahead - less locked in, and that's the problem.

"If you are building a carrier, it's a programme for years… the contracts are locked, you are committed and you can't get out.

He added: "In my view, the science budget is as committed - in a moral, a political and in the requirement sense - as any other part of the MoD's budget. What I have done [with the 1.2% floor] is give it the same level of commitment, so it can't be raided when times get hard."

The MoD's outgoing chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir Mark Welland, thanked Mr Luff for supporting science since he had been in office, and commented: "The science and technology budget is one of those budgets I'm afraid that always looks soft.

"It always looks as though it's an easy target to take a quick cut on, especially if you have issues to do with current operations that are demanding and difficult - and sometimes emotive.

"It has been a challenge to make sure the [science and technology] budget remains at the heart of defence and key to delivering future capability."

Wider impact

Mr Ward warned that the adverse impact of the science cuts on Britain's ability to develop intellectual property (IP) would have knock-on effects for the wider economy.

Image caption Virtual environments can help soldiers prepare for deployment

"It puts a question mark around our ability to export. If we're not producing the IP here in the United Kingdom, we are going to be at risk sustaining the substantial exports that we currently deliver - £9.5bn last year," he said.

A Labour defence spokesperson told BBC News that the government had inherited the 1.2% commitment, but agreed the move to ring-fence it was positive.

However, the spokesperson said the government lacked an industrial strategy and that uncertainty surrounded the future of defence sectors such as aerospace and shipbuilding.

The Centre for Defence Enterprise was set up to provide a new process for harnessing innovative ideas with potential defence or security applications. It receives research proposals from academia and business for ideas that are high-risk but which may also have great benefits.

Set up in May 2008, it has already awarded research contracts worth more than £25.5m in total.

Mr Luff used the event to announce greater support by the CDE for its Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) providers. He said these businessses were often able to provide innovative solutions at the best possible price for the taxpayer.

The CDE is based at the Harwell science campus in Oxfordshire and is part of theDefence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

More on this story