The UK has the right ambitions in placing science and technology (S&T) at the heart of its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review). Future strategic advantage relies on having and using cutting-edge technology faster and better than its adversaries. The UK will need to defend its people against technology-enabled threats (such as cybercrime), while seeking to influence and win through mastery of emerging technologies.
This is no small challenge. The Integrated Review rightly points to the UK’s impressive history of innovation and word-leading research base as a good starting point. What it fails to explicitly recognise is that the UK needs a two-stranded, ‘sombrero’ approach. This calls for both a breadth of industry, academia and government working across a wide range of technologies (the sombrero brim); and at the same time narrowing the focus, ownership and pull-through to a few key capabilities (the sombrero crown). Making this distinction allows for the right focus, KPIs and judgements to be applied to the relevant area.
The UK now needs to focus much more on the pull-through element, while keeping one eye on growing the thriving ecosystem. There are three key recommendations here:
1. Focus efforts in key areas
The Integrated Review naturally tries to do so much across the whole range of defence, security and prosperity outcomes. A huge range of technologies are of potential interest. But diluting the UK’s approach across a huge range of small investments is never going to shift the dial. Instead, it should pick a few key outcomes and go all-in on identifying and investing in the technology to deliver these, with clear leadership, accountability, plans and rapid prototyping. The National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange (NSTIx) may have a key role here, as will joining up the scattered S&T interests across Government.
2. Identify and support winning scale-ups
The Integrated Review notes that although support is available for early-stage R&D, it often falls away before ideas are fully commercialised and brought to market. As a result, innovation and intellectual property sometimes move out of the UK before companies are able to mature into commercial successes. Government needs to have the confidence to pick winners with a much more interventionist approach. Government should find more ways to provide funding for scale-ups to bridge the funding and support gap, both developing products/services and the business support services needed to help them succeed.
3. Extend the use of innovation partnerships for procurement
While the Integrated Review alludes to taking a ‘business science’ approach, it’s far from clear how industry approaches to R&D will translate to defence and security, which operates to very different outcomes and levels of risk. Government can already benefit from public sector innovation partnerships procurement regulations, giving them the freedom to develop innovative products and services at pace, but so far hasn’t made extensive use of these. Government could also benefit by more centralised budget pooling, insisting on joint competitions across defence and security to solve shared problems, and by requiring the outcomes of investments in one area to be shared with others in Government who could benefit from them.
In recent years, many new Government innovation teams have flourished, leading to an excellent ecosystem for innovation, for example via the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA). These initiatives should be expanded and diversified through greater co-location in co-creation centres, Government-led incubators, sandpits, hackathons, and partnerships with Innovate UK, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and the forthcoming Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA).
Industry’s role will be critical to the success of the Government’s ambitions for S&T technology supremacy. Engaging closely with industry in developing the above will be key. The framework of Own-Collaborate-Access is logical from Government’s point of view, but does it make business sense for industry? What are the incentives, and what is the size of the potential market?
There will need to be a culture change to implement this. For the sombrero ‘brim’, this means opening up more, talking with a wider range of people and finding ways to talk about national security and defence in unclassified environments. There could be more open debate about ethical and legal frameworks, acceptable boundaries of S&T research and deployment, and robust challenging of myths and misinformation about what defence and security science involves (noting a great many academics are uncomfortable contributing to defence or security). It could be made easier to get security clearances for those outside of Government, broadening the range of expertise at the table. At the same time, more can be done to attract and include new perspectives, including better representation of women, those from different ethnic backgrounds, and people with non-standard backgrounds.
For the ‘crown’, drawing on the ‘UK Vaccine’ and Ventilator Challenge model of bringing together and empowering a small, knowledgeable team of experts to get things done quickly, is worth exploring.
There is a lot to do. What’s needed now is pace, focus, and a can-do approach that identifies a few key things and gets them done. The ‘sombrero’ model for S&T innovation in Defence and Security allows all the great work that has been done to grow the ecosystem to carry on, while feeding into real-world impact, at pace, so people can continue to live in a safe and secure global society.