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The Defence Innovation Initiative

19 Sep 2016

CaSE Director Dr Sarah Main on the launch of the MOD’s new defence innovation initiative.

The Ministry of Defence stepped out to a creative space in Spitalfields to launch its Defence Innovation Initiative last Friday. Secretary of State, Michael Fallon MP, laid out a convincing case that innovation is a strategic imperative for the UK. Acknowledging that the UK has been a successful innovator, with an industrial base to match, he argued that today’s security threats demand that the Ministry of Defence stays ahead of the curve. Their new programme, therefore, was to focus on disruptive technologies – those giant steps that turn the familiar into something completely new (think of a mobile phone before the iphone, or the cavalry before the tank regiment).

Among several tools to promote this new culture of innovation in the MoD, was an £800m innovation fund to attract the private sector to defence. Small and medium sized enterprises were clearly top of the list, with the Secretary of State citing the potential of civilian companies to translate new technologies to strategic advantage for defence. One such example was a company manufacturing light armour for sport – with clear military potential.

  • A few questions arose from me from this event:
  • Is the Government’s own research activity seen as a valuable source of innovation and capability?
  • What is the experience of a SME trying to engage with the MoD?
  • How connected are the Government’s investments and interactions in the research base across departments?
  • And how will the MoD, and indeed BEIS, know if its attempts to pump prime innovation with money have succeeded or failed?

From the discussion at the event, I am reassured that the MoD are thinking about these questions too. With the science budget in BEIS stretched tight, surely it makes sense for the Government’s overall investments in research to be considered in the round and optimised.

I left the meeting quite sure that greater synergies could be found if Government were more aware of its portfolio of research capability and activity across all its departments, and the research and innovation community aware of opportunities and needs across all of Government. The Cabinet Office’s government grants programme is making some steps towards that with a database of all Government-funded research grants to be made available internally. The thorny issue of how we measure success in innovation is one that has eluded greater minds than mine. But it must be tackled to ensure that the commitment of well-intentioned investment in innovation actually delivers on the intention.