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Science and Technology in Security and Defence

18 Nov 2016

The speed and scale of technological disruption can pose risks to our security but also enables us to protect ourselves and get ahead of our adversaries. The Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security to HM Government, Professor Anthony Finkelstein CBE FREng, points to the challenges ahead

There are people who want to hurt us: to kill and maim
in the name of perverted ideologies. There are organised groups and hostile nation states, with contempt for our democratic processes and systems of laws, who threaten our security, and those of our allies. Though we would wish otherwise, these threats are unlikely to abate, although their form changes in ways that are difficult to predict. They are part of our future. Science and engineering have a critical role to play in mitigating threats and in protecting us from harm. They contribute to our ability actively to defend ourselves and to prevail in a conflict.

Much conflict is now what is known as ‘asymmetric’.
The adversaries possess an advantage in tactical flexibility and the ability to undertake actions that we would
not contemplate for political and ethical reasons. We possess the ability to harness resources, economic and technological, beyond their reach. The balance of these two countervailing factors determines the outcome of the conflict. To date, our access to better science and engineering, confers a significant strategic advantage.

We cannot however rely upon this situation persisting. Our adversaries also have access to advanced science
 and engineering. There is less dependence on expensive facilities, information and software for analysis are widely accessible, components are sourced from global supply chains or can be locally synthesised. Formerly, the advanced capabilities of Governments and a sophisticated network of suppliers, supported by major investment, were necessary to deliver security and defence systems. Adversaries are however, increasingly able to leverage a multi-billion dollar commercial research and development base to secure capabilities hitherto beyond their reach. The challenge is thus, to ensure that science and engineering remains an advantage to the security and defence of the UK and its allies.

Meeting the challenge will necessitate methodological changes in security and defence science but also developing a sophisticated agenda. The science and engineering that will be critical covers a wide range: materials science, electronics, computing, chemistry and physics, are prominent amongst them. It is risky to call any to special attention, nevertheless I will tentatively identify some 
key areas, recognising that they reflect my biases.

Networked computing systems constitute an important domain in which threats are made manifest and act as a vector by which threats are communicated and amplified. We must be able to defend the software and computing infrastructure on which we depend and we must be able to respond proportionately to the threats posed to it. This requires significant advances in computer science and software engineering.

The ability to analyse and to make predictions based 
on ‘big’ data is a critical tool for identifying threats and threat actors. It is also, of course, itself a threat when deployed against us. This is the domain of the nascent discipline of data science. We are only at the early stages of this endeavour.

Behavioural science is ‘coming of age’. The ability to harness the insights from psychology and neuroscience to decision making is developing with great rapidity. Behavioural insight and the methods of behaviour change have great promise for application in security and defence.

Novel sensors based on advances in quantum technologies have widespread potential. These are in their theoretical and experimental infancy however, we may be nearing early ‘proofs of concept’ in a number of areas with significant opportunities for use in security and defence settings.

In the final analysis, of course, the greatest contribution science and engineering can make to our security and defence are the values of openness, the pursuit of truth and the community of scholarship and learning.

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