Dstl STEPS new starter conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology.


Thank you Frances [Chief Executive, Dstl] for that kind introduction, and for inviting me to Dstl’s new starter conference.

I endorse your point about “bothering the boss”, ask obvious questions; ask why; challenge orthodoxy.

After a remarkable five-year tenure, your time as Chief Executive is drawing to a close.

I have greatly enjoyed working with you over the last 20 months, so I want to begin by thanking you for all that you’ve achieved.

Under your leadership, the new centralised headquarters at Porton Down was created, not just a new building and a very impressive one at that, but new systems and new ways of working that make for an altogether more vibrant and engaged Dstl than the one you inherited.

Dstl has also taken the lead role in formulating the MOD’s science and technology programme for the Chief Scientific Adviser.

This requires Dstl to reach out to the widest pool of potential innovators in industry, academia, and other research organisations.

The flagship of this effort is perhaps the Centre for Defence Enterprise.

I’m a very big fan of the CDE; it has the potential to make a major contribution to our armed forces and the economy, not least SMEs.

Crucially, Dstl’s continuing status as a trading fund means you can offer transparency to your customers and gives Dstl every incentive to perform even better, it’s an entirely suitable status for the job in hand.

Of course, your successor, Jonathan Lyle, while receiving a strong inheritance, still has some pretty demanding challenges ahead of him, not least the move from Fort Halstead, a project I’ll be watching closely.

Delivering battle winning technologies to our armed forces during a major period of transformation for defence will be a formidable test of Dstl’s capabilities, and you in this room, as well as Jonathan’s leadership.

But, Frances, you’ve bequeathed Jonathan a fine legacy: both he and Dstl can look to the future with confidence.

Importance of science / new blood

And that future is represented by you, the new starters with us today.

It’s great to see the injection of new talent which is the lifeblood of any effective organisation, and Dstl is no exception.

History is replete with world-changing discoveries by young scientists, often by sheer accident.

Take chemistry.

In 1856, the 18 year old British chemist, William Perkin, made the first ever synthetic dye while trying to produce artificial quinine.

80 years later, the young American chemist, Roy Plunkett, discovered Teflon while working on a new kind of CFC.

And just 10 years ago, I am reliably informed, American student, Jamie Link, discovered smart dust when one of the silicon chips she was working on burst.

Incredible discoveries, and all 3 still have defence and security applications today.

For those of you who’ve joined Dstl further on in your careers, I have some words of encouragement too.

Research and who are we to challenge the value of research, suggests that genius strikes later in life than it used to for those engaged in physics, chemistry, and medicine.

Today the average physicist does his Nobel prize-winning work at age 48.

And for those, like me, who still find that very young, you can be encouraged by Professor Hawking, arguably the world’s most famous scientist and still going great guns at 70.

In fact, I often wish I had opted for a science or engineering degree instead of studying economics, the dismal science.

But one of the great privileges of my work as a minister is that I have the opportunity to engage world-class scientists, engineers, and of course analysts, across the whole of the defence community.

Their collective aim is to ensure that the equipment our armed forces use remains at the cutting edge of technology, that’s what it’s all about.

And Dstl, this unique scientific community of 3,500 talented and creative people, is the heart of that effort.

I’m immensely proud of the work everyone does in Dstl, on your own, collaboratively with the private sector and universities, and internationally with other governments.

Almost every week I see things to celebrate thanks to the scientific endeavours Dstl undertakes.

I want the public to hold defence scientists, engineers, and analysts in the same high regard they hold our armed forces.

I’m also conscious that much of the equipment we have today is based on the defence science and technology of the past.

I’m grateful for the investment made by previous generations in today’s armed forces.

And that should remind us of the responsibility we have for future generations.

That’s why protecting the defence science and technology budget has been probably my critical bottom line since becoming a Minister.

That support should never be unquestioning, however.

As someone who studied economics instead of science, I’m acutely aware that science without practical application is a tough sell in these austere times.

I have to show taxpayers that we are spending their money wisely and providing our armed forces with the equipment and support they need.

And the economic situation we inherited is forcing everyone to prioritise, including Dstl.

I believe Dstl has 3 priorities which I want to talk about this morning: supporting current operations; preparing for future challenges; and making every pound count.

Role of Dstl, supporting current operations

First, current operations.

I am delighted to see that ‘Maximising the impact of science and technology on front-line operations’ is the theme for your conference.

And that’s only right, because the main test of your worth is your ability to translate ingenuity into combat edge in the field.

That might mean helping surveillance in counterpiracy operations off Somalia.

Or countering IEDs in Afghanistan.

Operations in Afghanistan, of course, are particularly dynamic.

The threat is constantly evolving.

Our enemies quickly adjust their tactics.

We have to bring new solutions to the front line at pace.

Thankfully, innovation is the heart of what Dstl does.

More scientists have deployed to the front line in recent years than at any time since the Second World War.

Indeed, some of you new starters may be hoping to deploy there; I’m sure some of you certainly will.

I, and my ministerial colleagues, regularly meet Dstl personnel on our visits to Afghanistan, and what really shines through is their commitment to what they’re doing.

They’re great ambassadors for the organisation.

Above all, military commanders tell me how much they rely on the expert scientific advice, statistical analysis, and on the spot technical solutions which Dstl staff deliver.

That advice, analysis, those solutions, are protecting our people, boosting their capability, and saving lives.

Like Tarian Quickshield which Dstl developed in partnership with Amsafe Bridport in Dorset.

For those of you who don’t know already, it’s a new form of netting which acts as vehicle armour.

It’s incredibly light, and is capable of stopping a lethal RPG attack in its tracks.

On the commercial side, it’s great to see a British SME involved in the product development.

And now that they are in partnership with ‘Singapore Technologies Kinetics’, the makers of the Warthog armoured vehicle, I’m sure that this new technology will do well in the export market.

It’s a textbook example of how our acquisition cycle can work.

Dstl expertise has also been central to the tremendous advances in battle field medicine we’ve seen in Afghanistan.

The management of military trauma patients has been significantly improved by new blood clotting assessment techniques.

That really is saving lives today, including members of the public here at home who are benefiting from these pioneering techniques.

And when a requirement for a new generation of lightweight protected vehicle was identified to replace Snatch Land Rover, Dstl was involved throughout the process, in particular, working with DE&S on a novel specification which would maximise survivability.

Now known as Foxhound, this was a project which incorporated the latest armour research, state of the art technology from the motorsport industry, and underwent rigorous trial including simulating IED explosions.

The whole process from initial concept to production took just 36 months, and again it’s likely to attract significant export interest.

The first vehicles will arrive in Afghanistan fairly soon.

Of course, not every operation is thousands of miles from home.

This year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a busy time for defence to say the least.

We will be making a significant contribution to the safety and security of the games in support of the Home Office and Police.

Dstl will be providing a number of niche capabilities to keep athletes, spectators, and the public safe.

Now, frustratingly, the problem is that the classification of the work you do means we can’t talk about it as freely as we might like.

But your work will always be valued by those ‘in the know’.

And we must be sure we talk about it whenever we can.

Role of Dstl, helping to meet new and emerging challenges

While current operations remain the overriding priority, we’ll be looking to Dstl to help us meet new challenges too.

Wherever you’re based, and whatever your particular role, you will be helping to shape and protect our future in all sorts of ways.

For example, during the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Dstl policy analysts and embedded military personnel ran a series of war games to help defence planners identify the type and size of forces that could be required in the future.

Their work was absolutely crucial in helping Ministers and the Defence Board to make evidence based decisions about the transformation of defence and is precisely the kind of creative work Dstl excels in.

Looking ahead, I think we have several main challenges.

For instance, the benefits of blueskies and longterm research are undoubted.

It balances our focus on the here and now, and is the best guarantee that the here and now of 10 to 20 years’ time can be met with confidence.

But we need to find ways of working with the people who know what potential opportunities and threats will emerge in the next two decades, people in our excellent universities.

That’s why we’ve introduced defence sponsored PhDs, 32 new ones this year.

Candidates will investigate topics of relevance to defence and the wider community, and will hope to bring wider academic thinking to bear more directly onto defence challenges.

And how do we get the balance right between the here and now, and our future needs?

There are many options, not least closer co-operation with partners like the US and France, and I’ll say more about that shortly.

And we must, going back to the theme I’ve mentioned already, become better at communicating the importance of committing scarce resources to invest in defence science and technology, and properly communicate the role of Dstl within the MOD.

We must help people understand why technology which can’t be seen or touched is as vital as tanks, ships, or planes.

I’ll have more to say about these things very soon indeed, when the Defence and Security Equipment white paper is published.

Role of Dstl, helping to make every pound count

The third main priority for Dstl is one that’s also close to my heart as a politician.

You are integral to making every pound we spend on equipment, support, and technology count.

To begin with, your trading fund status gives you a financial edge and flexibility.

It keeps everyone’s eye on the bottom line.

But you must still be very careful not to do what would be more appropriately done in the private sector.

You are not free to compete with private sector or academia, but to do the things for defence which can only be done by and in government.

That’s why I’m pleased that intellectual property can be exploited through Dstl’s subsidiary, Ploughshare Innovations Ltd, which licenses the technology or exploits it through joint ventures.

I strong support that entrepreneurial approach.

I want to see a lot more of it across defence science and technology.

Dstl can also help through innovation and partnership.

Scientific innovation and engineering ingenuity relevant to defence are often found in surprising places.

By reaching out to industry, particularly SMEs and the academic world, the Centre for Defence Enterprise is bringing much needed innovation to defence, and proving that value for money and profitability are far from mutually exclusive.

One of CDE’s particular strengths, I believe, is its accessibility.

The regular surgeries where individuals and companies can get personalised guidance on what MOD is looking for, and how to pitch their ideas.

It’s about widening MOD’s supplier base.

Providing visibility of MOD’s requirements.

Educating and supporting new supply networks.

Giving opportunities for the military to become directly engaged in science and technology.

And helping potential suppliers understand defence, potential suppliers who didn’t understand that they could work with defence or what actually might be required or needed by defence.

The CDE successfully cuts through a lot of the red tape.

What I want now is to see more of those ideas and concepts becoming mature products which contribute to Defence capability.

But perhaps the most important contribution Dstl can make is by helping the MOD to become a more intelligent and demanding customer.

We need solutions which offer cutting edge technology yet are cost effective.

A big ask, but I believe it can be done.

Dstl has the right sort of culture and approach to drive this ethos forward, taking others, industry in particular, with you.

By understanding how integration really works and marshalling open systems, we can access the best of innovation and ensure it delivers the best for our armed forces.

To help this process, as I mentioned earlier, we will very shortly and I mean very shortly, be publishing our white paper which will address several critical defence science and technology issues:

  • what should the balance of priorities should be for the science and technology programme over the next five years?
  • what are the main elements of being an intelligent customer for capability, equipment and services which depend on science and technology to ensure better value for money?
  • how can government encourage and champion greater pull through of innovative ideas into applications and contracts?

Making sure we get the very best out of our budget also means a greater focus on international partnerships.

And, I repeat, by only doing in government what has to be done in government.

Collaboration is the way forward: with the private sector; with industry; with academia; with our allies.

Now, we have long established links with the US, of course.

And now we’re actively looking to work with others, particularly with France and with India.

For example, our work on complex weapons with the French is demonstrating the benefits of mutual dependency, where it makes sense and we are keen to explore other opportunities with industry.

And we’re developing a new collaboration programme with India’s research and development organisation to explore areas like ‘energetic technologies’, ‘horizon scanning’, and ‘human factors’.

I know that CSA came back from India recently and was very impressed by its scale and quality.

There will be more detail in the white paper which will set our future course in science and technology.


One thing is certain.

All of you new starters here today will be underwriting the future of Britain’s security.

Whether as scientists, engineers, or analysts.

And whether it’s force protection capability and operational planning.

Medical research or CBRN analysis.

Or C4ISTAR, which was so crucial in delivering precision weapon effect in our operations in Libya.

You are Dstl new starters at a time of great change across defence.

But you are joining a highly influential organisation with a global reputation.

And you are joining an organisation committed to nurturing your talent and developing your skills.

Please take advantage of the opportunities you will be offered to work in industry or specialist work in universities such as getting chartered status for your profession.

These wider experiences will stand you in good stead.

Because you are the ‘go to’ hub when we need the kind of ‘out of the box’ cost effective ideas and solutions that industry is not always able to research or provide.

Dstl regularly tests the art of the possible.

Finding solutions, for today and tomorrow and working with industry to deliver them.

Dstl has an outstanding reputation for exploring new horizons for defence and science on a tight budget.

It will often be hard with many challenges along the way.

But the work you will be doing will be fascinating and incredibly worthwhile.

And surely few endeavours are as noble as making sure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and well, delivering battle winning capability to our armed forces, and ensuring our country’s security.

That is the endeavour you have embarked upon, and I think you have made a very wise choice.