How can the UK Defence R&D community better align priorities?

On Wednesday 16th March techUK co-hosted the Research & Technology Knowledge Transfer Zone at DPRTE in Cardiff. techUK co-hosted the zone with Dstl and also hosted the first session of the day, a panel debate with industry and Dstl.

Sitting on the panel were:

Alvin Wilby, Thales and Chair of the techUK Defence Research & Technology Council

Peter Collins, Selex ES and Vice Chair of the techUK Defence Research & Technology Council

Graham Booth, 2iC Limited and Chair of the techUK Defence & Security SME Council

Andy Caldwell, Defence Science & Technology Laboratory

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The panel discussed the current state of the UK defence R&D community, the levels of cooperation, and the opportunities and threats in this space. The panel approached the issues from prime, SME, Dstl, and international points of view; coming to various conclusions about how collaboration and cooperation can be improved.

Discussing the outputs and potential impact of the Science Capability Review (SCR) the panel noted that the expressed link between industry and Government for the long term sustainment of vital S&T capability is most welcome. Recommendations within the SCR that point towards creating a more ‘expert’ customer for Dstl and creating more transparency in requirement setting are both points that would benefit from substantial industry input. As the SCR will guide Defence Science and Technology investment and create the programmes of work for Dstl it is important that industry understand and support the overarching direction of the Review.

The Strategic Defence & Security Review 2015 (SDSR) hosted a strong strand of internationalisation and international collaboration particularly in the R&D domains. The European Commission plans on launching a Preparatory Action (PA) on Common Security & Defence Policy (CSDP)-related research with a view of inserting a thematic area on CSDP-research in the next framework programme, after Horizon 2020, in support of European defence cooperation and of the European defence industries. This is activity that could strongly benefit not only the international defence companies based within the UK and around Europe, but also UK based SMEs looking to expand to Europe. Elsewhere around the globe the UK is actively furthering relationships and research agreements with strategically important nations. Japan, France, and the US in particular will be important to the UK’s future capability, it is the job of UK Government and industry to ensure these work for industries on both sides of the agreement.

It is also important to note the importance of UK prime innovation accelerators, hubs, and SME programmes to the international outlook of UK SMEs. These opportunities afforded by international primes based in the UK can be a great way for SMEs to being to export abroad, within the established networks of the larger company.

The links between Dstl, industry, and the academic community were noted as an important part of the UK R&D ecosystem. Dstl has maintained strong links with academia and industry also has pockets of well established relationships and programmes of work. However, the mapping of all this activity and potential is relatively incomplete, leaving gaps in knowledge. Organisations such as Innovate UK and the Defence & Security Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) are excellent routes for SMEs to work with academia, however there is still work to be done to clarify the business opportunities and potential revenue streams for SMEs working with academia in the long term. Outside of direct R&D collaboration there is a strong community of business integration and business accelerator hubs that has grown throughout UK academia. Small spin-off SMEs or established SMEs looking for regional business support can benefit from engagement with these hubs, and work should be done to better map the location and effect of these across the country.

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Aligning priorities throughout industry and Government relies on an acceptance and willingness to better understand the vastly different timescales that different players work to. Whereas the SCR will set Government priorities and affect the priorities of the larger primes arguably for the coming decade, SMEs are forced to work to much shorter timescales. The potential for the SME community to become strategically distant from the long term planning of Government is an issue that directly affects their business. Misalignment of technology priorities can mean smaller companies deciding to focus on other industries for guidance, or even worse, going out of business altogether. There is a vital need to bring flexible models of engagement and funding for SMEs who could have a potentially revolutionary impact on long term R&D strategies.

In summation the panel noted that better alignment of the outward looking interfaces of government and industry is the best first step to aligning the work programmes that sit deeper around the UK. Better understanding of how investment decisions are made and how they can be more readily shared is a goal that techUK will continue to pursue on behalf of its members. Better stewardship of research programmes is also needed in order to make them not only more efficient but also more appealing to SMEs to become involved.

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