Defence and aerospace companies have started to look to the research councils for funding as the Ministry of Defence’s R&D budget has shrunk over the past few years.
The MoD has cut early-stage research funding by 23 per cent over the last three years, according to the defence industry lobby group ADS, and the defence Green Paper, published earlier this month, was strangely silent on R&D issues.
“The defence industry needs to be clear about possible routes to get research funded and brought through to market. We’re looking at spending right across the funding agencies, seeing what is relevant,” says Derek Marshall, director of policy at ADS. “The research councils have been given more direction to look at national security in their funding.”
Marshall says defence companies are increasingly working with universities to find areas of “mutual interest” in which they can make joint funding bids to the research councils and to the EU’s Framework Programme. Research centres such as Imperial College London’s Institute for Security Science and Technology, run by former MoD chief scientific adviser Keith O’Nions, are of particular interest.
Stuart Parkinson, executive director of the pressure group Scientists for Global Responsibility, says this migration of defence companies into university labs has been going on for some time. “The 2006 Defence Technology Strategy stimulated this,” he says. “It really focused on increasing R&D and collaborating with universities.”
But, he adds, the desire for partnerships is not restricted to industry. Looming cuts to the higher education budget are pushing universities to look for more industry collaborations, and defence companies are an appealing option.
Defence companies are concerned that R&D has “clearly been a low priority” for the government for the past few years, as early stage research has been cut in favour of support for current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Marshall. And the industry was “disappointed” that research was given short shrift in the Green Paper.
Science minister Paul Drayson, who is also the minister for strategic defence acquisition reform, told Research Fortnight that he understands the importance of investing in science and technology now in order to ensure the military has the right equipment in 20 years time. “The point of the Green Paper is to ask questions to set the context for the Strategic Defence Review, which will be followed by an update of the Defence Technology Plan,” he says.
Drayson has also promised that there will be no further reduction in the MoD’s R&D budget of roughly £400 million this year, and the department’s budget is being reorganised to bring science and technology budget policy under the direct control of the MoD chief scientific adviser, Mark Welland.**A longer version of this story appears on the cover of the 17 February issue of Research Fortnight.