Defence & security focus: ‘It’s always a challenge to predict the future, but this is where Dstl works best’

Written by Gary Aitkenhead on 29 April 2019 in Interview
Interview

As the UK faces increasingly complex global threats, our defence and security organisations must work more collaboratively than ever. Here, CSW hears from Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

What has been the biggest challenge facing your organisation in the past 12 months?

The response to the incidents in Salisbury and Amesbury – the lab moved into a 24/7 operational footing for weeks with a large number of our people involved. Throughout this we had our challenges with significant, often adverse misleading information circulating online, which impacted on our reputation, public perception and on some of our staff. Of course, our support to the incidents also impacted on our normal operations as we still needed to meet the ongoing requirements of our customers, but the commitment from our people was fantastic and everyone worked extremely hard to ensure Dstl responded effectively to this unprecedented event. The eyes of the world were on us, and I am incredibly proud of Dstl and the response at pace from across government, both local and national police and the military and the many others involved.

How is your organisation adapting to reflect Britain’s changing place in the world?

Our research is world-class in many areas and so we continue to work closely with many partner nations. We have a focus on the US, European bilateral collaborations (such as recent increasing work with Germany), and are broadening to new emerging areas with Japan and India. NATO and 5EYES (UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) remain key intelligence and collaboration partners with multiple joint cyber projects, and this is not expected to change as the UK exits the EU. We continually adapt to seek new opportunities, as demonstrated through the sharing of cyber defence experiences with Estonia, one of our NATO partners.

DSTL also continues to support Britain’s industry and academia through both research funding (approx £270m this year and expected to increase next year) to exploit their ideas, as part of the MoD’s "promote our prosperity" priority. We also licence our intellectual property to SME and large companies that attracts private funding resulting in UK exports and jobs.

What opportunities or innovations are you excited about in the coming years that will help you improve public outcomes?

Information technology is developing very quickly and defence is adapting to fully exploit these new opportunities for Information advantage, with initiatives being led by Dstl and our military customers. We are focused on protecting and exploiting both data and information to maximise their value for decision making and to sustain our advantage in future conflicts. Effort includes exploiting the best signal processing to extract more information from raw sensor data, and techniques like machine learning to exploit large information data sets.

What do you think your role will look like in 20 years’ time?

It’s always going to be a challenge for any organisation to predict the future, but this is where Dstl works best: working out where and when S&T – science and technology – is needed and at what time in the future. I would expect that in 20 years we will still be working, as we are now, to be ahead of the pace of change with S&T, with artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles being the norm and most likely quantum computing seeing real world applications.

How do you unwind at the end of a long day?

I love to spend time with my family; I’m also a keen cyclist and enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy cooking so good food and wine always goes down well! 

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Gary Aitkenhead
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Gary Aitkenhead is chief executive of the Ministry of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)

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Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
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