While James Bond relies on Q for his gadgets, Britain’s armed forces use the MoD’s Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory. Its chief executive Jonathan Lyle talks to Joshua Chambers about DSTL’s work
Nestled amongst the freshly-harvested fields of southern England, near the sleepy cathedral city of Salisbury, is a 7,000-acre site where military scientists create some of the most advanced weaponry known to man.
The top-secret base of Porton Down is bathed in autumnal sunshine as your correspondent is escorted through two sets of barbed-wire security fences to reach the headquarters of the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
Its chief executive, Jonathan Lyle, is waiting in the spacious open-plan lobby, while behind him teams of scientists huddle over classified paperwork, discussing plans, wielding highlighters and drinking coffee.
There’s a strange juxtaposition between the cheery informality of DSTL staff, and the deadly potential of some of their work: their relaxed demeanour belies a steely commitment to their sensitive task.
Porton Down itself has a controversial history but Lyle says the present tenant, DSTL, is a strongly-regulated, tightly-managed organisation, which uses scientific know-how to boost Britain’s defensive, medical and industrial capabilities.
A brief history of horror
In one form or another, military scientists have been based here since 1916, when they began producing and trying to counter the chemical weapons that wreaked havoc on all sides in the First World War. This work continued for decades, reaching its peak in the 1940s and ‘50s, when British scientists developed highly-toxic nerve agents. Work on biological weapons also moved to this site, with deadly viruses created to kill military and civilian personnel.
However, in 1956 the British government renounced the development of chemical and biological weapons, which it hasn’t deployed since World War One. “For a very long time, the UK has not had or sought to have offensive chemical or biological capabilities,” Lyle explains. “The whole emphasis of our work [in that space] is around defending or protecting our troops and the British people from the threat of chemical or biological weapons.” This includes developing protective equipment such as suits or respirators for the armed forces, and the capability to detect chemical weapons. “It also includes countermeasures: vaccines and anti-toxins that you might deploy in the event of being threatened with a chemical agent,” says Lyle; DSTL partners with the Department of Health on some of this work.
Over the past few months, DSTL’s chemical weapons experts have supported the Foreign Office and the National Security Council by identifying nerve agents used in Syria. “We have been involved in testing samples from Syria, and reporting those results to the British government,” Lyle says. “That is something that relies on world-class science. There’s a temptation to think that testing is just like sending it down to Boots the chemist, but we can only do the testing that we’ve done in relation to the alleged used of sarin in Syria… because people have had the sense to invest in the equipment, the facilities and, most of all, the people trained in the skills and methods to detect these agents.”
What’s in a name?
As UK policy has evolved, so have the organisations based at Porton Down. The site had many different occupants – generally armed forces units or elements of larger research agencies – until 2001, when most defence research was privatised. Only the really sensitive bits were kept in the public sector, named DSTL and, Lyle explains, tasked with supplying specialist chemical and biological defences and very specific components of modern weaponry.
However, “the DSTL of today is very, very different” from that of 2001, he adds, having greatly expanded its remit and support for the MoD – notably in strategic, technical and frontline operations. In 2010, Lyle’s organisation was given responsibility for managing the entire £400m defence research budget, which it uses to “cover all of the challenges that the Ministry of Defence and the three armed services have”. It currently develops technologies for use in the air, land, sea, cyberspace, and against chemical and biological weapons.
Given the nascent technologies with which DSTL works, it must plan decades ahead for when they will be ready for deployment. “We’re thinking about the next defence review, and about what the Ministry of Defence is going to be needing in 2025 or 2030,” Lyle says. “The challenge is to be thinking about those technologies that are needed for the armed forces in the next campaign, not thinking back to the campaigns that we’ve just had.” As predictions about future warfare change, he adds, “we’ll see some reorientation in the things we choose to invest in”.
Cyber technologies are one of those priorities, he explains, while another is “autonomous systems” – devices that operate themselves without the need for a human controller – and their implications for the future of warfare. “Unmanned air vehicles, underwater vehicles, land vehicles – all these things present both opportunities and challenges,” Lyle comments.
Since 2001, DSTL has also developed a large analytics team, which supports ongoing intelligence work to understand other countries’ capabilities, and assists with military campaigns. DSTL staff are now deployed to frontline operations: a team of 20 is currently in Afghanistan, Lyle notes, “analysing what’s happening in the campaign day-to-day, then reaching back into the laboratory to invite our fantastic brains to come up with solutions and respond quickly.” As an example, he cites work to combat the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban.
DSTL’s in-house research has a highly-controversial history. In the 1950s, members of the armed forces were tricked into believing that they were helping to find a cure for the common cold – only to later discover that they’d been exposed to highly-toxic nerve agents. Some died as a result. “What happened in the 1950s is a very different time, and a long time ago,” Lyle says. “That’s something that’s very much in the past.”
Does DSTL still experiment on humans? “We do use human volunteers, for example in physiological work,” he replies. “A lot of our work in this area is on the burden experienced by soldiers. So we do a lot of work on body armour, but also clothing, protection and so on. We will use human volunteers to look at physiological strength: if you put someone on an exercise machine, how can we measure the impact on the soldier of the clothing they’re wearing, and the load they’re carrying?”
Is there a risk that people could die in these experiments? Lyle’s response seems to be broader than just the experiments using human volunteers: “Everything we do is very carefully controlled – health and safety is important in a laboratory – because we deal with some quite challenging areas, whether it’s explosives or understanding the effects of chemical or biological agents. These present us with some very real challenges, so everything we do is highly regulated by the Defence Safety and Environment Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, and we strive to meet the very highest standards in doing that, as well as in medical ethics.”
Does DSTL also experiment on animals? “Yes, it’s necessary for us to use animals in the experiments that we do. We always seek to minimise the use of animals, so we will explore every other way of understanding what we need to do through modelling, through simulation, but there are certain fields where the only way of understanding what needs to be done is by using animals,” he says. “The work is regulated by the Home Office, with a dedicated inspector, and is openly declared every year to that department.”
Lyle stresses, though, that “we’re not just doing this because we fancy doing this: we do it for a very real purpose, and that is primarily around safeguarding lives. So whether it is our soldiers in Afghanistan and giving them the body armour or the other protective kit that they need, or the way in which our work here has very significantly improved trauma surgery, so that far more people are surviving incidents in Afghanistan. All of that’s come around from the experimentation that we do.”
“Our role is to provide security for the UK,” he adds. “So all that work feeds the protection that we’re seeking to give our armed forces and the British public from threats that exist in the world today… We do it in a very highly regulated way, but with a very real purpose.”
While DSTL has a large programme of in-house research, “increasingly our role is about managing work externally,” Lyle says. “So of the £400m research programme that we manage on behalf of the MoD, some 60% of it – and an increasing proportion – is now flowing to companies, both large and small, and universities... We do that because we want to be working with the best people, and make sure we’re doing our research in the best place.”
“The challenge for us is that we’re a top secret laboratory – you’ve come through two fences to get here – and a lot of what we do is incredibly sensitive... but if we want to work with industry we have to communicate with them what we do.” Consequently, DSTL established the Centre for Defence Enterprise, which has a particular focus on finding potential suppliers among small and medium-sized businesses in areas where DSTL is seeking to expand its work. “If we have a particular challenge in countering improvised explosive devices, or needing a new sort of protection, we will describe that in unclassified terms and put out an open call to industry and academia.”
DSTL also “spins-out” its intellectual capital into the private sector. One company, P2i, uses waterproofing technology developed by DSTL to waterproof mobile phones and trainers. “That came out of our suits for chemical and biological defences – the impervious membranes we developed,” he says.
However, unlike with the Cabinet Office’s drive to encourage civil servants to leave the public sector in spin-off ‘mutuals’, DSTL is keen to hang on to its employees when it commercialises its technologies. “Our staff continue to work for us, but clearly we help make that [product’s] transition [into the private sector]. We have a specific company called Ploughshare Innovations, which is expert in doing this.” The companies can still regularly access the scientists who developed the technologies; they just don’t get to employ them.
Defence is one of many areas where budgets are experiencing a tight squeeze, as the MoD’s funds were over-committed even before the coalition cuts. And DSTL is expecting to have less money in five years’ time, because investment in science and technology is set at 1.2% of the reducing departmental budget.
DSTL will therefore have to be more careful in how it invests its money, Lyle says, but he doesn’t face the pressure to shed staff that other areas do. The same is true of public sector pay restrictions. Senior officials in the MoD have spoken out against Treasury pay rules, which they believe are preventing them from recruiting and retaining the best talent – especially in procurement. Lyle, however, was “able to seek a degree of flexibility from the Treasury, which meant that the pay deal announced a couple of months ago was better than people had been expecting.”
DSTL has some protection from civil service pay rules because it is a trading fund, and Lyle has powers delegated from ministers and the MoD permanent secretary. These rules don’t apply to all changes, though, such as pension reforms or time off, and he adds that “there is a risk that, as and when the economy picks up, there’ll be more people seeking to employ scientists and engineers, and at that point it could get harder to recruit and retain the people we need.”
Elsewhere in the MoD, other models are being examined to give greater flexibility to public sector organisations – most prominently at Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), which is moving towards a Government-owned, Contractor-operated (GoCo) model. What does Lyle think of that model, compared to his own? It’s probably not suited to DSTL in the current environment, he replies diplomatically: “I am very committed to the trading fund model: because of the work that we do, in particular in relation to international relationships, it has to be done by civil servants,” he says. “That’s something that continues to be tested, so every five years we go through a trading fund review. I’m sure that when the next one comes up in 2-3 years time, it will again ask the question, and every public sector organisation should continue to be tested about what is the right model.”
Lyle believes that DSTL’s operating model “works because it gives me the freedoms we need to operate – we manage our own capital works programme – and, because the work that we do is funded by our customers, quite unusually in government we have to persuade our customers to pay our invoices… [so this] creates a pretty strong focus on cost-consciousness and the way that time is managed.”
DSTL has been working with the people planning DE&S’s future, and has assisted in the formulation of a DE&S+ model, under which the organisation would become a trading fund rather than a Go-Co. “We’ve been able to explain to them how it works for us, and enables us to run a successful business within the public sector,” says Lyle.
An engineer’s view
Lyle’s fuzzy beard and academic air betray his roots as an engineer rather than as, say, a straight-backed sergeant major. He’s the MoD’s head of profession for science, and backs the department’s new emphasis on skills, learning and development. “For me, the future of the civil service is about having strong professions, which are externally accredited, and working together with strong leadership,” he says.
Like other civil service bodies employing a lot of specialist professionals, DSTL initially found working with training provider Civil Service Learning “quite challenging,” he says. But the organisation has now managed to create a new training model, and develop a network of scientists and engineers to share learning and skills across government. Indeed, Lyle is keen that DSTL overcome its remote location to feel like an integral part of the wider civil service. The new competency and performance management frameworks have given disparate civil service organisations a greater sense of unity, he believes.
The interview ends with Lyle proudly pointing out a testing range that stretches off into the distance. There’s a breeze blowing in my eyes, but I’m fairly sure I can see something resembling haystacks, and certainly the woods look very picturesque. This is scenery that was painted by Constable, after all.
Again, there’s that tension at the heart of DSTL: it’s a positive place in peaceful surroundings, but its technology could cause havoc and destruction, and predecessor bodies haven’t always acted responsibly. Equally, though, its current work in creating world-class defensive capabilities – and partnering with industry to do so – aims to ensure that, far beyond DSTL’s beautiful environs, Britain remains green, pleasant, prosperous and peaceful.