Last year’s novichok attacks in Salisbury brought global threats to the doorstep of the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Chief executive Gary Aitkenhead tells Richard Johnstone how it is responding to the changing world
Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
As CSW pulls into Salisbury station on the way to interview Defence Science and Technology Laboratory chief executive Gary Aitkenhead, a familiar announcement rings out on the train. “If you see anything that doesn’t look right, please tell a member of staff or report it to British Transport Police. We’ll sort it,” goes the message. “See it, say it, sorted.”
The safety announcement carries extra significance in Salisbury, where a novichok attack last March hospitalised Sergei and Yulia Skripal and the discarded container – it is believed – poisoned the British couple Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, leading to Sturgess’s death. The voiceover also underlines the fact that DSTL’s role in helping to protect the country is wider than many people realise.
“If you hear ‘see it, say it, sorted’ on the train, most people wouldn’t know we had anything to do with that,” Aitkenhead says. “But we had a behavioural psychologist look at how people behave with audio announcements and do all the analysis and evaluate alternatives.”
This demonstrates that the areas in which DSTL works across government goes “beyond the traditional ships, planes and tanks that you would normally associate with defence,” Aitkenhead says.
DSTL has long had a critical role in these traditional military areas, having been formed as the War Department Experimental Station in 1916 on the Porton Down site near Salisbury. Recent military projects include the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers and F-35 fighter jets, as well as in areas like forensic analysis, including on chemical weapons – which put it on newspaper front pages following the novichok attack.
But its wider focus on ensuring that innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK means its role is changing as the nation faces new threats. In its annual report, DSTL identified four key challenges for defence and security – including the erosion of the rules-based international order, an increasing threat from terrorism and cyber threats, and a resurgence of state-based threats.
Aitkenhead joined DSTL in December 2017 after a career in the technology sector, mostly with Motorola – where he rose to be vice president of global managed services. “You only need to read the newspaper and you can see how the nature of defence and security is changing very quickly,” he tells CSW, adding that technology is increasingly important.
“Those that would seek to do harm to our country have access to technology that they never had before. So the threat becomes much more sophisticated, which means that we need to keep up and we need to stay ahead.”
Aitkenhead acknowledges he “didn’t really know much about DSTL” before his appointment, but after a year getting to know the organisation as its chief executive, he is developing plans to ensure DSTL is fit to meet these challenges.
“In some ways I expected a slow moving, maybe rather bureaucratic environment, but DSTL is a modern environment, working on really cutting-edge research”
He was approached for the top role by headhunters and was intrigued by his match with an organisation where there were “scientists and engineers working across the full spectrum of technology, doing just about everything you can imagine”.
“My initial reaction, because I’ve always worked in the private sector, was that it wasn’t in my plan to work in government or to be within the civil service, so that’s probably not something I’m interested in. It’s only when I learned more about the organisation and the people, and the things that it was doing, that I thought: this could be actually very interesting.
“And it’s certainly true that in the year that I’ve been here, my enthusiasm for being in this job has increased and increased as I see the great work that we do here, and see more clearly how that work can really have a major impact in addressing the threats and the challenges that we see.”
And what a remarkable and tragic 12 months it has been, with the novichok attacks making for what he acknowledges has been “a baptism of fire”.
Aitkenhead says that as the gravity of the situation became apparent, staff couldn’t believe that this was happening so close to DSTL’s own Porton Down headquarters, which is just seven miles from Salisbury.
Then only four months into the job, Aitkenhead “had to rely on the professionalism of my staff and that was there in large measures”.
“I made sure I asked lots of questions and looked at different angles to enable me to make good decisions and sound judgements. At the end of the day you do your best in a complex and rapidly changing environment which isn’t completely under your control. So yes, it was challenging.”
DSTL’s initial priority was to determine what the substance was, to advise the hospital and other emergency services treating the Skripals, and to support the police investigation. “We were shocked when scientists determined it was novichok,” Aitkenhead says. “This was something we never expected to see used on UK soil.”
Staff at DSTL were personally affected by the attack, he says, as they were living in the affected community. “It became very personal for the people who were involved in the incident, in fact for everyone at DSTL.
“The scale and complexity of this incident was unprecedented,” he adds. “We provided scientists on the ground and we were running a 24/7 operations incident room.
“Following the immediate rapid response, we had more than 300 people working on this 24/7 for the first three weeks. The commitment from our people was fantastic. People really wanted to be involved and do their bit.”
Then, as DSTL was supporting the Salisbury recovery and beginning to look at some of the lessons learned, they were thrust back into a crisis situation when Rowley and Sturgess handled a contaminated container – believed to have been a perfume bottle.
“This was not at all what we expected would happen,” Aitkenhead says, “but the lab responded quickly, meeting the challenges that were presented.
“I was shocked and saddened by Dawn Sturgess’ death. I know that all of the staff here were dismayed that someone lost their life in this attack. Throughout all of this, the victims of this terrible attack were in our thoughts.”
Staff at DSTL also had to respond to the Manchester Arena and Parsons Green train bombings in 2017, when they provided forensic evaluation of what substances had been used.
These incidents have emphasised the importance of DSTL’s relationships across government, Aitkenhead says.
“I think our existing strong relationships with many departments and agencies across government helped us. We have embedded scientific advisers in each of the major government departments, who were able to make sure we had a coordinated response and that we were providing the right information to the right people. This ensured consistency across those government agencies and emergency services partners.
“We worked closely with lots of government departments following the novichok incident and we received visitors including the prime minister, defence secretary and the environment secretary, who came to see first-hand the support that we were providing. This gave us an opportunity to talk about our wider capabilities beyond our chemical and biological expertise.”
Aitkenhead now wants to focus on ensuring DSTL has the agility needed to tackle these threats.
“Our biggest challenge as an organisation is really the pace of change of technology. We’ve got a long history of working with the military so we understand the environment very well,” he says.
“But we need to get faster on cyber, get faster on artificial intelligence [and] machine learning – some of these new and evolving technologies that are moving at pace are not the things that we’ve always worked on as an organisation. So my challenge is: how do we make sure that we’ve got the skill sets and that we’re moving fast enough in order to stay ahead?”
The organisation can be very agile, as demonstrated by the Salisbury incident, but the challenge is to maintain the same urgency and pace when there isn’t an emergency.
“It became very personal for the people who were involved in the incident, in fact for everyone at DSTL. The scale and complexity of this incident was unprecedented”
One of the ways Aitkenhead is seeking to do this is by widening the places in which DSTL looks for new skills, in order to harness the inventiveness of industry and commercial enterprises. Such an approach helps remind the organisation that “if we don’t become more agile we will get left behind”, he says.
“So rather than assuming that we are going to have all the skills and all the expertise in-house, we have to increasingly have networks and partnerships with industry and universities and take the ideas that they are generating and bring them in and make them useful for defence. About half of the research that we do is subcontracted out to industry and to universities, and we need to keep doing that and do more of that in order to get access to the best technology that exists, [which is] probably outside the four walls of DSTL.”
A move to “taking other people’s inventions” will represent quite a shift for DSTL, which has been “used to inventing everything in house” at Porton Down for over 100 years.
Indeed, given the long standing links to the military at its base – “we have got about 60 or 70 military advisers who are embedded here at DSTL for two or three years [at a time], so if you walk around you’ll see people in uniform” – would Aitkenhead and his colleagues identify primarily as civil servants?
“I think everybody here recognises themselves as part of the civil service, but DSTL has a unique culture of its own, and various parts of DSTL that have of grown up over that hundred years have a strong identity. There’s a very strong collaborative culture of people working together.
“But there are absolutely linkages that we have into many parts of government. And a lot of people have moved on from DSTL into other government departments. I keep running into people who proudly tell me, ‘I used to work at DSTL once’ and now they are working in policy at the Home Office or the Foreign Office and that’s a good thing. It’s pleasing to me to see that people who learned the early parts of their careers here have gone on to do all sorts of things across government. They say with pride that they feel some kind of affinity towards DSTL, which says something about the culture of the place.”
Aitkenhead admits he has been surprised by this culture but is now clear about his plans after his turbulent introduction.
“In some ways I expected a slow moving, maybe rather bureaucratic environment, but DSTL is a modern environment, with engineers and scientists working on really cutting-edge research.”
His aim is now to build on that so the agency is recognised as the centre of excellence for defence and security technology. “Anybody across government who is thinking ‘I’ve got a security or a defence problem, I need some help’, I would like them to think of DSTL as the go-to place. That’s what I’d like us to be – and I’d like us to be a bit more agile.”
Aitkenhead, who has spent half of his career as an engineer and the other half in sales and business leadership, says he has always been driven by “seeing technology being put into people’s hands to do something useful”. At DSTL, he says, “here’s a chance to work in a technology organisation to really help address the significant challenges that defence and security faces. That’s quite an interesting place to be.”