The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy marks a critical shift in the way departments will collaborate over national security.
Unlike past statements (1998, 2003, 2010 and 2015), this version goes far beyond plans for defence equipment and troop numbers, covering everything from 'bombs' to biodiversity. In other words, it's taking into account how securing defences with military capability and diplomacy is of little value if a society can be brought to its knees by climate change, community breakdowns, cyber-crime or a pandemic. Now, explicitly, the National Security Risk Assessment process and National Risk Register will take into account the essential interdependence of risks.
It’s a step change towards ‘connected resilience’ that should be applauded. In principle it finally allows for the kinds of trans-disciplinary, multi-domain projects that could be blocked by departmental funding silos and specialisms. Defence interests and funding have tended to be kept separate from business, from the environment, from health. Ambitious ‘blue-sky’ research with real potential in terms of building connected resilience had nowhere to go.
The review has made R&D central to its future vision of national security, announcing at least £6.6bn of investment up to 2025 for defence, plus a further £695m for security and intelligence. The breadth and depth of UK higher education and its interdisciplinary expertise will increasingly be an important source of 'whole society' insights and knowledge. It will also be needed when it comes to the evolution of policy in line with the new domains of warfare in space and cyberspace, how data and information have become weapons of war.
From the perspective of higher education, while there is excitement at the potential for funding, greater engagement and impact, there are some problems when it comes to involvement in government-related defence and security projects. Traditionally, government has found it hard to engage with academia in these fields and vice-versa. There can be a basic mismatch in terms of needs, interests and ways of working. Higher education institutions can find that routes to defence funding can be obscure, a maze best only traversed by specialists; and the work funded by the Ministry of Defence or Home Office is likely to be confidential and so, of course, of no value for the publications record of academics. It was with this situation in mind that the Academic-RISC (Resilience and Security Community) Group was set up in 2014 in order to help demystify the workings and rules of national security research, what the actual needs and opportunities are, how to work together.
The connected, 'whole society' approach means a level of opening up of work and discussions over national security. And as more UK universities become involved in these most sensitive of research fields, there is the potential for more risk of unintentional breaches of confidentiality. On both sides, among departments and academic partners, there will need to be greater understanding of sensitivities and codes of behaviour and practice. The obvious dangers were exposed in February this year by reports of a government investigation into how university research into aircraft, missiles and surveillance may have been inadvertently ‘sold’ to China’s military for use in WMD programmes and suppression of minority groups.
The review has demonstrated progressive thinking on where the issues are, the direction of travel. What’s needed in order for the best solutions to be found, for the government to access the best of higher education expertise, is more effective, collaborative partnerships. Civil servants and their departments telling higher education and industry what to do isn’t partnership. The practice cuts off a source of valuable thinking, a diversity of informed perspectives and challenge.
Traditionally what’s happened is that higher education and industry have been given a problem, asked to go away and solve it. The best results will always come from spending more time making sure the questions being asked are the right ones. Major projects of all kinds fail because of a lack of early conversations about outcomes, a lack of flexibility, a fixation with narrow objectives (maybe just thinking in terms of time and budget) over the bigger, underlying needs of a society. Not just how do we produce a better new submarine as an objective; but what are submarines for? How do we prevent the need for more submarines and at the same time, limit the impact on the marine environment?
Such a broad minded approach is signalled by the integrated review. These now needs to be a culture of understanding and partnership that will make the new vision live up to its potential.
Dr Simon Harwood is the director of defence and security at Cranfield University