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Plea to scientists to help fight terror threats and future pandemics


By PA News

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The boss of the UK’s secret military laboratory has called on scientists to join the fight against terrorism and hostile states and help protect the country from future pandemics.

Doug Umbers, the head of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) based at Porton Down, near Salisbury, urged academics, researchers, inventors, engineers and anyone else working in science and technology to consider turning their attention to tackling threats to national security.

He asked those who had never before thought of working in defence, and on behalf of government, to take part in a summit on July 22 to see what opportunities were available.

In the rare public appeal, he said: “I am calling on each and every one of you to think about how your work contributes to keeping our families, friends, and communities secure, safe, and prosperous – and to consider working with the organisation I lead, Dstl, to supercharge that effort.”

Dstl is based at Porton Down near Salisbury, as well as other sites around the country (Ben Birchall/PA)
Dstl is based at Porton Down near Salisbury, as well as other sites around the country (Ben Birchall/PA)

Listing the “many” threats as anything from “hostile states and terrorist groups through to global challenges such as pandemics and climate change” in an open letter published on Monday, he added: “We cannot counter the threats of the future alone. The world is changing, and we are changing with it.”

The coronavirus pandemic had shown “in the starkest circumstances” the crucial role science and technology plays in keeping “our loved ones out of harm’s way” and, in developing a vaccine so quickly, “what we can achieve at breakneck speed when we work together”, he said.

His comments come amid the Government’s bid to make the UK a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, with the ability to “monitor, protect and defend” the country’s interests as part of a major review of foreign policy.

It also follows news that chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance will lead a new National Science and Technology Council tasked with ensuring the UK’s innovations are used for the benefit of the nation.

We need to harness the power of science, technology, engineering and innovation from across the private and academic sectors – from the individual inventor, to tech start-ups and beyond
Doug Umbers, Dstl

As part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Dstl works to provide Armed Forces and government with cutting-edge resources to tackle threats.

Plans for forthcoming projects include progressing work in artificial intelligence, cyber, space, robotics and looking for other inventions and advancements in science and technology.

Mr Umbers said: “We need to harness the power of science, technology, engineering and innovation from across the private and academic sectors – from the individual inventor, to tech start-ups and beyond.”

Last week the body announced a recruitment campaign over the coming months to hire 300 more top secret scientists as part of its efforts to counter threats from China and Russia.

In 2020 a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending over the next four years was announced.

As part of this, the MoD is investing £6 billion in research and development, including an extra £1 billion specifically on science and technology.

Founded in 1916, Porton Down’s expansive, high-security site in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside is the oldest chemical warfare research centre in the world.

There, Dstl’s highly trained scientists are – with strict safety measures in place – used to handling some of the most dangerous known substances such as Ebola, anthrax, the nerve agent Novichok and plague – all of which can kill.

Inside the corridors housing high-containment laboratories – split into four categories according to how hazardous the chemicals and pathogens inside are – staff have also turned their skills to tackling coronavirus.

Part of their work is to try to counter future threats from hostile states such as China and Russia.

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