U.K. marketBenefits and risks of close science-defense collaboration

Published 14 March 2008

This week was National Science and Engineering week in the United Kingdom — and the London events and exhibit emphasized the contribution scientists and engineers make to the defense of the kingdom; a venerable engineering magazine says we should be just a bit cautious here lest we turn the battlefield of the future into a publicly funded industrial testing ground, where commercial pressure would overwhelm the sober considerations of defense decision makers

Were you aware that this past week was National Science and Engineering week in the United Kingdom? Not to worry; We missed that one, too. To be fair, the initiative — formerly known as National Science Week — is perhaps aimed more at students than technology newsletters and engineering magazines, so we should hope that the organizers did a better profile-raising job in the U.K. schools and universities. The aim of the initiative is to engage the general public with the world of science and engineering, and it was exemplified by an event held mid-week at London’s National Army museum. Showcasing a range of technologies from underwater cats-eyes for marking mines to sensors for locating snipers, the event demonstrated how defense firms are drawing on science and technology to develop cutting-edge equipment for the armed forces. Opening proceedings, the government’s minister for defense equipment and support, Baroness Ann Taylor, celebrated the dialogue between industry and the armed forces that lay behind the development of many of the systems on show. Other speakers expanded on this theme, and pointed to a growing intimacy in this relationship which is seeing increasing numbers of defense industry engineers heading for the battlefield in an effort to better understand the needs of their end-users.

This makes sense. Whether developing vacuum cleaners for the elderly or portable computers for infantrymen, engineers should make every effort to understand their customers’ requirements. The venerable Engineer suggests, though, that in the murky world of the defense industry, a little bit of fresh air between business and the armed forces is not entirely undesirable (what was it that President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1961 farewell address about the emergence of a “military-industrial complex”?). The army, navy, and air force should be given the breathing space to work with and evaluate technology without an arms dealer looking over their shoulder the whole time. If the balance of this relationship is allowed to tip too decisively in industry’s favor, the battlefield of the future could become a publicly funded industrial testing ground, where the commercial pressure to use new technology clouds military decision making and drives up the already astronomical economic cost of the U.K. military activities.