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The government’s creation of a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is welcome so long as national security plays a leading part in its agenda.
Last November we argued that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ambition to address international technology threats first requires ‘setting a clear direction at home’. His government’s recent move to establish the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) could mark an important step in that direction.
Formed from a now slimmed-down Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), DSIT has received a warm reception from technology leaders and is intended to ‘spur stronger growth, better jobs and bold new discoveries’. An immediate issue, however, has been the silence around how defence and national security will feature in its activities. While a focus on prosperity makes sense as the UK teeters on the brink of recession, heightened geopolitical tensions emphasise the continued need for both security technologies and secure technologies.
With a general election anticipated in 2024, DSIT needs to deliver at pace across complex critical issues if it is to generate sufficient support to persist under a new government. Otherwise, the costs and efforts associated with rejigging departments will be wasted, and the momentum DCMS has built up on cyber security and technology issues could falter.
RUSI’s event series on Advanced Technology and Economic Resilience convened leading experts to address UK technology, prosperity and security priorities. From these discussions, key security-relevant areas were identified for DSIT to consider as it takes a leading role in UK science and technology (S&T).
The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have highlighted UK dependencies on international supply chains. These dependencies are particularly acute for advanced technologies such as telecommunications and semi-conductors, where producers are concentrated in countries which pose a ‘systemic challenge’ to the UK. Such dependence risks the UK having its access to advanced technologies limited as part of international competition, its products compromised by hostile threat actors, and missing out on the economic and social benefits associated with novel S&T.
DSIT should take a leading role in structuring government procurement of advanced technologies and elaborate a more strategic approach to international technology supply chains for the UK
It is not obvious, however, how the UK can alleviate its advanced technology dependencies. One path is sovereign capability – essentially, end-to-end control of procurement and production. While this certainly mitigates risks from globalised supply chains, such capabilities are challenging to develop. They require time, expertise across multiple sectors, diverse industries and resources, and of course significant funds – all while existing supply chains remain relatively cheap and convenient. Thus, it is neither feasible nor affordable for the UK to reach full sovereign capability across all advanced technologies.
Instead, the new DSIT should advance policies which mitigate risks from advanced technology supply chains and support both economic and security objectives. DSIT should take a leading role in structuring government procurement of advanced technologies and elaborate a more strategic approach to international technology supply chains for the UK. This should be based on the ‘own-collaborate-access’ framework put forward in the Integrated Review, which represents a strong baseline but requires further elaboration. Additionally, DSIT should build on the previous good work of DCMS, for example in establishing baseline cyber security standards. In this regard, DSIT must continue to finalise the update of the Security of Network and Information Systems regulation, which is now set to also impose mandatory cyber security standards on managed service providers such as incident response services. DSIT must also advance the proposed Product Security Bill to improve security of smart consumer products.
Above all else, DSIT must deliver the government’s long-awaited national semiconductor strategy, which was scheduled for publication last autumn. While the UK has delayed, the EU and US already have semiconductor strategies in place, pledging billions to build resilience across their supply chains, including through agreements that exclude the UK. Now that political stability has begun to return to Westminster, DSIT’s ministers have the space to push semiconductors up the agenda across Whitehall and publish the strategy.
It is key that any future UK policy agenda on S&T put forward by DSIT also includes an understanding that international standards bodies (ISBs) are fundamental to international competition and national security. Setting standards through ISBs allows states to secure economic advantages, achieve international influence, promote their values agenda, and demonstrate strength across technology R&D. Ensuring common standards further ensures interoperability, minimising wastage from duplicated production or development and maximising benefits from global supply chain efficiencies.
China, as part of its Standards 2035 strategy, has successfully built influence across ISBs. For instance, Chinese officials sit at the head of strategically important bodies including the International Telecommunications Union and the International Electrotechnical Commission. Moreover, Chinese companies – most notably Huawei – engage extensively with ISBs, and Chinese patent and trademark registrations are world-leading by quantity. In contrast, the UK and its allies have historically deprioritised ISBs. This has had negative consequences as geostrategic competition is increasingly played out through advanced technologies. Departmental restructuring must not undermine the government’s recent acknowledgement of the importance of ISBs, spearheaded by the DCMS Digital Standards team – which is now presumably a part of DSIT.
While it remains early days for DSIT, it is paramount that the new department immediately makes the decisive link between technology and national security
Under its new mandate, DSIT should therefore lean into ISB engagement, taking a fundamentally international outlook to furthering its five ‘technologies of tomorrow’ – AI, quantum, bioengineering, future telecoms and semiconductors – as well as life sciences and green technology. To achieve this objective, it will need to have in-house resources and to work closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British Standards Institute – but more importantly, it must engage extensively with research communities across the private sector and academia. By incentivising and enabling these groups to engage with ISBs, the ambition of UK influence over international standards becomes a whole-of-society endeavour.
Clarifying Cross-Government Roles and Responsibilities
The government has launched several other entities focused on S&T in recent years, each with varying levels of attention to security. Of most relevance is the National Security and Technology Council (NSTC), a cabinet committee established in 2022 and chaired by the prime minister. The NSTC is ostensibly responsible for ‘driving an ambitious UK science and technology strategy’, but how this might change in light of the creation of DSIT remains unclear.
DSIT’s secretary of state should be empowered to lead cross-government efforts in S&T. To do so, they must have sufficient resources and competences to drive an agenda and be able to offer key incentives to motivate inter-departmental activities. These broader efforts must be complemented by deepened technical knowledge. To get this balance right, DSIT must therefore recruit and develop specialist, rather than generalist, civil servants. Encouraging and supporting expertise within the department will better inform DSIT’s decision-making and, through secondments to other departments, could support efforts to coordinate cross-Whitehall activities.
Of most concern is that DSIT and wider restructuring efforts will disrupt the positive momentum across various areas of S&T and cyber security. Expending significant energies on bureaucratic changes this late in a parliament risks undermining the delivery of those strategic priorities that are already in place.
While it remains early days for DSIT, it is paramount that the new department immediately makes the decisive link between technology and national security. A government approach to S&T cannot exist separately from national security priorities, just as it is not distinct from economic ambitions. Taking this approach from day one will ensure DSIT can best achieve the holistic objective of improving the UK’s S&T power.
This commentary builds on a conference series held by RUSI as part of the Advanced Technology and Economic Resilience project. It feeds into other ongoing work within the Technology and National Security Programme.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Pia Hüsch
Research Analyst for Cyber, Technology and National Security