Promoting Science and Technology for Tackling Terrorism – UK Government Approaches for Harnessing Innovation

In August the government launched its Science and Technology Strategy[1] and invited academics and industry to submit ideas and inventions which could help counter terrorism. So far the response has been very positive. Many of the ideas have been exciting and innovative and it is hoped will be applicable to the counter-terrorism market. Further submissions will be invited from companies and research establishments to promote innovation in this area of technology and put the UK’s renowned expertise to use in the field of counter-terrorism.

Terrorist organisations exploit modern technology in a number of ways, from using the Internet to reach a global audience for propaganda or radicalisation purposes, or by using advances in improvised explosives to make their attacks more deadly. Countering the activities of technically aware terrorists relies on the government having superior capabilities. Hence the techniques and equipment the government use to pursue those involved in terrorism, prevent radicalisation, protect our infrastructure and prepare for an attack need to be as advanced as possible. To stay one step ahead, the government is working on maximising the exploitation of science and technology in order to realise the benefits of new developments.

Three Priorities

To ensure the government achieves this, the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism launched the UK Science and Technology Strategy for Countering International Terrorism last year. The strategy is a subsidiary of CONTEST and has three objectives. The first of these is to use horizon-scanning to understand future scientific and technical threats, and opportunities and to inform the government’s decision-making on counter-terrorism. Such work is needed to understand which technologies currently under development are likely to pose a threat or provide a solution. Simply carrying out general scanning exercises is not enough. It is essential that the early signs of a technology coming to fruition are recognised so that the government has time to respond. The strategy makes identifying these triggers a priority.

The second objective is to ensure the development and delivery of effective counter-terrorism solutions by identifying and sharing priority science and technology requirements. As there are many different departments working in the counter-terrorism sphere, there are also many competing requirements that might be addressed by using science or technology. Prioritising these requirements is not an easy task but mechanisms have been set up over the past few years to ensure that the government understands which challenges are the key priorities. This has allowed it to work with industry, small and medium enterprises, and academia to ensure that they know what is needed and understand how they create an avenue to market for their products.

The final objective of the strategy is to enhance international collaboration on counter-terrorism-related science and technology. Since modern terrorism is by nature international, the need for an international response is obvious. Collaboration between agencies in the UK and their counterparts overseas is vital to the overall delivery of CONTEST and to the science and technology aspects in particular. The technology necessary to counter terrorism will not just be developed in the UK, thus a co-ordinated approach to counter-terrorism research will optimise the government’s resources in the long term. The bulk of this work will be in partnership with the US and the EU. However, the UK Government is committed to looking more widely for science and technology that may help meet shared objectives.

Enhancing Communication

The strategy signals a new way of communicating with industry and academia; committing to a series of brochures which discuss aspects of counter-terrorism in a way that is accessible to industry and academia. Although security will always be an issue, it is possible to outline the main challenges without revealing classified information. This is clearly demonstrated in the first of these brochures, which was published alongside the strategy. In ‘Ideas and innovation: How industry and academia can play their part’,[2] the government outlines its key challenges, vital technologies and the various routes to market. To ensure movement beyond the defence industries, the brochure has been sent to bodies that represent industries not normally associated with counter-terrorism including health, finance and construction. The brochure has also been sent directly to academic institutions to ensure the government engages broadly with the cutting edge of technology development. Future brochures will cover the work of the social and behavioural sciences in counter-terrorism and how science can help against chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive terrorism.

The benefits of this approach go beyond protection from the terrorist threat. Science and technology are important drivers of the UK economy; and making the UK a world leader in counter-terrorist technology will help promote the development of products in other spheres. It will also stimulate a strong international market in UK security products which the government is committed to promoting (within appropriate export controls).

In addition to its objectives, the strategy outlines key challenges which are a subset of those discussed in CONTEST itself. The four challenges discussed in detail in the industry brochure are protecting the national infrastructure, reducing the vulnerability of crowded places, protecting against cyber-terrorism and improving analytical tools. These areas can be primarily addressed through the application of the physical sciences but, as mentioned above, the next brochure will explore the contribution of the social and behavioural sciences as well.

The primary aim of this strategy is to encourage industry and academia to apply the UK’s renowned security expertise to the counter-terrorism market, by clearly explaining what the government needs and how it can be provided. This is a tremendous opportunity for companies and research establishments and I look forward to seeing the results.

Lord West
Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Security and Counter-terrorism


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