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More money for defence research, say MPs

Government's top boffin disagrees

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The Commons defence committee today released a report on Blighty's defence-tech research efforts, warning that there are several areas of concern.

Committee chairman James Arbuthnot, a long-time cheerleader for the UK's defence industry, was quoted by the BBC as saying: "The government cannot just rely on industry to fund research, but must itself invest for the future."

Presumably, industry would only get involved when it's time to exploit the government research and make profits off it, for instance by exporting the resulting kit to Saudi Arabia.

The committee members broadly supported this stance, with the report concluding that "the UK is second equal with France in terms of its global standing in defence research. However, we are concerned that the gap between the UK and the US in defence research will continue to widen. This could leave the UK trailing further and further behind the US and losing its current position to other nations which are increasing their investment in defence research".

It wasn't immediately clear which nations these might be, certainly not from evidence contained in the report. According to the data supplied, the UK spends more on defence research than all other nations except the US and Russia, and it is accepted that Russia is well behind the UK technologically despite its greater funding. China is more often seen as a future threat by defence analysts, but Britain already spends 25 per cent more on defence research than the People's Republic.

Furthermore, Professor Sir Roy Anderson, the government's number-one boffin, disagreed fairly categorically with the MPs over the need to increase government research spending.

"We asked whether the UK needed to spend more to maintain its position," the committee reported. "The chief scientific advisor thought 'not at the moment'."

Despite the fact that Prof Anderson presumably knows a fair bit about science and technology research, the MPs effectively told him to shut up and do as he was told.

"We look to the chief scientific adviser and to the MoD Ministers to make a strong case for an increase in the investment in defence research in the current Spending Review."

The review they allude to is the ongoing desperate attempt to sort out the MoD's budget crisis. With leaks suggesting that procurement plans for the next decade may total at least £12bn more than the likely funds, something's going to have to give: perhaps new kit, perhaps front-line combat units, perhaps pay or pensions.

Arbuthnot and the committee seem determined that whatever does go, it shouldn't be free tech research for the UK weapons industry. ®

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