Global Uncertainties Policy Workshop

26 June 2012


A few months ago, researchers successfully showed how the H5N1 bird flu virus could be mutated to spread from human to human, prompting heated debate over whether or not this should be published. Was this information so sensitive that its publication posed a serious threat to national security? Or was there a greater down-side in preventing its dissemination? A balance had to be struck between the risk of serving this information up to future bio-terrorists and stifling the opportunity for researchers to analyse the threat and develop counter-measures.

Questions like these illustrate the vital contribution that science has to make to national security, and the sometimes delicate interplay between scientists and policy-makers. They also link to the UK Research Councils’ Global Uncertainties (GU) Programme that addresses the cross-cutting, interdisciplinary and international nature of security challenges affecting us all.

On 13 June, at the Royal Society, CSaP Visiting Fellow Tristram Riley-Smith brought together leading academics and policy-makers to discuss the relationship between national security challenges and academic research.

The day was informed by a draft paper covering the Inquiry Phase of Tristram’s year-long Fellowship at Cambridge. Breakout groups assessed the findings to emerge from over 70 interviews with researchers and Government officials: in three lively sessions they discussed such diverse topics as the role of university-based Research Centres, Accelerators and Incubators in addressing national security challenges, how the Government can best commission research, and how to promote the best communication between scientists and policy-makers.

It was an exciting day packed with great ideas. "There is already evidence that the relationship between these two domains is changing," observed Robert Doubleday, CSaP’s Head of Research, “but this Fellowship is allowing stakeholders on both sides to shape its course”.

The report will be redrafted to reflect the guidance provided at the workshop, and circulated to key stakeholders including the National Security Council’s Science & Technology Committee and the Strategic Advisory Group of the GU Programme. Additionally, the report has identified a number of tasks for Tristram to pursue in the second half of his Fellowship, developing and testing mechanisms for improving engagement between the UK’s National Security community and academic research base.