Call to arms

Mark Welland's new role as the Ministry of Defence's Chief Scientific Adviser is, he says, a 'massive job'. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 17, 2008

Mark Welland has plenty of experience when it comes to managing large research budgets, but it is understandable that even he would be slightly nervous about his new job: advising on how £2.6 billion a year is spent on military science and technology.

"It is a massive job and there aren't many like it in the UK, frankly," said Professor Welland, speaking to Times Higher Education only 24 hours into the post. "I am delighted ... (but) it is nerve-racking, of course it is."

The job to which Professor Welland, a professor of nanotechnology at the University of Cambridge, has been appointed is Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. It is indeed a massive job, not least because the MoD has the largest research and development budget of any government department. As of last week, he replaced Sir Roy Anderson, who has returned to Imperial College London, pending his appointment as its new rector in June.

As is usual for CSAs, Professor Welland will divide his time between the department and his own work, heading the the Cambridge nanoscience group. The time split between the MoD and Cambridge is now being negotiated and he describes both as being "incredibly supportive" in ensuring his research activities continue to flourish.

His appointment comes at a difficult time for science at the MoD. A review by his predecessor, released last October, concluded that the department's R&D had "no unifying vision or clear strategic direction", and it has come in for heavy criticism from MPs on the Commons Defence Committee for not spending enough.

Professor Welland, however, is not deterred. "It is a very good reason to be in this job," he said. Ensuring that science fully supports the armed services is one of the "generic challenges", he said. Others he identifies include improving engagement with academia and industry; attracting the best scientists and engineers to the MoD and making the UK globally competitive in the field.

"R&D is fundamental to the business of the MoD ... so it is crucial that it is efficiently managed, carried out to the very highest standards and engages substantially with industry and academia so that (for the UK) it really is a world-leading research activity," he said.

As to whether the new job poses any ethical issues, Professor Welland acknowledged that being involved with defence is something some people find "ethically difficult".

"All I can say is that, of course, I have thought about it. We all make ethical decisions all the time in our own lives and one has to balance ethical decisions with broader issues ... everybody has a personal choice."

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