Fears over UK's £10m terror plan

February 11, 2005

A £10 million-a-year Home Office drive to improve the UK's defences against chemical, biological or nuclear attack was branded "a travesty" this week.

Academics fear the UK could remain highly vulnerable to terrorism because the Government has failed to engage the best experts, has ploughed funds into businesses with vested interests and has failed to grasp the scientific issues at stake.

Scientists and industry representatives were invited to a secret meeting last month to bid for grants to examine problems such as mass public panics in the event of an attack, and to develop systems to detect weapons before and after they have been used.

Delegates have raised concerns about the Home Office approach. One bioscientist, who attended the meeting at the Victoria Hotel in London, said: "It was falsely secretive, poorly thought-out and inadequately administered. It is a travesty that public money should be (spent) in this way."

Other delegates said that despite government assurances that it was looking for "the best ideas from the best of UK science", there were too few academics at the event.

Among 269 delegates, there were 36 academics from 22 universities. The meeting was made up largely of private companies such as British Aerospace and defence and security company QinetiQ, as well as public laboratories such as the Institute for Animal Health.

One academic said the problem may have been compounded by the secrecy of the event. "I heard about it through a colleague," he said. "It's the sort of thing that could easily have slipped through and I'm sure there's plenty of people who weren't there who would have been interested."

Those attending the meeting were asked not to discuss the issues in public.

The Home Office is spending £10 million a year on research to "improve the UK's resilience to incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials".

The "bidders conference" focused on ten priority areas for improving Britain's defences, including agricultural terrorism, decontamination, detection and environmental protection.

One delegate said that the application process for funding was "bizarre" - first bids for the money will be made on a form amounting to one side of A4, which allows room for little more than one or two sentences to describe the proposed project.

A spokesman for the Home Office said the conference was "aimed at academia and industry" but it had been made clear that "off-the-shelf solutions were unlikely to be relevant".

The event had been advertised in specialist media, and through letters to the research councils and learned societies, and feedback was positive. He said 96 per cent of those completing assessment sheets reported that "they had gained satisfactory or better information about the Government's requirements."

He said the bidding process was designed to minimise bureaucracy for bidders at the first stage.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

 

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