The Future of the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent - the UK manufacturing and skills base: SGR Response

Submission to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, November 2006
 

About SGR

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) is an independent UK membership organisation of approximately 850 science, design and technology professionals. Our main aim is to promote and support science, design and technology which contributes to social justice, environmental sustainability and the reduction of conflict. The issues raised by the potential replacement of UK nuclear weapons and the related skills base as outlined in the call for evidence obviously have strong links with these concerns.

 

Executive Summary

The focus of this submission is the impact that a decision to replace Trident could have on the UK science and technology skills base. We provide evidence of the shrinking skills base in science and technology in the UK and then discuss it in the context of three issues:

  1. the extent to which the military use of science and technology resources (both skills and funds) can and does compete with urgent civilian uses;

  2. the low level of employment generated per unit of investment in military programmes compared with civilian programmes;

  3. the extent to which military involvement with science and technology can adversely affect the public image of science and technology and so undermine recruitment and retention.

We conclude that a decision to replace Trident will have a significant and detrimental impact on the UK's ability to maintain the science and technology skills base needed in order to support the civilian economy. In particular, we are concerned that this problem will seriously undermine the UK's attempts to play its role in tackling global issues such as climate change and energy insecurity.

One specific recommendation we make in the context of this argument is the need to carry out a detailed economic assessment which compares the job creation potential for any Trident replacement programme with those in skilled civilian sectors, e.g. energy efficiency or renewable energy technology.

We also make brief comment on the current expansion of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), and express serious concerns that this is significantly beyond what is necessary for "stockpile stewardship".

 

Main Submission

1. Introduction

The Defence Committee has called for evidence regarding the UK manufacturing and skills base in relation to the future of the country's nuclear weapons.

Much of the evidence already submitted to this inquiry has examined the question of how to find enough skilled employees both to keep the option of Trident replacement open and, should the government decide in favour of this, to carry out this replacement. Meanwhile, other submissions have argued against Trident replacement on the grounds of morality and/or international security. In this submission, however, we examine the issue from a somewhat different direction. We look at the implications for the overall science and technology skills base for the UK if the government decides to retain nuclear weapons.

In short, our argument is that we believe that a Trident replacement decision will have a significant and detrimental impact on the UK's ability to maintain the science and technology skills base needed in order to support the civilian economy. In particular, we are concerned that this problem will seriously undermine the UK's attempts to play its role in tackling global issues such as climate change and energy insecurity.

 

2. Current concerns over science and technology skills shortages

Both government and industry are very concerned about the availability of science and engineering skills across the economy both now and in the future. This is reflected in many policy initiatives, not least the current science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) programme which is aimed at increasing the numbers of students taking these subjects [1].

One principle reason for this concern is the falling numbers of UK undergraduate students studying many of the STEM subjects as shown in Table 1.

 

3. Concerns related to the expansion of military use of skilled employees

SGR believes that three very important factors related to the issue of military skills are rarely raised in these discussions and should be. They are:

  1. the extent to which the military use of science and technology resources (both skills and funds) can and does compete with urgent civilian uses;

  2. the low level of employment generated per unit of investment in military programmes compared with civilian programmes;

  3. the extent to which military involvement with science and technology can adversely affect the public image of science and technology and so undermine recruitment and retention.

3.1. Competition with civilian science and technology

Probably the most important civilian areas where military industry, including a Trident replacement programme, might compete for skills and resources are those areas related to tackling climate change. For example, graduates in the physical sciences, maths and all the main engineering subjects are needed by the low carbon energy sectors (such as renewable energy) as well as in military industry. This section looks at the potential for competition.

Senior policy-makers and scientists all acknowledge the huge threat of climate change and the importance of taking urgent steps to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause it. For example, in the wake of the recent Stern review, Tony Blair said the consequences for failing to curb emissions were "literally disastrous" [5]. Meanwhile Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof David King, has gone further, saying "climate change is the most severe problem that we face today - more serious even than the threat of terrorism" [6]. It is also acknowledged that reducing the threat of climate change, and by implication reducing our use of fossil fuels, could have security benefits, e.g. less potential for conflict over diminishing supplies of fresh water or crude oil.

However, the Labour government's efforts to control UK GHG emissions have only led to quite limited overall reductions - with carbon dioxide emissions now actually greater than they were when Labour came to power in 1997 [7].

One significant reason why the UK is failing to achieve sufficient emissions reduction is especially relevant to the discussion on skills: a lack of government spending on research, development and demonstration (RD&D) of low carbon technologies. Despite being warned by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1999 [8] about the low level of funding in this area, especially of renewable energy, the government has only made modest increases since that time. For example, the most recent statistics show the government spent only £37 million on renewable energy RD&D in 2005 [9] - little more than 1% of the Ministry of Defence's R&D spending that year.

However, in the last year, there have been several UK initiatives to change the situation. Perhaps most significant was the Energy Review which laid out a range of policies and measures to reduce GHG emissions in the energy sector. Also significant in this context was the announcement of the Energy Technologies Institute, whereby the government will provide £500 million over ten years for R&D on low carbon technologies, with matching funding to come from industry [10].

Interestingly, even before these initiatives were announced, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) projected that employment in the renewable energy sector could, given supportive enough policies, expand from 8,000 jobs in 2004 to up to 35,000 by 2020 [11]. The expansion of other energy sectors favoured by government during the same period, for example, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power (fission and fusion), would also lead to a high demand for skilled workers.

Even without a decision on Trident replacement, these sectors face stiff competition for skills (and the resources to support those skills) from the military industrial sector. This is illustrated by the UK Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS), released in 2005 [12], and its sister volume, the Defence Technology Strategy (DTS), released in October of this year [13]. These documents detail the extensive government efforts to further utilise science and technology skills and resources in the military sector. No equivalent civilian sector benefits from such strategic government support.

Another illustration of the advantage held by military industry comes from the nuclear weapons sector itself. The recent increases in funding for the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) took its 2005/06 budget to £493 million [14]. This single year figure is nearly as high as the government contribution over ten years for the Energy Technologies Institute discussed above.

Hence, there are major concerns about skills shortages across science and technology, the DIS and related efforts represent a major effort to expand the use of such skills in the military industrial sector, and we have an urgent need to move to a low carbon economy which is critically dependent on such skills. Even without Trident replacement, SGR is extremely concerned that there would not be enough skilled labour to go around. With Trident replacement, we think it very likely that skills shortages will be serious. Furthermore, we think it likely that the military would be in a position to exert its influence over the labour market - through, for example, the promise of higher wages and more technically advanced facilities - to ensure that it was the civilian sector which bore the brunt of any shortages. This could have serious repercussions on UK efforts to tackle climate change, not to mention the country's attempts to improve energy security.

 

3.2. Employment generated by military projects

Some advocates of Trident replacement cite employment generation as one of the arguments to support their case. However, the military industrial sector in general is very capital-intensive, and nuclear weapons technology especially so, hence the employment benefits of public investment are not as high as many other parts of the economy.

This is illustrated by economic research from the USA which suggests that the unit cost of each military job is greater than other sectors [15]. The study estimated that for each billion dollars spent on military procurement 25,000 jobs were created, while the same figure created 30,000 jobs in public transport, 36,000 in housing and 41,000 in education.

The situation for Trident replacement is likely to be significantly worse. For example, building new nuclear weapons-capable submarines would be very capital-intensive. With a rolling programme for four replacement submarines, each one costing in the region of £1 billion [16], maintaining a shipyard workforce (almost certainly at Barrow) of only about 10,000 employees, it is hard to see how this could be considered effective in job creation terms.

In contrast, a sector such as building energy efficiency, which needs to be expanded rapidly in order to reduce GHG emissions and improve energy security, has very good job creation potential because it is not very capital-intensive.

No economic assessment seems to have been carried out to date comparing the job creation costs for any Trident replacement programme with those in skilled civilian sectors, e.g. energy efficiency or renewable energy technology. We therefore believe it essential that such an assessment is carried out before any decisions on Trident are made.

 

3.3. Perception of military science and technology

There has been a lot of discussion recently on which factors might be to blame for the decline of students taking physical sciences, maths and engineering as discussed earlier. Suggested factors include:

  • these subjects are considered boring or 'geeky' by students;
  • the quality of teaching has declined;
  • the resources available for teaching have declined;
  • the potential for better pay is higher if other subjects are studied (e.g. financial, management or media studies).

One possibility that is little acknowledged is the degree to which the public image of science and technology may be tainted because many of the UK industries that rely heavily on them are perceived to contribute to major problems such as international conflict and environmental damage. The unpopularity of current British military deployments, for example in Iraq, is likely to be adding to this.

Credence for this idea comes from a number of sources. Firstly, in contrast to the physical sciences and engineering, the number of undergraduates in the biological sciences has grown in recent years [17]. Since biological sciences are closely associated with health issues, this gives an indication why it bucks the trend. Secondly, the physical sciences and engineering have historically had problems recruiting girls and woman into their profession. Recent research [18] suggests that girls are interested in working in science, but only if it involves a strong consideration of ethical issues. A third indicator is this year's survey of the organisations which university students see as their ideal employers [19]. Among science and engineering students, the top three were:

  1. BBC (unchanged from last year);

  2. NHS (up from 56);

  3. Environment Agency (up from 86).

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems both fell.

Further anecdotal evidence comes from SGR's own work on careers issues. We regularly attend university careers fairs around the UK to highlight the opportunities for scientists, engineers and the related professions in areas such as sustainable energy, environmental protection or peace-building. We are frequently told by students that our presence at these events is a welcome alternative to many of the mainstream employers, not least those with military connections.

Concern within the science and technology community about the current level of military involvement in this sector was also discussed in a recent SGR report [20].

Given these data, we are very concerned that a Trident replacement programme and the associated recruitment drive will negatively affect the public image of the science and technology employment market and therefore the inclination of young people to pursue studies in this area, making it even harder to attract and retain qualified scientists and engineers.

 

4. AWE's current expansion

Finally, we wish to make some brief comments on the current expansion of the AWE in advance of the official decision on Trident replacement.

The expansion has so far involved recruitment of several hundred staff (mostly in science and engineering) [21], ostensibly for a nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship programme. New and expensive laser, supercomputer, hydrodynamics and other facilities are being constructed to enable new studies to be carried out concerning nuclear weapons components and assemblies in reinforced explosion chambers, in collaboration with US scientists and weapons designers [22]. Like the Trident system, much of this is large-scale capital spending which, together with the increased use of highly-skilled staff, adds to the pressure on limited resources (similar to that discussed earlier).

SGR, however, has other serious concerns about this expansion. Having studied the plans and proposals for the AWE development carefully, SGR is of the view that the new facilities cannot be justified on the basis of maintaining existing stockpiles. There is a remaining suspicion that work is being undertaken or planned which could assist in or is already part of the development of a new warhead capability or design. This is of very real concern as it is likely to further undermine progress in implementing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This is particularly worrying at a time when reports suggest six Middle-Eastern countries are seeking civil nuclear technology [23], and hence non-proliferation controls need to be seen to be adhered to by all countries.

 

References

[1] DfES & DTI (2006). The STEM programme report. http://www.dfes.gov.uk/hegateway/uploads/STEM%20Programme%20Report.pdf

[2] HEFCE (2006). Undergraduate students in STEM subjects. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/hefce/2006/stem/students.pdf

[3] The number of full-time undergraduates at UK universities has risen from 1,027,400 in 1999/2000 to 1,165,445 in 2004/05. Higher Education Statistics Agency (2006). Student tables. http://www.hesa.ac.uk/holisdocs/pubinfo/stud.htm

[4] Ghosh P. (2006). Computer industry "faces crisis". BBC News website, 17 November. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6155998.stm

[5] Anon. (2006). Climate change fight "can't wait". BBC News website, 31 October. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6096084.stm

[6] King D. (2004). Climate change science: adapt, mitigate or ignore? Science, 303: 176-7.

[7] DEFRA (2006). UK Emissions of Greenhouse Gases. http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/statistics/globatmos/gagccukem.htm (Accessed November 2006)

[8] Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1999). Energy - the changing climate. 22nd Report. http://www.rcep.org.uk/

[9] International Energy Agency (2006). IEA Energy Statistics. http://www.iea.org/Textbase/stats/rd.asp (accessed November 2006)

[10] DTI (2006). Energy Technologies Institute. http://www.dti.gov.uk/science/science-funding/eti/page34027.html

[11] Department of Trade and Industry (2004). Renewable Supply Chain Gap Analysis. http://www.dti.gov.uk/

[12] Ministry of Defence (2005). Defence Industrial Strategy.

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/AboutDefence/CorporatePublications/PolicyStrategyandPlanning/DefenceIndustrialStrategyDefenceWhitePapercm6697.htm

[13] Ministry of Defence (2006). Defence Technology Strategy.

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/AboutDefence/CorporatePublications/ScienceandTechnologyPublications/SITDocuments/DefenceTechnologyStrategy2006.htm

[14] Hansard (2006). Written answer to parliamentary question, Des Browne to Alan Simpson. 6 June: Columns 504W & 505W.

[15] Harigel G. (1997). The impact of the military-industrial complex on society. In: D Schroeer and A Pascolini (eds). The weapons legacy of the Cold War. Ashgate.

[16] p26 of Ainslie J. (2005). The Future of the British Bomb. WMD Awareness Programme. http://www.comeclean.org.uk/

[17] Higher Education Statistics Agency (2006). Student tables. http://www.hesa.ac.uk/holisdocs/pubinfo/stud.htm

[18] Haste H. (2004). Science in my future. Nestlé Social Research Programme. http://www.spreckley.co.uk/nestle/science-in-my-future-full.pdf

[19] Universum Communications (2006). The Universum UK Graduate Survey. http://www.universumeurope.com/ukgs2006.aspx

[20] Langley C. (2005). Soldiers in the Laboratory: Military involvement in science and technology - and some alternatives. Scientists for Global Responsibility. http://www.sgr.org.uk/ArmsControl/Soldiers_in_Lab_Report.pdf

[21] Hansard (2006). Written answer to parliamentary question, Adam Ingram to Mike Hancock. 3 July: Column 702W. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm060703/text/60703w1331.htm

[22] AWE annual reports and other related documents. http://www.awe.co.uk/

[23] The Times (2006). Six Arab states join rush to go nuclear. 4 November. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2436948,00.htm