For the first 17 days of the operation in Salisbury, Dstl provided 24/7 support. At its peak there were over 300 people working on the investigation. During this period, to give you an idea of the magnitude of the response:1000 samples were collected and analysed; 100 people per day were clinically screened; 100 plus items were gathered for forensic exploitation; 10 shipping containers were filled with waste, and; 21 potentially contaminated vehicles were recovered to our site at Porton Down. It was during this period that the OPCW, at the request of the Prime Minister, provided a Technical Assistance Visit. The samples which were taken by the OPCW were subsequently analysed by independent OPCW Designated Laboratories. The results from the Designated Laboratories confirmed the UK analysis.
This was an unprecedented operation and the staff at Dstl – together with police, military personnel, medical staff and staff from other government departments – performed to extraordinarily high standards in responding to the immediate urgent operation. Whilst media interest has waned, the investigation still continues, alongside the recovery and clean-up, involving many who responded to the initial events.
Dstl has invested in the Chemical and Biological defence area over a long period of time. This investment, together with the unfailing commitment of those in the profession, enabled the response in Salisbury to be effective with the result that the public were kept safe. As has been shown with the development of this type of chemical weapon, science and technology investments still need to be made and scientists need to continue with research and analysis in the appropriate facilities. As international incidents in Syria and Iraq have shown, the use of chemical weapons continues to be a very real threat. Through working with the OPCW, through the evolution of chemical knowledge and by nurturing innovation to produce new technologies in this field of work we can continue to try to keep the world safe from these “weapons of mass destruction”. Indeed, the UK is maintaining a leading role. In March this year, Gavin Williamson MP, the UK Secretary of State for Defence – in his inaugural keynote speech in this role – announced a £48M investment into a new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre "to maintain our cutting edge in chemical analysis and defence" as part of his Modernising Defence Programme.
The Salisbury incident was not purely chemically related, and is a good example of how complex and inter-related such incidents can be, in this internet-enabled age. The use of social media burgeoned during the weeks after the attack on the individuals. In a further announcement by Gavin Williamson, a new Artificial Intelligence Hub will be set up at Dstl, for AI, machine learning and data science research. Intended to enhance and accelerate the UK’s capability in the application of AI-related technologies, the AI-Hub will look at areas such as autonomy through to countering fake news during a conflict or incident. As the hub develops, it will offer unique opportunities for science and technology to grow under the changing threats we face in the world. Dstl currently delivers more than £20M of research related to AI and this is forecast to grow significantly.
Throughout my own career as a scientist and chemist, in both defence and security, I have seen the threats we face change. There is no doubt in my mind that, whether we are working with the police service to investigate home-grown terrorists, or taking samples from an area where a chemical weapon is alleged to have been used, chemistry – as part of a multi-disciplinary approach – continues to contribute significantly to countering threats old and new, and will be vital in doing so into the future.
In 2013, through the Director General’s stewardship, the OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize. This was an incredible achievement, and, I feel, a strong acknowledgement of the important part that chemistry and chemists play in keeping the world safe.