Exclusive: Dstl’s Phillippa Spencer talks F-35s, autonomy, novichok and gender equality

Harry Lye 20 February 2020 (Last Updated February 20th, 2020 09:14)

With a long career at the heart of the UK’s defence science and technology sector in her role as a senior principal scientist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Women in Defence award winner Phillippa Spencer has worked on the UK’s adoption of the F-35, currently leads a project mitigating the risks of autonomous systems and the recovery effort after the Novichok incident in Salisbury. Here she tells us about her career in defence.

Exclusive: Dstl’s Phillippa Spencer talks F-35s, autonomy, novichok and gender equality

Harry Lye: Can you tell us a bit about your experience and current role?

Phillippa Spencer: I have a few roles at the moment. So my official Dstl title is senior principal scientist, I like to use statistician because that’s what my background is. I am the principal technical authority for autonomy vulnerabilities, which looks at vulnerabilities in autonomous systems that we might want to deploy in the future, to make sure they’re robust and that we’re mitigating the risks involved with them, so that involves a lot of maths and software and sensor study.

I am also one of the UK leads for assurance of fusion on the F-35, looking at the legality of its use and also making sure that operationally the plane is performing as it ought to. That relies heavily on a lot of the work that the US and Lockheed Martin do, very clever people there obviously.

I also lead research into looking at discriminating between bacterial and viral infections in the host for US funding body the Defence Threat Reduction Agency. I have a number of other pieces of work that I do as well.

You’ve been at Dstl for a number of years, are there any particular projects that stand out?

That was a question when I won the award on stage, I couldn’t answer it. I mean, it’s all really interesting and brilliant. I love working with the military. They’re very clever people. And they definitely appreciate people like me having input into their challenges.

I love doing the sort of artificial intelligence research that autonomous vulnerabilities give me, and I love working with all the people in my project. Also I lead the gender equality network at Dstl and that is very much focused towards mentoring others and trying to improve our culture. I couldn’t actually say that there was one thing that I’m particularly most proud or interested in, because it’s just all so interesting and wonderful.

In your view, why is Dstl’s work so important?

We are the first port of call for S&T [science and technology] advice for our military stakeholders and our work has an impact across a range of sciences throughout the armed services and all the defence and security domains from sea to Space. Our customers come to us to solve their current and future S&T challenges.

But as much of the work we do is sensitive and can’t be profiled, Dstl and its scientists are the scaffolding of success.

Would you be able to go into more detail on your current work on autonomy?

I work for the autonomy program, which looks at what autonomy can bring to UK defence. The aspects I’m looking at particularly is understanding where algorithms or software could fail or be vulnerable to manipulation; in order to manage the risk of that it is a lot of maths.

I lead it and get to take some of the glory but mainly the team works on it. They are a great team of really clever people and they look at all sorts of approaches towards understanding where sensors could be vulnerable – say, from laser dazzle or environmental interference all the way down into the algorithms where noise could influence how as an autonomous vehicle would misclassify something. You may have seen the headlines like the Tesla cars were tricked into switching lanes into oncoming traffic because someone put a sticker on a road sign; it’s those sorts of vulnerabilities we’re researching; not for self-driving cars in the civilian context, but rather [in the context of] how the military might use drones.

You also worked on the response to the Novichok incident. Can you explain your role in that?

I worked on recovery rather than response. My role as a statistician was to advise how many samples were enough to provide a level of cleanliness and return sites back to the normal function. I worked at Winterbourne Gunner with 20 Wing RAF Regiment on that because they were the responders to that particular part and I work with our decontamination chemists Norman Govan and Steve Mitchell.

Along with Vicki Cox, the statistician who worked on it with me for the whole year, we then went to London and advised a body called the Decontamination Science Assurance Group, on what we were proposing as a decontamination strategy, based on our statistics along with the chemical approach.

So that was really hard work, actually, because there were a lot of sites to deal with, as you can imagine, and the tempo was quite high. So it was like, Monday we’re tasked by the military to what site they want to do next. Then we’d be working up the site and figuring out what it looked like and how many samples to take and work a plan along with the decontamination chemists. And then we’d have to have that ready to go down to London on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Then when we got back, we’d have to translate that into a military plan because our geeky maths doesn’t necessarily translate well into what the military needs to use. After completing the calculations for one site we would start on the next site. And it was literally that sometimes we slept and sometimes we didn’t, it was that for nine months.

Going back to your Women in Defence award, do you think enough is being done in UK defence to balance gender inequality?

Yeah, I think we’re making good strides towards it. I mean, there’s still a lot to do in terms of culture, perception and unconscious bias. But all the armed forces have signed up to the DSEI equality charter, which is a fantastic thing.

Angela Moore, who is the founder of the Women in Defence awards, is working very hard to produce courses that you can go on to increase your confidence and understand how you can be more effective in the workplace. As a woman, all these things are really good pushes towards increasing gender equality, but diversity as a whole still needs a lot of work, I think. Many research papers conclude that a diverse multi-disciplinary team can produce faster and best solutions to problems.