Page last updated at 02:00 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 03:00 UK

A new Q - search for spy science chief

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Desmond Llewelyn (BBC)
"Q", played by Desmond Llewelyn, was James Bond's gadget master

Any fan of James Bond will know that science and technology have always been the fictional spy's most potent weapons.

Without his cigarette capable of shooting a jet-powered projectile accurately up to 30 yards, the Rolex watch equipped with a small laser beam cutting tool and, of course, his trademark Aston Martin with machine guns, missiles and ejector seat, Bond would have been finished long ago.

His famous gadgets have got MI6 officer 007 out of several tight spots - though much to the anguish of the agency's chief boffin, "Q", the ingenious devices produced with such loving care have often ended up battered or blown up during Bond's escapades.

Now it seems that the UK's domestic intelligence agency, better known as MI5 or the Security Service, has taken a leaf out of MI6's book.

It is about to appoint its own Q, with a job advert to recruit a chief scientific adviser.

BBC News has learned that the appointment is intended to assist MI5 in harnessing developments in science and technology that will help the service combat terrorism and support field officers in counter-intelligence activities.

I think it's unlikely that the person will be required to develop a weapons system for the latest Aston Martin
Professor John Beddington

The job has been advertised on MI5's website. According to the ad, the successful applicant will "lead and co-ordinate the scientific work of the Security Service".

Candidates for "this unique and challenging role" will need to have world-class scientific expertise, excellent strategic skills and outstanding influencing and communication skills.

MI5's post is part-time, requiring a commitment of two to three days a week.

Real problems

But it is not clear from the ad if the job involves designing cool gadgets. So I asked Professor John Beddington, the top scientific adviser in the UK government.

"I think it's unlikely that the person will be required to develop a weapons system for the latest Aston Martin," was his reply.

The rock (AFP/Getty/Rossiya TV)
Russia accused UK spies in Moscow of using a fake rock for communications

However, Professor Beddington said that the new science adviser's work would help UK intelligence officers dealing with real problems.

"There is a really important role in providing scientific and technological advice on addressing problems agents in the field will face.

"[The chief science adviser] has a role to frustrate terrorism, to prevent espionage hurting the UK, protect our critical national infrastructure, and to frustrate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There's an enormous amount of scientific content in this role," he added.

So how, specifically, will the new Q do all that? Unsurprisingly, that is something that MI5 is keeping, well, secret.

But security analyst Dr Sally Leivesley, from the New Risk consultancy, has strong views on what should be top of his or her in-tray: terrorism.

"The appointment of a chief scientific adviser is an acknowledgement of the emerging threat of chemical, biological and radiological attack by terrorists and also the security threat to computer systems," she says.

Police corden around Itsu restaurant (Getty)
The Litvinenko poisoning tested the UK's response to a radiological threat

"A chief scientist for MI5 will change Britain's capability to manage terror attacks."

Dr Leivesley believes that the chief scientist would also be an important point of contact for scientists in other countries at high risk of terrorist attack, such as the US.

"This means large science labs around the world can be co-ordinated in the event of an incident."

According to Professor Beddington, the new science adviser will have to keep up with the latest developments in science and technology so that British intelligence officers can stay one step ahead of the country's enemies.

"It will involve a sort of future-gazing to see where technology will be taking us in a year or so," says Professor Beddington.

Applications for the job close on April 24. Professor Beddington believes that the right person could make an enormous difference to helping MI5 combat the threats the country faces.

"This is an extraordinarily exciting job. If you are a good scientist or engineer, please apply," he says.

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