What Australia’s new Defence S&T Strategy could mean

In May 2020 Australia’s Defence Science and Technology group (DST) released a new strategy looking forward to 2030. In signalling the intent of its strategy, DST is aptly supported by the tag line ‘More Together‘.

Key features of the strategy reposition DST as a publicly funded research organisation at the forefront of Defence S&T, and innovation, for Australia. Central to this repositioning are the three pillars of the strategy driving a sector wide ecosystem (One Defence Science & Technology capability), people (Brilliant people, collaborative culture), and infrastructure and systems (Outstanding research infrastructure powering innovation) elements expanding the S&T role of DST more actively beyond just Defence itself and opening the engagement to the broader environment. And that focus of effort in identifying eight STaR Shots as capability applications rather than technology solutions is important as well.

So, what will it mean for the broader S&T initiatives in Australia, and the impact on the research community, industry, and Defence as well?

The market for research

Defence S&T is about to become a very interesting and competitive research environment. While Universities have always faced the ethical challenge Defence research brings the opportunity for researchers and Universities more generally to undertake interesting, valuable, and impactful research is certainly possible. Many of Australia’s Universities already have some form of Defence research capability and these connections are already in place through contract research based on individual and organisational relationships over time, and through DST and state government programs (i.e. Defence Science Institute in Victoria) with the research partnerships. Fundamentally there is a connection between the Universities and DST already. So, what changes under this strategy? The outcomes are likely to be in two areas.

1. Increasing Research Collaboration: The strategy advocates for shifting more of the load outside of DST and offers the potential for more collaborative research operation with the movement of people and building further research capability with DST, Defence more broadly and industry partners. There will be some nuance in how this works and the balance of cash and in kind contribution across salaries and research assets and how that applies to Defence S&T projects. Of course, Universities are often challenged by the ethical dilemma of working on ‘military’ research, but most recognise that there is much of Defence that does not involve combat.

2. COVID-19: With COVID-19 heavily impacting the University sector revenue and potential impact on research and researchers through job losses, Defence related research could be a safe harbour. Defence S&T is likely to attract more attention from leading researchers in their fields and present a viable career path for early and mid-career researchers, and post-graduate students. And as Defence generally is a net consumer of new technology, rather than a creator of it, researchers and research teams with expertise and resources in technologies and its application to STaR Shots projects are likely to find valuable project opportunities. While the economic impact on the University sector is yet to be fully realised, the coincidence of the new strategy and COVID-19 has the potential to increase competitive tension and collaboration in Defence S&T within Universities and between Universities because that’s where the market is.

DST’s challenge here will be continuing to build collaborations between and with Australia’s best research networks and balancing a competitive research tension with the need to identify, access, align and support the research to deliver the best S&T outcomes. Success in this will not be just a success for DST. There is opportunity for Industry here as well.

Industry, exports, and supply chains… and research?

There has been a lot of activity recently about the role of Australian business and sovereign industry capability in the Defence sector, and because of COVID-19 the wider Australian sector. Exposure of and reliance on global markets and supply chains has revealed some weaknesses, not just for Australia. The supply chain, research and innovation programs in development or established by global primes leading major programs, impending audits of AIC plans, review of the CDIC, and the calls for increased Australian industry involvement in Defence sector present an interesting time for the release of the strategy.

Is a research program a key element in any Industry Primes AIC planning and is a new competitive tool for pursuing major capability acquisition and how dos the S&T strategy shape Industry’s approach?

In establishing a more open framework for Defence S&T how will DST and Defence more generally reconcile the objectives of Australia’s interest with the objectives of global defence and technology businesses?

Can the two work in harmony and deliver a net benefit to Australia and Industry partners?

Is it possible that through this strategy and the collaboration with industry (and the research organisations) that Australia develops competency in key research fields we can export?

Partnerships already exist through a range of strategic research relationships and generally with our allies on a government to government basis as an example. As Defence S&T transition from a technology basis to applications the potential exists to develop new exports in Defence and other sectors. Complementary and dual use solutions developed from emerging technology trends and the STaR Shots programs may find paths to market beyond Australia’s Defence sector and research capacity and alignment may become a competitive positioning for industry and the research organisations.

It is possible that opening Defence S&T will serve as a stimulus for increasing business participation in R&D. The low levels of business investment in R&D is often pointed to as contributor to low productivity in Australia so it could be that the S&T strategy is a step forward to increasing business R&D with Defence as a leader.

Getting from research to capability.

While the strategy opens Defence S&T for more collaboration one of the enduring challenges, and a measure of research success, will be translation to capability and delivering impact. This is not a unique Australian Defence problem, nor is it a unique challenge for Defence as a global sector either. Most countries around the world recognise that translating research into market ready and sustainable solution is as a challenge, some countries and sectors are better than others at addressing it. But often the problem in the Defence sectors is similar where capability research, capability owners, capability acquisition and management can sometimes be disconnected from each. It is the nature of very large, diverse, and distributed organisations and environments. This strategy seeks to address that through a One Defence model.

Importantly each of the STaR Shots has key Defence leader sponsorship which for the right innovations should provide customer pull. But in delivering and sustaining these innovations as capabilities the industrial base is needed. Industry participation and partnership is important as well to provide a translation channel, but this may not always be the right path either, as new innovations can struggle to find a path in existing organisations. The best applications may also find value outside of a Defence only market. Of course, there is also the potential for promising innovations to find a path through new ventures as well.

Regardless of the approach getting research outcomes into the hands of a military end user will remain a considerable and important challenge, and ultimately in 2030 a successful metric for Defence, DST, and this strategy.

The importance of collaboration with the Defence industry and academic sector, and the Australian economy should not be underestimated because it is the industrial base that in the end will deliver and sustain for the Australian Defence Force the innovations realised through this strategy.

Interestingly given Australia’s position in the world, and our success to date in navigating COVID-19, maybe one of the outcomes from this strategy will be the translation of effective research and innovation beyond just Australia’s Defence sector, to other sectors, and also global markets. Defence S&T may act as a stimulus for economic growth.

An experienced Innovation Leader working in the strategic Innovation Management, New Venture creation and support, and Translation and Commercialisation of Research and Innovation. His experience includes making some mistakes...

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