Science for purpose

In the third of our series of opinion pieces from Science meets Parliament sponsors, Professor Tanya Monro, Chief Defence Scientist in the Department of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Group, discusses mission-directed research.

Photo credit: RMIT

I am often asked why I chose defence science. Why did I go into government given my background as a physicist? I made this choice because I believe in ‘science for purpose’. That we can harness human creativity and curiosity to create knowledge that makes a profound difference. This is not just about science in the narrow meaning of the term – but about the creation and integration of knowledge from different fields of research. The translation of ideas into impact works best when researchers work alongside the end-users of that research, and nowhere does that happen at greater scale or effect than within Defence.

The 2000-odd scientists, engineers, technologists and other professionals of Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) are embedded within the Department of Defence, working alongside Australian Defence Force (ADF) colleagues to solve Defence’s highest priority challenges. This ranges from developing advanced protective gear, to autonomous technologies that remove personnel from harm’s way to ensuring that Australia can field technologically sophisticated interoperable platforms. Increasingly it is about harnessing Australia’s R&D capacity to grow sovereign industry capability and deliver capability edge.

Australia’s strategic environment is deteriorating, and in response, in 2020 the Government set Defence objectives to shape our strategic environment, deter actions against our interests, and respond with credible force when required. Investment of approximately $270 billion over the coming decade includes new and upgraded Defence capabilities, more potent and longer-range combat systems and more secure supply chains. This is a huge endeavour, one that calls for a scale-up in our delivery of outcomes from science and technology.

There are three main ways in which DSTG is supporting Defence to rise to these challenges.

Our research and development is increasingly mission-directed. In a challenging strategic environment, there is increased demand for science and technology. Given our scale nationally we need to focus on the highest priority problems, and so, as part of Defence’s More, Together strategy, launched in 2020, we identified 8 STaR Shots to focus our research. This will lead to the development of new leap-ahead Defence capabilities and gives purpose to our science, direction to our innovation priorities, and a path towards improving the capabilities of the ADF.

We cannot do it alone. The Government has committed around $3 billion dollars to innovation, science and technology over the next decade. We have the opportunity to leverage this investment and harness Australia’s outstanding science and technology base by growing the alignment between the research done in our Universities and Defence’s priority problems. It is also vital that we support the development of sovereign Australian defence industry that benefits from this research base. We must partner more closely, with strong security arrangements, and at an earlier stage with Australian industry. This will help equip the ADF with solutions to evolving threats. DSTG’s partnerships with Australian defence industry and academia are crucial to help Defence deliver the leading-edge capabilities that we will need in the future.

We must do this ethically. Science is the ‘art of the possible’ – of exploring how emerging knowledge can be harnessed. In doing so, we are accountable to ethical standards and societal expectations. Working within an interdisciplinary consortium, we recently explored ‘A Method for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Defence.’ This report articulated some of the steps Defence can take to reduce the risk of adverse ethical outcomes arising from the introduction of Artificial Intelligence. This is one of many examples of how we help ensure the ADF is supported by responsible science.

Defence science and technology professionals are charged not just to be experts but also, increasingly, to be thought leaders who work to shape and nurture the ecosystem that delivers outcomes to the ADF. I am proud to lead this mission-directed organisation that is committed to protecting and enabling the men and women of the ADF as they conduct the vital task of defending Australia and its national interests.

Professor Tanya Monro is Chief Defence Scientist in the Department of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Group. This piece is published as part of a series from sponsors of this year’s Science meets Parliament.

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.