Defence and industry could fund cutting-edge university research with Five Eyes allies

The recent AUSMIN cabinet-level meeting between Australia and the US pointed to the growing importance of ‘collaboration on civilian science, technology, and innovation’ as being critical to ‘develop new industries, drive economic growth, and enhance [Defence] readiness’.

Increasingly our university sector is being looked to to develop the critical ‘enabling technologies’ that provide a capability edge, not only for important defence projects but also for a wide range of broader national security needs.

Released just prior to AUSMIN, the government’s new strategic update focuses not just on major defence equipment upgrades but also redoubles efforts on science and technology. On information technology the policy sets out that Defence will need to plan for developments including next-generation secure wireless networks, artificial intelligence and augmented analytics, as well as robotics and immersive and quantum technologies. Beyond Australia, our traditional allies in the Five Eyes partnership (the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand) have similar technology needs.

The relatively short science and technology paragraphs in the defence statement show that $1.2 billion has been earmarked across the coming decade for research and development of next-generation technologies, $800 million for the Defence Innovation Hub with its focus on prototype development and $5 billion for IT.

All of this presents a significant opportunity for universities that are willing to work with Defence across the Five Eyes countries and take steps to protect their systems and research, particularly when their funding base has been hit hard by Covid-19 impacts. This has been amplified by worrying geopolitical trends in our region and a heightening of cyberattacks on Australian interests.

As one of the mechanisms to address the funding issues of our universities and our security needs, we propose a Defence Department and defence industry funded and prioritised university research partnership with alliance nations. This would be strategic and timely. It adds a new dimension to strengthen our alliances and contribute to Australia’s defence and national security capability edge and to the economy. We believe it would have the support of the Australian public, alliance partners and university researchers alike.

The core of the university problem is that a substantial proportion of Australian research relies on cross-subsidy from international student teaching revenue, predominantly students from China. Universities have additionally looked to China for research funding support through direct research partnerships of significant scale. Australian universities do world-class research and rate well in world rankings. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the excellence of university medical research administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Equally excellent non-medical research, in science and technology and the humanities, is administered by the Australian Research Council through the National Competitive Grants Program. The problem is not one of excellence but of funding. Research funds would need to double to cover the widened gap that is filled by international student cross-subsidy.

Of equal excellence is mission-oriented research carried out by our important government agencies—CSIRO, the Defence Science and Technology Group, Geosciences Australia, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and others. These agencies alone cannot, however, cover the bases in a rapidly changing technology landscape.

Fundamental and applied research carried out by the university sector, with its substantial postgraduate research student and capital equipment resources, is an essential and complementary element and force multiplier to our sovereign defence industry and capability edge. In this respect university research is increasingly being viewed by governments through a national security lens.

In a benign and peaceful world, the current university model would not necessarily be a problem. A diverse and proportionate spectrum of international students have always and rightly been welcomed at our universities dating back to the Colombo Plan.

The significant increase in foreign students in recent years, notwithstanding a loss of diversity with the predominance of China, has been proclaimed an important multi-billion-dollar Australian export industry. The deep concern, however, is that we are in a period of escalating geopolitical tension, not of our making, where the evolved dependency on international students to fund research can be used by China as an instrument of coercion and where joint research in key and often dual-use technologies with military and intelligence application potentially could be used against us in a period of conflict.

With the range of urgent demands and other priorities across the government budget to restart the economy and keep Australians in productive jobs, the timing of this issue coming to a head could not be worse financially and its solution is not straightforward. Government will rightly want assurance that any additional investment in university research will be relevant to the real-world pressures Australia faces.

Late last month federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the convening of a vice-chancellor group to devise a new way of funding research as the sector confronts this serious issue.

This is a timely development. Australia needs funding schemes to better translate university research to business and industry outcomes, rebalancing for an increased focus on domestic students, diversifying the inter­national student cohort, devel­oping more flexible short courses and micro-credentials aligned to jobs and skills—the list is long.

Within this mix our proposal of prioritised additional funding for international research partnerships of Australian universities with university counterparts of Australia’s defence and intelligence allies is an important consideration. Within the long­standing Five Eyes alliance, arrangements with the US for science and technology engagement form an important guiding example of how this might work across the five nations. Equally important is research engagement with Japan and India within the regional ‘Quad’ framework.

The bilateral Australia–US innovation, science and research relationship is formalised by a treaty-level agreement for science and technology cooperation between the two governments. Australia and the US have other treaty-level agreements documented in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australian treaties database. Under this S&T framework, a US–Australia Joint Commission Meeting on science and technology is held every two years. The US is also a key S&T partner through the Global Innovation Strategy and all funding schemes of the ARC-administered competitive grants program permit international partnership, allowing Australian and US researchers to form linkages.

The framework’s impact would be significantly elevated by initiating a substantive and focused collaborative program that is funded appropriately by Five Eyes governments at both ends. We see great value in encouraging, for example, the Australian Group of Eight publicly funded research-intensive universities to engage with the publicly funded research-intensive universities within the US University of California system in this context. The bilateral linkage need not necessarily be Go8–UC but could be a similar grouping of like-minded and willing universities in both countries.

Governments could set priority areas for bilateral research collaboration, such as those set by the Department of Industry’s 2016 policy statement for the Next Generation Technologies Fund that include cyber, sensor, quantum, autonomous and space technologies. The focus could also include targeted biomedical and energy research.

The leverage gained by this strategic bilateral university research partnership could be of enormous value for both countries. The US–Australia alliance holds important ministerial-level meetings involving the Defence Department and DFAT. Expanding this in a manageable way to include a strategic university research alliance would add an important dimension and strengthen the alliance overall. We should have no illusion that China is vigorously shaping and accelerating its domestic university research towards its military and state security apparatus, via its civil–military fusion strategy.

A ‘Five Eyes-friendly’ university sector will open new and substantial sources of funding and help strengthen Australia’s defence and security capabilities and those of our democratic allies. We hope the university sector will embrace the idea. Importantly, within this scheme, government and the university sector would be pulling in the same direction. If asked to ‘do something for your country’ within such a framework, we believe Australian university researchers would respond creatively to embrace a new opportunity.