The history of science can’t be understood without reference to the history of war—and vice versa. It’s a complex relationship, sometimes celebrated, often contested, and played out in every nation including our own.
Projects with their origins in military objectives haven’t simply generated an abundant stream of general-use technologies, including the digital tools that define the way the world works today. They have put the ‘patient capital’ for basic research into universities and science agencies; paid for the training of scientists and engineers; fostered habits of collaboration between governments, industries and researchers; connected brilliants minds with a common goal.
At their best, defence projects have infused science with a spirit of risk-taking and resolve; while opening the minds of national leaders to the possibilities that science creates—not just for defence, but for the betterment of human lives.
It’s no coincidence, then, that much of the thinking within governments about the technologies of the future takes place in defence agencies. If we intend to acquire large amounts of expensive kit over a long period of time for a critical purpose, the logic goes, we ought to have some confidence that the purpose will be met.
We may not know in precise detail how technologies will evolve—but then again, when have we ever excused military leaders who made uncertainty a pretext for delay? We accept that the defence capability pipeline is long, and the choices it will present us with in the future are reliant on the decisions we make today.
And so we have always judged it best to make the decisions with reference to plans. Then we try to make the plans with reference to the best available evidence.
Why, then, do we not take the same approach to our science capability more broadly—as so many other nations have done for decades?
Australian governments of all persuasions think science is important enough to warrant investment. The latest Federal Budget allocated more than $9 billion to programs categorised as science, research and innovation, alongside the resources we invest in schooling children, training workers, procuring technologies for government, and rolling out the NBN.
Surely, we can also agree that the objective is critical: the capacity not just to defend Australia, but to make it an Australia worth defending.
So why do we allocate the resources without an overarching capability plan? Why do we hamstring decision makers with an insistence that ‘the market’ will ‘pull through’ the knowledge and skilled workers we need? Why do we find it so difficult to think and act at scale, veering so predictably to the things that are easy to do and just as easily undone? Why are we so tempted to detach innovation from research, and research from education, and all of it from diplomacy and trade?
The tools to scan the horizon and make intelligent conclusions about where the opportunities may lie are not unique to the defence portfolio. Perhaps we can learn from the strategic imperative to be prepared.
The point was well made by President Obama, in a recent speech reflecting on the parallels between planning in public policy and defence.
He observed that the US military had played a central role in advancing the conversation on climate change, through the simple application of its core principles.
‘When you’re on deck, standing your watch, you stay vigilant. You plan for every contingency. And if you see storm clouds gathering, or dangerous shoals ahead, you don’t sit back and do nothing. You take action — to protect your ship, to keep your crew safe. Denying it, or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces.’
Semper Paratus, the President said—always prepared. Anything less is negligence and dereliction of duty.
In my time as Chief Scientist I’ve heard many reasons why things can’t be done.
I’m told that identifying priorities is the ultimate anathema, ‘picking winners’—rather than an acknowledgment that we can’t fund everything at the level required to be top class.
I’m told that we can be ‘smart buyers’ of knowledge, or skills, or technological kit, without having the skills at home to know what it is we’re buying or how to use it well.
I acknowledge that semper paratus rests uncomfortably with ‘she’ll be right’. I won’t accept that our national capability ought to suffer in deference to the latter, on such poor pretexts as those.
If we expect to turn the science ‘tap’ in a decade’s time, we ought to look to the health of the pipeline today. We may fall short of our aspiration, but we won’t regret making the effort.