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Op-Ed: Australia punching above its weight in defence R&D

Australia is a land of high-tech innovation. That was the number one reason why the US Office of Naval Research Global made the decision to open an office in Melbourne.

Australia is a land of high-tech innovation. That was the number one reason why the US Office of Naval Research Global made the decision to open an office in Melbourne.

Some of the most significant outcomes of Australian science and technology (S&T) innovation include the atomic absorption spectroscopy, the black box flight recorder, a key technology for Wi-Fi, Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), the scramjet and the quantum logic gate.

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Aside from these and other high-profile innovation outcomes, Australia’s research and development (R&D) communities have consistently yielded impactful results.

Among the nations and regions with robust R&D ecosystems, Australia is one of the leaders in terms of the impact of the R&D results in numerous defence-relevant disciplines.

For example, in computer science, Australia is in 12th place in terms of the volume of research output, as measured by the number of Web of Science-indexed publications published in 2015-2019.

On the other hand, the impact of Australia’s research output in the same category during the same period among the top 25 producing nations, as expressed as the Category-Normalized Citation Impact, is at fourth after Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland, and in a tie with the US.

In materials science, Australia’s output volume is at 11th while the impact is at fourth. In mechanical engineering, Australia’s output volume is ranked at 14th while the impact is at number one.

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These data illustrate that Australia’s R&D communities are highly productive and extremely efficient in yielding impactful results in these defence-relevant technical disciplines.

However, considering the remarkable R&D productivity, Australia’s investment in R&D is rather modest.

According to the data from the World Bank, Australia ranks 18th in R&D expenditure expressed as a percentage of GDP and 11th in the net R&D expenditure in 2017, the most recent year for which the World Bank has the complete data.

To maintain productivity and impact with the modest expenditure, Australia appears to partly rely on its superb tertiary education system, which ensures that the workforce is ready to innovate.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 indicates that 12 of Australia’s universities are ranked in the world’s top 200. Only three other countries, the US, the UK and Germany, have more schools in the top 200 than Australia.

However, perhaps more important, Australia has advanced its innovation capacity through strategic and focused S&T investments.

Australia’s innovation enablers

In Australia, the government has practised strategic and focused R&D funding and ecosystem-building for many years.

Since 2003, the Australian Research Council (ARC) has directed the Centres of Excellence (CoE) program, which aims to advance scientific knowledge and build a critical mass of domestic R&D capacity in strategic research areas of economic and national importance.

The CoEs explicitly encourage R&D collaborations between academia, the public sector and the industry.

A few examples of CoEs that conduct research with potential defence applications include:

  • ARC CoE in Synthetic Biology — $35 million over seven years starting in 2020, led by Macquarie University;
  • ARC CoE for Engineered Quantum Systems — $31.9 million over seven years starting in 2017, led by the University of Queensland; and
  • ARC CoE for Robotic Vision — $19 million over seven years starting in 2014, led by Queensland University of Technology.

Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) administers the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program, which aims to facilitate economic- and social impact-driven R&D collaborations between public and private sectors.

The program requires that each CRC involves small and medium private enterprises (SMEs), and develops and maintains transition plans with clear economic or social impacts.

A few examples include:

  • the Cyber Security CRC, which will develop Australia’s cyber security capacity and capability — $50 million over seven years starting in 2018;
  • SmartSat CRC, which aims to advance Australia’s space industry — $55 million for seven years starting in 2019, coinciding with the establishment of the Australian Space Agency in 2018; and
  • Innovative Manufacturing CRC, which focuses on additive manufacturing, advanced automation and other innovations in manufacturing — $40 million over seven years starting in 2015.

In addition, the Department of Defence participated in the program to establish the Defence Cooperative Research Centres Program, with Defence CRC for Trusted Autonomous Systems (over $50 million over seven years starting in 2017), becoming the first Defence CRC.

Department of Defence manages its own strategic R&D expenditures through innovation frameworks that include the Australian Defence Science and Universities Network (ADSUN) and Next Generation Technologies Funds (NGTF).

The NGTF launched in 2016 to drive investments in nine specific defense-relevant technology areas — ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), space, human performance, medical countermeasure products, materials science, quantum technologies, trusted autonomous systems, cyber, and advanced sensors, hypersonics, and directed-energy capabilities.

Australia’s new defence innovation ecosystem

In addition to the above, in 2020 the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group led the development of a new S&T Strategy for Defence, More Together.

With the urgency of the increasingly contested western Pacific security environment as the backdrop, More Together explicitly supports DST Group’s focus on large and highly strategic S&T programs through the Science, Technology and Research Shot (STaR Shot) concept, and calls for closer and more focused collaborations between the defence S&T, industry and academic sectors under these programs.

With ADSUN as one of the major facilitators, More Together is already making a significant difference in the nature of collaborative relationships from transactional (i.e. development of incremental deliverables as the collaboration objectives) to much broader efforts of innovation community-building with new defence capabilities as the explicit goal.

As More Together specifically invites international partners to collaborate with the Australian innovation ecosystem for the purpose of scale-up, this is a significant opportunity for the US to develop new collaboration partnerships in applied S&T and transitions.

US-AUS collaborations

The US-AUS collaborations have produced highly impactful results. For example, in computer science, Australia ranks seventh as the US collaborators in terms of the volume of the collaborative publications.

Meanwhile, in international collaborations, the US produced more impactful computer science results with Australia than with any other nations or regions. The story is very similar for materials science.

All of these impactful results come from a relatively modest number of collaborations. This implies that, by increasing the volume of collaborations with Australia, the US should expect a greater number of impactful results.

Yoko Furukawa, based in Melbourne, is the science director at the US Office of Naval Research Global.

Op-Ed: Australia punching above its weight in defence R&D
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