In Conversation, Australian Science Symposium

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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14 November 2023

SUBJECTS: Key takeouts from the DSR; Where Australia’s national security lies; Focused force and impactful projection; Aspirations for science in Australia; Climbing the technological ladder; Cultural relationship to science; International collaboration.

TANYA MONRO: Deputy Prime Minister, enormous privilege to have you here in the shrine to Australian science excellence, the Shine Dome. 

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I've been to this room a number of times, but I never cease to take a breath. Like it is a beautiful building and it's the perfect home of Australian science and, actually, it always looks more beautiful every time I come here. So it's an honour, actually, to be here amongst you. 

TANYA MONRO: So today we're having a conversation that is, in part, uncomfortable but is critical. We've been hearing how international collaboration makes us strong and, indeed, it is vital for Australian Defence Science as, in fact, when you and your Japanese counterpart signed off in June this year on a new arrangement for R&D. But I'm respectfully challenging a wonderful comment made by President to the Academy Jagadish earlier today that the last time we achieved anything without collaborating internationally was the 1800s development of the stump-jump plough. Almost every time you fly in an aeroplane there's a black box in there developed by David Warren from DSTG all in house. But that doesn't take away from the seriousness of Jagadish's point. We do better science when we collaborate.

So as a lead in to my conversation with you, DPM, I put it to this audience, and to you, that we're looking at a paradigm shift from excellent science being about working with the best in the world, to excellent science being working with the best in the world who share our values, so that it can't be used against us. So to kick that off, we've been talking about the Defence Strategic Review, and I brought a prop in case anyone wants to have a read, I commend it to you all to have a good read. There's been a lot of commentary around the challenges Australia faces and the global perspective. Can you share, with this group of eminent scientists and collaborators, your key take-outs from the DSR?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Not just in a scientific sense, more generally?

TANYA MONRO:  Yes, please. 

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: More generally. Firstly, thank you, Tanya, and it really is an honour for me to be here as the kind of humble bearer of a Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne. It feels to be - a big thing to be in this dome. The - and let me also start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

I would say there are - I mean there's a range of ways that question can be answered and one can kind of, depending on what level you answer it at in terms of the level of depth you get into, but I think at the highest level, what the DSR really is saying to us is that whereas we have had a Defence force that, you know, over the last few decades, has been balanced, meaning it has had a range of capabilities to do a range of things, be it participating as a member of an international force in Afghanistan through to leading a mission in Solomon Islands or East Timor and all of those things have happened over the last, say, 30 years, now what the DSR is saying is we need a much more focused force, that we have a very defined challenge in our immediate region, that focus needs to be on the - on Australia's national security let me say at home.

But then I think the second point then is that in terms of defining that, where does Australia's national security lie? What is clear from the DSR is that it lies well beyond our shores, that a country or an adversary who seeks to do harm to Australia could do a whole lot of harm to us well before ever needing to set foot on your shores. That we are, as a trading island nation, very connected, economically connected to the world but there's a physical dimension to that. And, therefore, where our national security lies is well beyond our borders and in order to get there, we need to have the capacity to project.

So for me, it is firstly we need to be focused and in being focused, we need to have a capability within our Defence force which is around projection through the full spectrum of proportionate response and so we talk about that as impactful projection, and to me, they're the two really big kind of strategic take-outs of the DSR, and more focus, like a focused force and a focused force which is built around the capacity to engage impactful projection.

When you unpack that and say what's an example of that, I mean the most obvious example of that is nuclear-powered submarines. They will very much give rise to an ability to project beyond our coastline in an impactful way, but be it that, be it long-range strike missiles, be it the way in which we conceive of our army, projection is at the heart of how we need to think about the strategic conception of what our Defence force is. And I think, therefore, what I hope, is that that gives a much clearer sense of thinking but direction for the Defence force itself but for the research community, for industry around the kinds of needs that the ADF is going to have. 

TANYA MONRO: Thank you, DPM. And I have to say one thing I very much welcomed was the release, along with the DSR, with some clear priorities for the Australian innovation science and technology community to lean into.

Today we've been reflecting on the fact that with 0.3 per cent of the world's population, we do 4 per cent of the world's research. So that's something to celebrate. 


TANYA MONRO: Noting that we also need to be able to access that other 96 per cent of knowledge created elsewhere in the world, can you share with us your aspirations for science in Australia?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, so - well, again, beyond Defence, and I take the point that was made, you know, collaboration is profoundly important. So I guess to go beyond Defence for a moment and just to talk about science more generally, we - you know, I've said this quite a bit. I think our - I really think that this microeconomic reform challenge that the country has is infusing our economy with science and technology. We need to be climbing the technological ladder. We have an economy which has a heavy focus on primary industry, resources, agriculture, that's fine. Like there's no criticism of those industries. In fact, those industries right now are the hope of the side so I'm very much for them. But we need to be building our human capital and that is only going to happen if we climb the ladder of technology, we climb the ladder of modernity, and we have a long way to go when you look at, for example, the Harvard index of economic complexity, which in some ways is a measure of that and we are nowhere near where we should be in relation to that.

To achieve that, I actually think is sort of a more profound thing which that as a nation, I feel that we need to change our cultural relationship to science. We need to see it much more front and centre in terms of what we value in the country. We need to be encouraging kids to be taking up science as, you know, as - well, in terms of their study, and then ultimately in terms of their job, and, indeed, you know, I think we've seen a steady decline, if you come and measure it at year 10 where people can first make the decision not to study science, we're seeing - we've been seeing, in proportionate terms, more and more kids make that choice and we need to turn that around. That's why I think this is, in some ways, a cultural issue.

There is, in this, I think, a lot more that we can do around the celebration of big science. You know, we've got the square kilometre array telescope happening in our backyard. It is genuinely one of the most remarkable scientific projects in the world today. What it will illuminate in terms of the universe in terms maybe over the course of the decade in which we are living is just breathtaking. In a way that it should be on the front page of the Fin or The Australian, you know, every week, and yet no-one ever reads about it, no-one knows about it. To be fair, we're not debating about it in Parliament. You know, does it come as any wonder that kids aren't being inspired when this stuff is happening, and we are not talking about it. There is a cultural issue here which we must change. So I think that's kind of the broader question.

In terms of Defence, the state - human contest is a contest of technology. I mean in many ways when one kind of brain is competing against another, it is - it becomes a place where, you know, that technology, that innovation, you know, who has the greatest amount wins. The state of human contest now is such that no country, I mean even the US, can really hope to be at the cutting edge of that without there being an international collaboration, which is to the point. So if you take the F-35, you know, that is a multinational collaboration which has produced a very extraordinary fifth generation aircraft. But no-one can claim a kind of sovereign capability in respect of it. There was this sovereign capability of being able to operate it and maintain it, but in terms of being able to build a platform of that complexity, that requires a whole lot of collaboration countries getting together.

I think as you put it at the start, Tanya, I hadn't heard that kind of frame before, but I think that's right. I think it's about we need to be collaborating internationally, we need to be collaborating internationally with people - with countries of shared values. That's where we're at now. 

And so I suppose I feel like I'm going on a bit here, but then there are two points. I do hope that the DSR gives direction, as I said before, clearly to research efforts in this country for universities, CSRO, DSTG, ASCAR and the like which drives the innovation that we need.

The second point, though, is that what we are seeing now in work - which comes through AUKUS in working with the United States around trying to remove barriers around export controls of Defence products, and there was real hope - I mean, it is obviously a matter for the United States Congress and we want to be respectful of their processes, but there is real hope, in a way that we've probably not had before, that that is going to happen. If we can achieve that, it does create a much more seamless Defence industrial base but what it really creates is a much more seamless technology-sharing environment.

And so if you think about, for example, a collaboration which is happening right now between Flinders Uni, the University of Rhode Island and the University of Manchester around nuclear propulsion, the ability for that collaboration to be much more granular, to do it in an easy way where the legal regime, not just permits it but encourages it, I hope that all of that is transformative for them, but obviously, you know, across the broad spectrum of technologies that we will be working with with those countries.

TANYA MONRO: Thank you, Deputy Prime Minister. There are many more questions I could have asked but I think you've captured in your answers the spirit, the intent, and the opportunity for Australian science. Very conscious that you need to get back up to the House and that I need to let you go now. 

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: So the one thing, when, in fact, when I - I'm currently mindful that there are TV cameras on me so I will try to do this discreetly - but I entered the Parliament in 2007 and the now Prime Minister was the then Leader of the House, and we did a thing which was kind of puppy school where, you know, all the new MPs get taught what it is to be a Member of Parliament and I remember Anthony came and said, "You will have good ideas and you will want to make a contribution. Remember one thing, you are here to vote. Don't miss one. Do not miss one." He put the fear of God into me then, I still have it now. So I do need to be back before midday. 

TANYA MONRO: Thank you so much. We really appreciate it. Thank you.


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