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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
17/11/2015
Capability of Defence's physical science and engineering workforce

FIELD, Professor Leslie David, Secretary of Science Policy, Australian Academy of Science

[10.04]

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Prof. Field : Yes. We can do that. The Academy of Science is one of the learned academies. It has about 400 to 500 members and represents the scientific community around Australia. It represents science in the broadest sense, encompassing many areas of technology—the physical sciences, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics; the medical sciences, all the way through to clinical medicine; biological sciences; engineering; and mathematics et cetera. So it is a broad based academy of Australia's top researchers. We engage strongly with the research sector across Australia—the universities, the medical research institutes, the CSIRO and DSTO et cetera. Our membership picks up top scientists from all of those areas. We strongly look at government policy and the environment in which research is done in Australia and we try to both provide advice to government and look at the way that the research sector is integrated with government policy.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. I might start off with a couple of questions. You recommend that the Department of Defence and Defence Science and Technology Group recommit to a program of basic and applied scientific research as a core activity. Are you saying that that has not happened, or are you saying that has fallen by the wayside, so to speak?

Prof. Field : No. I do not. It is not that it has not happened. I think DSTO have had basic and fundamental sciences and technology as an important component of their research platform. As part of this review, I think it would be important that a long-term vision for DSTO, and particularly the research dimension of DSTO, is to maintain a healthy proportion of its activity in the fundamental science and technology area. We believe that simply because you need to retain the generic skill base that comes with, shall I say, basic physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science et cetera, which underpin developments of the future. It also makes sure that the skill base that is available at DSTO is maintained well into the future. It is one of those things that you do have to plan for ahead of time. It is not something you can easily turn on and turn off, so you need to have an in-built capacity to deal with technological situations. You should have that capacity as part of your portfolio. Because of that, the academy has recommended that DSTO, as it formulates a future strategy, makes sure that, shall I say, the fundamental and basic sciences are covered well in the portfolio of activity that happens.

CHAIR: So are you saying that that is something that the defence white paper should address—recognition of that core research area and the sustainment of that and the provision of funds to recreate and develop that capability? Why have you raised that? Is there a problem with it at the moment? Is it not working as well, or are you just reinforcing the obvious?

Prof. Field : I think it is reinforcing the obvious. I think we want to make sure that it is obvious and it is not something that falls by the wayside. It should be an active part of any strategy going forward, so we wanted to make sure that it is. As I said, it is strong now. We would like to ensure that it is strong into the future, so we would not like it to get missed out or dropped off the equation. It should be a fundamental part of the core activity of DSTO.

CHAIR: There is not any like organisation in the defence industry—a very broad term—that is doing that sort of work. I went to DSTO and they were testing a soil sample they got from the Middle East to see whether chemical weapons had been used.

Prof. Field : Yes.

CHAIR: Not many people could do that, I imagine?

Prof. Field : There are people who can do that sort of thing, but I think DSTO is a very unique environment. One of the things that we recognise is security and confidentiality. The nature of the work that gets done means that some of it is not easily outsourced. That does mean that you have to have the in-house capability literally to deal with unexpected situations like the analysis of an unknown or a known substance in a soil sample.

CHAIR: Before I go to Senator Back, let me say that you recommend that Defence and DSTO expand opportunities for communication and engagement with the academic research centre. Does that currently happen, or does it just need to be continued or reinforced?

Prof. Field : It happens now, but I think this is one area where DSTO could take more advantage of the strong research sector that is in Australia, whether it is in the universities, the CSIRO or other institutions. For activities or projects that could be outsourced—I guess I am talking about projects which have a lower level of security or secrecy or confidentiality such that they could be done in an open environment—we have a very strong research sector. I think DSTO could engage more with the research expertise that we have in the various institutions around the country.

CHAIR: You also recommend that there be an engagement with the broader science sector to improve gender equality in its science workforce. Is that a point that your organisation has identified as being an omission of some sort?

Prof. Field : It is an omission across the whole sector, but particularly I think within DSTO. It is something that our academy has taken on as a priority—to make sure that we do build gender equality across the research sector. We would like to see that DSTO takes on that mantra as well as the rest of the research sector.

CHAIR: Thank you for that.

Senator BACK: How are you going?

Prof. Field : Very well, thank you.

Senator BACK: What, if any, incentives are there for the best and the brightest within the academy to want to pitch their careers into the defence science space?

Prof. Field : Look, I think the defence science space has always been an attractive area of what I call research of critical importance and high quality research. So it has been an attractive career opportunity for many of the scientists that are part of the academy or will be part of the academy. The degree of high quality research which gets done in DSTO is as good as any that is done elsewhere. It does have a particular bent in the sense that it is quite applied to defence oriented research, but nevertheless it is a very good career opportunity for many young scientists coming in to scientific careers. As to the incentives, as I said, firstly, it is a very good career opportunity. There are exciting problems to look at and things to be developed. So it provides a quite focussed set of projects which are attractive to scientists.

Senator BACK: Is it the case that, once they make the decision to go down that track, they remain in the defence science space, or do they move freely back into other commercial non-defence science related activity?

Prof. Field : I think the answer is there are definitely people who do this. I do not think it happens anywhere near enough. I think a lot of people who join the defence science organisations stay there for an extended period of time. I would love to see a much more frequent exchange of the personnel between DSTO and other organisations and that be a two-way exchange. I do recognise that you have, as I said before, a security issue in terms of making sure that confidential information remains confidential, and that does provide some sort of a barrier to free movement of people back and forth. But I think wherever it is possible to do so, it is quite important, I think, for research personnel from DSTO to get out, get more experience, gain expertise that they do not have, and vice versa—for people from the research sector across the country to be engaged more heavily with the sort of research which is done under DSTO's banner.

Senator BACK: The last witness had a military career in artillery and is now in defence industry. He made the observation that he thinks back somewhat askance at his lack of knowledge when he was operationally involved and in charge in an artillery space. He feels that if he had he known then what he knows now, he would have been more effective. We have military personnel who go on operations, be it in warlike activities or not. They become more senior. They often get bored with the bureaucracy of the ADF. They have this operational experience. Should this committee be recommending ways in which that cohort or some of that cohort, who may in fact have a science background or a willingness to be retrained in the science space, with their defence background and defence knowledge, would go into the DSTO space, or DSTG, and/or the academy? Is that a potential pool not being sourced at the moment?

Prof. Field : I think there are opportunities for, as I said, greater movement. I agree with you that there are great opportunities to get more experience into DSTO and to build on the experience that people have within DSTO. Like you said, if he had known then what he knows now, it would have been a different issue. That clearly means that we do miss out on the state-of-the-art knowledge, whether it is in industry, the universities or DSTO itself. I think you need to make the best use of state-of-the-art knowledge, no matter where it is. I think there are opportunities, particularly for the more senior staff, to move back and forth between those various sectors.

Senator BACK: You may be familiar with the Australian Defence Force parliamentary program, where we have the opportunity each year to spend a week or 10 days in the company of different personnel, some in Australia and some in the Middle East, East Timor and Solomons areas of operation. We continually talk to people at the operations level. They are junior, but they are the ones who in many instances, if it is in a warlike theatre, are likely facing the risk. Their frustration expressed to me is that they just do not seem to be able to get information through to decision makers about inadequacies in the equipment that they are dealing with day to day. I have had that experience with patrol boats in the Timor Sea. I have had it in the Middle East with vehicles—ASLAVs—and the type of protective equipment that they use et cetera. How, with the benefit of your experience, do we bridge that gap between the operational needs as identified by those who are in the firing line and those who need to be making decisions and doing research to correct or improve the circumstance being identified by operational people?

Prof. Field : This is a question that you could ask of any organisation or industry. How do you get good practical ideas and problems or issues that need to be resolved from the coalface—people who are either manning equipment, be it in a factory or even a university teaching courses—through the chain of command so that they get to a central place where they can be considered?

Senator BACK: And have the necessary research done to validate the issues and to provide the solutions.

Prof. Field : The answer is that I do not have a solution for you. But I know that in different organisations it depends incredibly on the mechanism that you have for communication from your people at the coalface through to the next level in terms of gathering all of the bits of information and being able to collect it, collate it and then having it considered by the next level up. At some stage or other, of course, somebody has to make a decision as to what you prioritise and what you do and what is important or what is more important. But the really hard part is collecting the brainstorming activity at the coalface, where you end up with a thousand ideas, of which a hundred will get prioritised and then a fraction of them would actually get done, or they would get done in some sort of a sequence. I think it is a communication issue whether you collectively get these brainstorming ideas around the table, whether you collect them electronically or whether you collect them by word of mouth. In some way, you have to have a long list of issues which then need to be fleshed out and prioritised.

Senator BACK: Thank you. This is my final question. Again, it comes as a result of discussion with previous witnesses. There is an ongoing trend of people who leave Defence, be it DSTO or DSTG, and go into defence industry because they see perhaps greater career expansion, progression, satisfaction or whatever. The discussion we had a few minutes ago was about the need for people, having done that at a more senior level in their careers, to turn around and go back into Defence armed with the combined knowledge of their Defence and defence industry experience. Firstly, do you think there is merit in that? Secondly, if there were, what sort of recommendations do you think this committee should make in terms of encouraging that process?

Prof. Field : I covered this a bit in response to one of the previous questions. I think there is definitely merit in people moving back and forth between the various sectors, be that an industry sector, as in the defence industry, the academic sector, as in universities, CSIRO or research, and the DSTO, and being able to move flexibly between those different sectors. The difficulty has always been breaking down the barriers to making the transition between those institutions over time. Sometimes they are trivial barriers—my superannuation does not move when I move from one place to another, or the taxation arrangements are not good. Sometimes there are just disincentives for this to happen. Trying to identify the barriers and breaking them down so that you can get flexible movement between the various sectors—as I said, industry, academia, research and DSTO—is very important. I agree 100 per cent that the experience you gain in one sector you build upon in another sector. It would be of great benefit quite often to bring it back again.

Senator BACK: My last question is totally out of left field. You may or may not be able to make a comment on it. If you cannot, please say so. We have ADFA, along with the professional training institutions for the army, navy and air force. The justification for ADFA is that the people complete university degrees at the same time as they are immersed in the military and have some military activity training. Therefore, in the case of army, they go to Duntroon eventually, but they only go for another six months or whatever. It is no doubt the same for the navy and air force. In the science space, you would have thought that so many students from ADFA would go through and become graduates in engineering, science and mathematics and their related areas. Are we seeing evidence in the science community and the engineering community of the benefit of ADFA graduates as such, or should we just revert to each of the three services training their officers in their own ways and letting the secular universities, if you like, do the engineering, mathematics and science training of these defence personnel? Where is the benefit of ADFA?

Prof. Field : Let me make it clear up front that I have a conflict of interest here. I am also deputy vice chancellor at the University of New South Wales. ADFA, or at least the university component of ADFA, comes under the University of New South Wales.

Senator BACK: That might not be a conflict of interest. It might be a confluence of interest, Professor Field.

Prof. Field : It could be. But I need to make it quite clear that while I have not got a vested interest myself, at least my university has a vested interest. My knowledge from what we do at UNSW of the graduates that we train through ADFA has been that the combination of having both a military education as well as a programmed university education—and it is primarily in, as you say, the STEM disciplines, so it is engineering, maths and science, although it does also pick up the humanities and the social sciences—I think builds the technical knowhow and the scientific literacy that you need in your officers particularly and in your military graduates. I think having the combination of the military plus the academic rigour is exceptionally important in making sure that you have people at the coalface who have good scientific and technical competency. That should be not only in their specialisation but also more generic training which at least allows them to solve problems and deal with technical issues on the fly. I am a great advocate of keeping the combination of what I call a good quality university education absolutely in lock step with the military education that they get.

Senator BACK: Thank you. Just for the record, I also am a strong advocate of the continuation of ADFA. I was not aware of your association with the university, so I thank you for the completeness of that answer.

CHAIR: Professor Field, you mention a couple of barriers, such as superannuation and taxation. Is it one-way traffic from Defence into the private sector, where basically to go back to a salary would be a big disincentive? Do people earn more in the private sector than in Defence?

Prof. Field : I think there is definitely the potential to earn more in the private sector than in Defence. Yes, that could well be a disincentive for people, particularly once they have advanced past the point of no return, so to speak, where a salary sacrifice would be either a disincentive or make it an impossibility.

CHAIR: This is on the point that Senator Back made. I have also experienced a similar line of information sharing where Defence has made a purchase or Defence has made a decision on whatever—uniforms or equipment—and it is almost like disloyalty to raise the evidence, if you like, that it is probably not as good as it should be. Is there any evaluation when a purchase is made? Is there any scientific evaluation of the evidence of how it is performing in its role? Do we do that?

Prof. Field : I am not aware of it. It is outside my realm of expertise. One imagines that, in every decision that gets made, they look at the science and technology behind whatever purchase is being made, particularly its future capability. In other words, you are not looking at something for today; you are looking at something for the lifetime of whatever you are buying, whether it is a uniform or a tank.

CHAIR: I think Henry Ford made that clear. You do not make any money selling motor cars. It is keeping them on the road where you make the money. I suppose Rear Admiral Doolan made exactly the same point; the real money in defence is in sustainment and in keeping your capability going.

Prof. Field : Yes.

CHAIR: So it would be disappointing if there was not any evidentiary evaluation of purchases. Thank you very much, Professor Field, for your evidence this morning. We are now approaching a 15-minute tea break.

Prof. Field : Thank you all.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. We will suspend for 15 minutes.

Proceedings suspended from 10.31 to 10.43