Defence research ‘antidote’ to Covid’s lost billions: thinktank

Formalised defence R&D ties could recoup one-quarter of the research funds lost from Australia’s ailing international education industry

July 26, 2021
Sailors stand in line with a boat going behind them as a metaphor for Defence research ‘antidote’ to Covid’s lost billions: thinktank
Source: Getty

Australian universities should align themselves with defence agencies and armaments companies to salvage research funding and wean themselves off their China dependency, according to the head of an influential Canberra thinktank.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says a “formalised research partnership” modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) could replace 25 per cent of the research money provided by international students.

It could also alleviate the risks of universities’ overdependence on China – risks made “painfully obvious” by the pandemic’s choking of foreign student flows and Beijing’s willingness to use international education revenue as a “coercive instrument” to “punish Australian policy independence”.

In a report co-authored with former chief defence scientist Robert Clark, Mr Jennings proposes a “university analogue” of the Technical Cooperation Programme, which guides collaboration among the defence research agencies of the “Five Eyes” nations of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Like Darpa, the collaboration would hire programme managers from pools of university, government and corporate scientists, and give them a free hand to pursue cutting-edge research likely to yield game-changing technologies but also at risk of “hitting dead ends”.

The scheme would boost universities’ chances of sharing in an estimated A$8 billion (£4.3 billion) of Australian defence research and development funding this decade, along with “very significant” revenue from US agencies. The approach could gradually be extended to other Five Eyes nations along with “key European friends”, Japan and India.

International students earned Australian universities almost A$10 billion in 2019 alone. They delivered more than A$1 billion to individual institutions such as the University of Sydney, which made about A$160 million from government and private research contracts in all fields.

Mr Jennings, a former political adviser and defence department deputy secretary, conceded that defence research income would “only be a partial solution” to universities’ funding problems. But he pointed out that the defence budget was well over A$40 billion.

“There’s a fair amount of money in that to slosh around,” he told Times Higher Education. “More needs to go ultimately towards R&D. When you look at what could come from the UK and the US in particular, quite a few hundreds of millions is not unrealistic.”

Mr Jennings acknowledged that some academics would resist involvement with defence research. But he said universities already garnered defence funding from both Australian and US sources, and the types of academics most opposed to such income – those from politics faculties, for example – would be unlikely to attract it anyway.

“It’s too easy to paint a story of the military industrial complex on campus being a bad thing. If you’re working on hypersonics or optronics or radar or thermal layers in the ocean, you’re probably open to the thought that there’s defence relevance to the work. I know a lot of those folk and I have no doubt they think that’s a decent and honourable thing for them to be doing.”

The paper says China ties are becoming increasingly problematic for Australian universities as Washington tightens its oversight of American universities and enlists them in its technology war with Beijing. “This approach will increasingly inform thinking among governments in developed democracies around the world. In this hardened reality, the current largely open approach of Australian research universities to their international links is significantly exposed.”

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Reader's comments (1)

If the defence department has a "fair amount of money" "to slosh around", it should be taken away from the department and used for other valid causes including independent research.