Taking on the Chief Defence Scientist role earlier this year, Professor Tanya Monro is looking to build on the solid foundation of her predecessors while also ‘doing a smaller number of larger things’. ADM spoke with Professor Monro about the future of DST Group under her leadership.

ADM: DST Group has traditionally been the S&T advice partner for Defence across its many organisational iterations. Is this still the core business and if [not], how has the delivery model changed?

Monro: That’s something I’ve thought quite deeply about coming into the role and in forming my own view of where we sit and where we need to go. There’s no question that our core role is still to be Defence’s trusted science and technology adviser and solutions provider. However, there are trends that we’re seeing already emerge and that I think will accelerate. There’s a clear appetite in the ADF; that stems from the realisation that science and technology is transforming their game. That future wars won’t look like previous wars and that the advantage that we’ll have nationally will come from science and technology.

And while the history of defence is scattered with wonderful examples of S&T protecting the war fighter, there’s a realisation that I think has never been there before that the pace of change is accelerating. Science and technology are core to that.

The way the model I see is changing is that we realise that no matter how effective and well partnered DST Group is with the ADF, we have a role now not just to be the delivery agent but also the facilitator and the delivery agent. What I mean by that is there are some elements of S&T that can and must only be done by government, i.e. within DST. But we also have a role in harnessing the broader research ecosystem in Australia and supporting the industry in Australia to make sure that we can harness that much greater pool of ideas and intellectual capacity for the needs of Defence. I’d say it’s an evolution rather than a revolution but it’s one with quite a fast pace to it.

ADM: How is DST working with other research and innovation programs like Plan Jericho or Army Innovation Day?

Monro: The way we work with initiatives like Jericho and the Army Innovation Day is through really tight partnership within the One Defence ethos to make sure that our academic partners around the country are engaged, and that colleagues across ADF work with the best people for the fields that they’re looking to work in. So we’re key to of our ADF colleagues’ outreach into academia. Within Defence, DST are the people who speak the language of research and know what good looks like. We also play a critical role in helping our academic colleagues know how to work with Defence to make sure their work has a pathway to impact.

ADM: Is there a formal role with DST with large shipbuilding programs like the Future Submarine and the Future Frigate?

Monro: Yes, it takes a couple of forms. All of our really big programs have science and technology project activities that travel alongside them. So as technology matures, we’re able to insert at appropriate points everything from new software systems to new materials to new ways of using new platforms. A critical role we play is in the technical risk validation process as we go through this really major financial commitment.

What I’m really most pleased about with these really big programs is that we no longer just focus on getting the technology in that’s absolutely mature and combat ready, but that we actually have a portfolio of science and technology associated with the big programs. So as well as solving the problems we know about today we’ve also got a pathway of future developments that will go onto all ships and boats further down the line too. That we can make sure that they’ve got the best and latest technology at the time they’re being manufactured. It’s an embedded approach.

ADM: You mentioned the role of technical risk validation. Are you able to give me an example of that?

Monro: Since the Defence Procurement Review of 2003, the Chief Defence Scientist has been required to provide independent technical risk assessments and advice to Defence on all major capital equipment projects seeking government approval. Technical risk assessments are performed by DST subject matter experts and forms the basis of CDS’s technical risk certification to government for first and second pass approvals. This advice directly shapes key decisions related to project requirements, options, scope, acquisitions strategy, and risk mitigation. In 2017-18, for instance, technical risk assessments were provided for Land 400 Land Combat Vehicle System (Phases 2,3), Sea 5000 Future Frigate (Phase 1) and Air 7000 Multi-mission Unmanned Aircraft System (Phase 1 B).

ADM: Are you able to give an update as to what the Next Generation Technologies Fund is up to?

Monro: The Next Gen Tech Fund is really now quite well established, being in its third year. It’s got over 130 research activities going and has now cracked 1,000 submissions. What’s really interesting is that over 30 per cent of the submissions are from people that have not worked with Defence before.

We’re starting to now align the broader R&D system and shape it to the needs of Defence. In the last financial year there was $44 million over significant new projects. For example, the Smart Satellite CRC has seen a $12 million commitment through the Next Gen Tech Fund leveraging $254 million of total activity. We’ve got some really significant Defence programs built into that CRC.

There’s also two new research networks, one in quantum technology and one in integrated intelligence. So the Next Gen Tech Fund has got to a point where some of the first projects are now starting to complete.

I would also say that we’re evolving towards doing a smaller number of larger things via the introduction of science and technology missions. Essentially what we’re looking to do is try and plan to deliver some of the really big, leap-ahead programs that will really be those future success stories that DST wants to be known for. At the moment we do many things that are really valued by stakeholders, but you could argue that we’re spread thin.

One way of dealing with being spread thin is to harness partners, which is what we’re doing and the strategy we’ve talked about so far. But there is a very deliberate approach we’re taking to develop missions which are essentially really ambitious, specific and tangible, capability demonstrations that are the next 5-10 years in the future, the missions will give a significantly greater degree of focus to our activities and those of our partners and they build on the collaborative approach and framework established through the NGTF program. It’s about concentrating effort in some moon-shot projects.

ADM: Are you able to give me an example of these sort of moon-shot projects?

Monro: One example is developing the next generation of autonomous undersea surveillance. Another will be demonstrating the capacity to operate in contaminated environments. As the missions are developed they’re going to get more specific so that there really are clear targets and aspirations.

ADM: How would you characterise the innovation environment that Defence has built since the release of the 2016 policy suite?

Monro: Defence innovation programs like the Innovation Hub and Next Gen Tech Fund are now relatively well known by the broader community.

We’re now increasingly exploring ways we can make it seamless for really good ideas to come through those systems and to push up the technology readiness level. We’re also now starting and actively looking at what we need to do to have a really truly low bureaucracy approach to pulling really good ideas through the system to the user.

The challenge we have is that the cost of development grows as you get further up the technology readiness level. You need to be able to have a mechanism to pull things through quickly that you think might address capability gaps, while at the same time is being able to do technology foresighting. To say “this is what the experts think will be possible/may be possible” and then deciding from that what’s going to be absolutely critical to the ADF in the future and fast-tracking it.

ADM: So looking to remove a bit of the red tape around bringing good ideas up and realising them?

Monro: Yes, we’re doing that both through our own workload and through partnerships. We’re not thinking for a minute that we have everything it takes within Defence because of the scale of the challenge and the scale of the opportunities.

ADM: DST has the five domain plans for joint, intelligence, airline and sea. How are these domain plans progressing since their release a couple of years ago?

Monro: The domain plans remain the roadmap for those areas. That said, I see strong innovation in all of those areas that comes from our partnerships with the ADF. I’m increasingly seeing those domain roadmaps are starting to deliver more boldness in trying new things. What I’m really excited about is the way those domain plans are actually giving DST challenges to see whether we can demonstrate new capability in quite short timeframes.

ADM: And what about the Grand Challenge Program, where is that up to?

Monro: We had a very strong response asking for proposals to the first Grand Challenge for Countering Improvised Threats. We received 215 submissions from industry and universities and narrowed them down to 13 high quality proposals. Over 20 organisations including universities, primes and SMEs, are involved in these 13 proposals and are working on jointly developing prototypes of a threat detection and defeat system over four years. Defence is investing $19 million in these successful proposals.

Each project under the Grand Challenges program is to be funded between $100,000 to $1 million per year depending

on scale, complexity and risk, for a duration of one to three years. The results of individual projects feed into other projects, contributing in an integrated way to the Grand Challenge.

But the Grand Challenge has taught us so much more. Through this program we have learned how we can relate to partners in solving large and complex problems for Defence and this has prepared us for the next stage of the Defence Science and Technology challenge - focussing our energies and efforts on some leap-ahead technologies, or moon shots as I have called them in the past.

At present we are developing a series of research missions to harness internal and external research efforts. In time I foresee the Grand Challenge program morphing towards these missions. Stand by for more later this year.

ADM: What are the broad technology trends globally that you’re seeing will have a flow-on effect in Australia?

Monro: What we’re seeing is a really dramatically increased pace of change in everything to do with data, AI, machine learning, along with our increased rate of threat around data, and cyber issues. We’re seeing increased challenge around communications and information exchange, and as we head towards the Internet of Things it really changes what we’re protecting and how we need to protect it.

At the same time, probably one of the most profound changes is the really significant investment by other countries in science and technology. It means we can’t be complacent that just because we’ve been really good in certain areas historically, we can’t assume that with our current level of investment we can stay good at them.

I’m always very deeply impressed by what we can do through true partnerships and in order to be able to secure those true partnerships, whether that be domestic or particularly with international partnerships, whether that’s with our own colleagues or other key strategic international partners, we have to be really good at something.

This is our absolute strength. There is no organisation in Australia, I would argue, with the scale and focus of DST for R&D. We’re the second largest publicly funded research organisation to CSIRO. CSIRO has a broader range of applications and customers in contact. DST has a more focused application domain which allows our people to build enduring relationships and deep domain knowledge and a significant government investment in science and tech support for that customer. I think our absolute distinct value proposition is that we can really deliver transformative S&T to the ADF.

ADM: When you say scale and focus, do you mean your ability to bring a relatively large quantity of resources to focus on a comparatively smaller problem?

Monro: Yes. It’s not that it feels like that to us because as soon as you’re inside the model, you want to do more. But relative to the rest of the landscape that’s trying to cover a broader area, I would argue that we’ve got the opportunity to deliver real impact, really big game-changing tech to Defence because of that degree of scale and degree of focus. Although I believe that we’re spread too thin at the moment and one of my initiatives through the missions is to get that greater scale around a relatively smaller number of problems.

The absolute privilege and advantage is having the ADF as a partner that’s absolutely built into the fabric of everything we do. Others out there in the research sector not only have to find out who’s interested in what they do but how to understand their language and the domain in order to be able to make sure that what they do has impact.

We’re absolutely blessed. We can send scientists out on deployment so they can see firsthand the problems that are being faced. We can have ADF people in our labs making sure that what we do in our research is shaped by the need. And as I said right at the beginning, the absolute appetite from ADF for new technology is just fantastic because we can be a bit bolder.

ADM: What lessons are you bringing from your previous roles into DST?

Monro: A number of things. The obvious one is what drives the university sector, having been in senior leadership roles in universities for 15 years. That deep understanding of how the university sector works and how we can most effectively set up our collaboration mechanisms so that we get the best contribution from what are world class universities, 40-odd of them.

The second I’d say is that the work that I’ve done in building high performing cultures. To develop low tolerance for poor behaviour and really include diverse people and perspectives. Coming into DST it’s really interesting that so many people just love the work they get to do in DST and build long careers here. That’s wonderful and it’s an asset. But we also need to get better at bringing in a more diverse range of people and in deliberately build in tow-way mobility with industry and academe and being able to really harness them and one aspect of that that’s really, really obvious here is gender.

ADM: That’s quite interesting, because we recently ran the Women in Defence Awards and the key message is that you can’t innovate if everybody has the same perspective on something.

Monro: Absolutely. One of the things that I bring to this role is experience and a deep appreciation for the value of diversity and inclusive culture and the demonstrated ability to lift culture along with performance, I know that’s something I’m very focused on. Finally I bring extensive shaping experience everything from pure, high-quality blue-sky research right through to commercialisation and spinning out companies.

This article first appeared in the September 2019 edition of ADM.

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