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Academic research for national security

Anthony Bergin

Government and governance, National security, Education | Australia

23 August 2017

National security policymakers need the advice and expertise of academics, and academics need to do more to engage with those in a position to put their ideas into practice, Anthony Bergin writes.

Universities are, supposedly, places of risky freethinking. But are academics doing enough to understand the needs of policymakers and how research might help policymakers understand the complex national security issues governments may face?

In an opinion piece today I considered what our policymakers need from academia, and here I’d like to elaborate some of the points in my article. The first problem is that the way academics have been traditionally trained and promoted doesn’t always encourage their engagement with policymakers. Scholars are rewarded for publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and not for spending the time and effort in thinking through policy issues in a structured way.

Many academics are uncertain about how to engage with policymakers and also tend to write about the ‘issue’, rather than about ‘policy’, meaning they often don’t get around to specific policy recommendations.

Breaking down these barriers is crucial to our national security policymaking. Creating the space to align the interests of policy and academia makes sense – particularly with the diverse range of threats that Australia now faces.

More on this: Are our universities failing society?

Academics can inform policy thinking by offering a depth of expertise based on long-term specialisation, say in area studies, that one doesn’t find much of in government.

In a small town like Canberra, it’s useful for government (if not exactly welcomed by the bureaucracy), to have lively debates around policy issues. This helps to challenge group-think and to force the public service to be more creative. Scholars can challenge policymakers to be innovative because academics have more freedom to think laterally.

I’d also argue that academics can help security policymakers by showing them new ways to understand a national security issue. The provision of context and a framework, if it’s thoughtful, can last longer than the answer to the specific question.

Academics can help to answer big questions through their research, for example on the stability of a government or what might happen if a country were to change its leadership. They can look at the overall way in which societies may be changing and what that might mean for our security. They can examine political beliefs or ideology and how that might affect societal violence.

Academic research is also helpful in looking at how a state’s capabilities or plans may be changing with respect to another state or how a state sees its strategic position in the region or in the world.

Government officials tend to move around in positions and may only have the latest file on an issue open in front of them. Academics, particularly those who have been working for a while in a particular area, can often give useful history about how previous officials or other agencies have addressed an issue.

Academic research is concerned with why events occur, which can be helpful to policymakers in the national security space. Scholarly research is also useful in identifying and measuring threats, whether they be political, cyber, terrorist, or military, as well as how, when, and to what end a threat would hurt Australian interests.

More on this: Work in policy? You should talk to a scientist

Research can have a longer-term perspective when much policy is essentially short-term in outlook. This has, for example, been the value of so-called Track 2 security forums like CSCAP, where many Australian security scholars have pushed officials to think ‘outside the box’ on regional security matters.

Academic research, if it’s any good, will show up what factors don’t matter when it comes to having an impact on national security. That will assist in ensuring limited government resources are being focused appropriately.

At the moment, there are some exchanges between academics and national security policymakers on specific issues but it would be useful to both sides to step that up.

The United States is often cited as an example where this exchange between government and scholars operates effectively. In the US scholars create formal and informal advisory roles, and regularly take temporary leave from their academic posting to work inside the beltway.

Creating a similar mechanism in Australia would help academics know what the needs are in national security (although some academics, it must be said, won’t want to know). There will always be some limits here, however, due to the highly secret nature of some security policy.

National security decisionmakers have to cover off many issues, and most of them are busy dealing with today’s crisis. Academics, therefore, need to put a lot of time into thinking about how best to get their ideas in front of policymakers.  This will require very careful targeting of opinion pieces and certain blogs or particular speaking events.

Finally, a suggestion. The government has created a new Home Affairs department, and I’d propose that department establish a research area. Both the US Department of Homeland Security and the UK Home Office have research groups, and other Australian departments have made progress in this space.

The AFP, for example, has made a significant investment in its own forensics sciences capability, and there’s a Countering Violent Extremism Centre in the Attorney-General’s Department which invests in research.

Similarly, Defence houses the National Security Science and Technology Centre that is responsible for coordinating science, (including social sciences), and technology across wholeofgovernment national security.

A specific research function should be built into the new Home Affairs Ministry, particularly given the vulnerabilities and emerging threats the new department will have to face. Such a research area should involve contracting out research to academia, just as is already happening in the USA.

It’s worth noting here that the recent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community recommends that the Office of National Assessments, (soon to be the Office of National Intelligence), develop a more systematic and substantive outreach program, including with academics.

National security policymakers don’t typically see universities as a key source of policy advice. But the model which is slowly emerging is for a more collaborative approach involving academics willing to challenge mindsets and policy orthodoxy.

Academics need to put themselves at the forefront of that collaborative and cooperative approach to ensure national security policy anticipates and better manages change and the challenges ahead.

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