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The Australian National University

Academia and public policy: the case of the National Security College

Valedictory address delivered by Professor Michael L'Estrange AO, 5 November 2014.

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Michael L'Estrange

Professor Michael L'Estrange AO

I would like to take the opportunity this evening to put the story of the establishment and development of the National Security College into the broader context of the interaction between scholars and policy practitioners in Australia, and to relate it particularly to the public policy mission of the Australian National University and the changing requirements of Australian national security policymaking.

In its modern form, the Australian story of the interaction between academia and public policy has been an evolving mix of reticence and engagement, shared purposes and distinctive roles.

Academic engagement in Australian public policy has taken many forms over a long period of time.  For example, Professor James Cotton’s wonderful book published last year on The Australian School of International Relations highlighted eight extraordinary individuals who moved between universities and government service between the 1920’s and 1950’s focusing on, and significantly influencing, Australia’s changing international role and choices.  Similarly, there have been many other Australian academics over the years who have seen themselves not as isolated intellectuals but as engaged contributors to community education in a broad sense and to a vibrant civic culture.  Others again have conducted academic research in highly productive ways that have facilitated innovation, enterprise and scientific breakthroughs in partnerships with government and the private sector.

Ian Young

Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young AO speaking at the event

There has been another view of scholarship, however, that has emphasised a different approach.  In that view, detachment from the processes of governance, though not from funding by government, was seen as both necessary and desirable for what many scholars saw as their true purpose : to follow through on deep intellectual curiosity wherever it may lead, and to pursue knowledge for its own sake.  An inevitable gap opened up between such scholars and those involved in public affairs and administration who saw their priorities very differently - as more immediate, more practical, more shaped by changing objectives, more dependent on information that was not necessarily complete or fully consistent, and more responsive to national interests and community needs.

This led to what Professor Peter Shergold once described as ‘the great divide’ between academic research and public policy development in Australia.
That ‘divide’ is focused on the differences between academic and policy practitioner approaches : their different work cultures, their different benchmarks for professional advancement, their different methodologies, and often their different starting points and end points.

There is also an emphasis on different priorities.  Practitioners are seen as focused on identifying in the public interest challenges, risks, vulnerabilities and opportunities, on recommending practical action to address them and on implementing  such action once decided by the government of the day.  The priorities  of academics are seen differently : providing societal, historical and comparative contexts, identifying patterns within a shifting balance of change and continuity, testing the possibilities for innovation, often in partnership with others, and pursuing evidence-based research the outcomes of which are unswayed by the particular policy preferences of the government of the day.

These differences between academic and policy contexts do reflect some ongoing realties.  But they do not constitute a comprehensive or enduring or impenetrable division between academia and public policy.  What is more, such differences have become less stark in contemporary circumstances in which both demand and supply contexts have changed.

On the demand side, the requirement of the policy world for knowledge and perspectives derived beyond government has grown significantly.  This continues to be driven by the accelerating pressures of economic globalisation and the information revolution, and by the inter-connectedness and complexities of so many dimensions of modern public policy, particularly national security policy.  It is also being driven by the decline over recent times in the in-house research capabilities of most agencies and departments of government. 
One result is that the interaction between scholarly work and practitioner priorities has increasing potential relevance across all dimensions of the national interest – from the life sciences to the social sciences, from biotechnology to information technology, from health care research to demography, from environmental protection to energy resource access, from global terrorism to arms control, and in many other areas as well.  Between cup and lip, of course, much can be lost! But the potential gains are clear with the challenge lying in their realisation.

In national security, one particular driver of the expanding demand for non-government input relates to the broadening concept of education in the armed forces, and especially the importance of civilian graduate education for military officers.  One of the United States’ most senior officers of recent times, General David Petraeus, famously said in 2007 that “the most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind”.  I can imagine some very dire circumstances where a soldier’s weapon would be uniquely valuable – but I understand the point the General was making! David Petraeus went on to say:

“The future of the US military requires that we be competent warfighters.  But we cannot be competent warfighters unless we are as intelligent and mentally tough as we are aggressive and physically rugged.  We will become that way not merely by observing the differences between the military and the civilian academic world but by experiencing them first hand.” 
The compelling logic of this approach has been implemented extensively over time in the United States, and also in many other countries.  And it resonates particularly strongly in the outlook and practical commitments of the Australian Defence Force, with which the National Security College, along with other areas of ANU, has such strong ongoing connections.

So, demand on the part of those in government, or serving governments of the day, for non-government knowledge and perspectives is certainly growing.  The supply of policy-relevant and capability-relevant knowledge is also growing.  Universities, of course, are one such source of supply - but only one.  There are many others in think-tanks, in professional bodies, in non-government organisations, in consultancy companies, and in other entities comprising ‘knowledge brokers’ committed specifically to providing what is now called ‘analysis for action’.  In a wider sense, the potential sources of knowledge are growing exponentially, facilitated by what Professor Glyn Davis described in his 2010 Boyer Lectures as a global, digitised and increasingly open ‘republic of learning’.

Furthermore, these sources of knowledge supply are delivered through proliferating means - from books and journals to websites and blog sites, from print and electronic media to social and new media.

These shifting parameters of demand and supply are eroding many of the old mindsets about the quarantined and segmented roles of the academic and policy worlds.  So where does this leave the current interaction between the two?

Some distance between academia and policy processes has always been necessary, desirable and healthy for both.  That remains the case today, and it will into the future. So too, universities are, and should remain, home to research that is unconnected to public policy priorities and whose practical applications are uncertain.  But what is also clear is that the scope for, and potential value of, productive interaction between the academic and public policy worlds is greater, and more needed, today than it has ever been.

This interaction will work most productively when policy practitioners and academics guard against insularity, inaccessibility and false expectations of each other; when they clarify what works best for each in terms of the focus, outcomes and presentation of research in the context of evidence-based policy; when practitioners encourage and assess on their merits new ideas, options and analyses from external sources (including academia); when academic contributions reflect genuinely interdisciplinary approaches relevant to public policy choices rather than rigid and artificial compartmentalisation; when such academic contributions illuminate policy choices by providing value-adding qualities in terms of context, perspective, practicality and consequences; when there is academic understanding that practical policy complexities rarely yield to neat conceptual templates; when there is practitioner recognition that the value of academic exchanges lies more often in the search for common understanding of problems than in the quest for agreed solutions to them; and perhaps, above all, when academics acknowledge the requirement for practitioners to be responsive to the public interest and to the priorities of the government of the day/ and when practitioners respect the primacy of intellectual integrity in academic contributions to public policy.

These are circumstances in which academic/practitioner interaction works best.  It works sub-optimally when the value of academic or other research is calibrated by policy practitioners only in terms of its compatibility with established thinking and policies; or when academic research is cherry-picked for its utility in cross-portfolio rivalries; or when academic contributions themselves constitute little more than strident, one-dimensional advocacy rather than genuine value-adding insights.

In international terms, the United States led the way not only in integrating the work of academia and the directions of public policy but also in facilitating exchanges between  those in academic positions and government service. In fact, the productive and vigorous interaction of public sector, private sector and academic expertise across the full range of American public policy challenges and opportunities has been one of the defining strengths of its system of governance and its capacity for national renewal.  The same trend, if not the same intensity, has been increasingly apparent over more recent times in other countries, particularly in Europe and parts of Asia.

Australia too has adapted to the forces of change that have enhanced the potential value of scholar/practitioner exchanges.  But we have done so with our own distinctive mix of enthusiasm and neglect, stop and start, fulfilment and frustration.  Important progress has been made in co-operative partnerships in some areas of public policy, but the surface of the potential in many others has only been scratched.

Over recent years, it has become clearer in Australia, as elsewhere, that the osmosis at work between the academic and policy practitioner worlds can operate in many ways and through many means.

There are constructive contributions to be made by academic analyses that challenge conventional wisdom or the conceptual frameworks in which particular public policies are developed.  It is also true, but less often acknowledged, that equally constructive contributions can be made by academic analyses that are less contrary, that reinforce the relevance of broad directions of prevailing policymaking, or that highlight the benefits of adaptations to them rather than their abandonment.  Questioning policy assumptions and outcomes, which is a positive academic contribution, does not inevitably lead to rejection of them because scholarly analyses should lead where they will, irrespective of current policy settings.

Just as the scope of constructive academic contributions to public policymaking processes is broad, so too are the ways in which such contributions can be made.  Some academic influences on policymaking can be an unintended by-product rather than a pre-determined purpose, for example when the academic publication of data or interpretative analyses is drawn on at their own initiative by Ministers, or policy practitioners or intelligence analysts to assist their work.  Other academic contributions to policymaking processes can be more deliberate and focused encompassing informed public commentary on topical policy issues of the day, or directly commissioned academic advice, or membership of public-private partnerships, advisory committees and government reviews.

In more recent times, and certainly for the National Security College, there has been another important channel through which academic perspectives can contribute to public policy – namely, the provision of intensive executive and professional development courses for those working in government on policy or intelligence issues or in defence and law enforcement roles.  Such courses contribute less publicly but no less importantly to public policymaking perspectives by testing assumptions, broadening horizons, exploring new dimensions and encouraging new professional connections. 

In all these aspects of the changing interaction between academic work and public policy, the Australian National University has played a pathbreaking role in this country.

The Act of Parliament establishing the ANU, which was passed into law in 1946, set out the purposes of the University including its role “to encourage, and provide facilities, for post-graduate research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia”. 

From its inception, therefore, a connection to public policy issues has been in this University’s DNA.  ANU’s founders, including HC Coombs and Sir John Crawford, saw the fulfilment of its responsibilities in relation to “subjects of national importance to Australia” as part of the University’s contribution to ‘public service’ in its widest context and a reflection of a bargain between the University and the national community that helped to sustain it. 

The connection to public policy issues has continued as a distinctive characteristic of the ANU for almost seventy years. Along with excellence in education and research, the pursuit of excellence as a national and international policy resource stands as one of the three pillars of the University’s current Strategic Plan, ‘ANU to 2020’.

Almost exactly five years ago, the National Security College was instituted as a joint initiative between the Commonwealth and the ANU. The vison for the College was as clear as it was challenging.  Drawing on a base of high quality education, research and outreach, the College aspired to enhance strategic understanding and critical thinking on Australia’s current and emerging national security environment, to facilitate trusted networks of interaction among areas of national security expertise within and outside government, and to build greater awareness and appreciation among Commonwealth agencies and departments of different perspectives on issues of shared focus. 

The means whereby the College could achieve progress towards this vision were equally clear and challenging.  They lay in a commitment to open intellectual exchanges and shared professional experiences; the pursuit of best practice teaching and research on national security issues as part of the College’s academic program; the development of a tailored range of programs in executive and professional development for officers of the national security community in government; the promotion of a contested learning environment built on broad and trusted relationships; and the implementation of an active outreach program to engage the perspectives of the States and Territories, the private sector, non-government organisations and the wider community on national security issues.  

The vision for the National Security College was an ambitious one, requiring the application of deep reserves of trust and goodwill by all parties.  The means for realising that vison were equally ambitious, demanding effective co-operation among many partners and broad bases of support.

Over the past five years, the College has committed itself in a wholehearted way to translating its broad aspirational goals into practical progress on the ground.

Since June 2010, when the College ran its first course for national security community officers, it has conducted 72 separate such courses attended by almost 2,000 participants from a broad cross-section of government agencies and departments.

Since 2011, when the College began the first academic courses in its new Masters and Graduate Certificate programs in national security studies, it has now reached the point where it has over 100 students enrolled in those NSC degree programs with good prospects for future growth in numbers. 

The College has also implemented an active research program and an extensive range of public outreach activities.

This progress over a relatively brief period of time has been made possible by many factors.

One was the vison and commitment of those who, at its inception, saw a college such as this as being in the national interest as well as being supportive of the purposes for which this University was established.   And I am thinking in that context particularly of the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the then Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb, the then National Security Adviser Duncan Lewis, and the then Deputy National Security Adviser Angus Campbell.  That vision and commitment have been sustained over time.  They have been reflected in the strong support and encouragement that the College has received from Commonwealth agencies and departments, as well as in the productive and developing partnerships that have been built within the University.

The College’s progress also owes much to the commitment and hard work of its small staff.  They have been part of implementing a big and bold idea – a task that demands resilience as well as creativity, activism as well as endurance, faith as well as hope. NSC staff have shown all those qualities and many more over recent years, and what has been achieved by this College is a reflection of their dedication and professionalism.

As ever, the National Security College needs to look more to its future than its past.  As I have said on many occasions, this College is only as good as its next Executive Development Course, its next academic semester, its next research output, its next outreach activity.

The College should approach these challenges confident in the knowledge that the convictions and purposes which inspired its establishment five years ago remain even more relevant today. 

Australia’s national security opportunities and challenges are increasingly inter-connected among political, military, diplomatic, economic, technological, societal and demographic developments.  That inter-connectedness demands policy responses which effectively co-ordinate the different perspectives of Commonwealth agencies and departments, the various layers of government in Australia as well as the private sector, non-government organisations, academia and the wider community.  In this context, the College’s work to facilitate trusted networks linking areas of national security expertise within, as well as outside, government remains more relevant that ever.

In addition to being increasingly inter-connected, the national security opportunities and challenges that Australia faces are also increasingly complex and contested.  Correlations of power among major states are changing.  The concept of ‘national security’ in Australia is evolving.  Older demarcations between domestic and foreign policy priorities, and between public sector and private sector responsibilities, are changing in important ways.  The balance between community security and individual rights is being re-calibrated.  The interaction between national security policy aspirations and resourcing capacities is shifting in an era of fiscal constraint.  In the context of these and other challenges, the College’s role in enhancing strategic awareness and critical thinking has even greater potential resonance.

The College has special ongoing responsibilities as a joint initiative of the Commonwealth and the ANU.  It needs to be responsive to national security policymaking priorities and requirements.  And it also needs to safeguard the University’s standards of excellence in teaching, research and intellectual integrity.  These are demanding and critically important responsibilities, and in their implementation lies the key to the College’s continuing relevance and growth.

May I conclude on a personal note.  Almost forty years ago, I had the good fortune to be taught by Hedley Bull when he was Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, a position to which he came from the Chair in International Relations which he held with such distinction here at ANU.  The time I had with Hedley at Oxford were days when undergraduates still had long one-on-one seminars with the great professors – an experience that I still remember as being both terrifying and incredibly uplifting at the same time!

Hedley Bull remains to this day – almost thirty years on from his death – the single most important intellectual influence on me.  This was not because our views of the world coincided – they often did not, although his were incomparably more informed than mine!  But in terms of the rigour of his method, the logic of his argument, the sweep of his intellectual vision and the elegant power of his writing, Hedley Bull was, and in my view still is, in a league of his own.

Hedley often referred to the inherent tensions between the focus of public policy and the purposes of academic study and inquiry, and the very real challenges that each faced in connecting with the other.  He once wrote that the study of world politics was ‘an intellectual activity and not a practical one’.  But, for all that, he also appreciated the mutual benefits to be derived from productive exchanges between officials and academics.  In fact, in the mid-1960’s he was for a number of years Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit of the British Foreign Office.  In 1968, while at ANU, Hedley Bull wrote of scholar/practitioner relations in the following terms:

“Steps should be taken to break down some of the barriers in Australia which divide officials from non-officials… and which impoverish thinking about defence and foreign policy matters on both sides”.         

Over four decades later, I am very proud to have had the opportunity to be a part of such steps being taken through the work of the National Security College – steps which, in my view, contribute positively to public policy processes, which are attuned to the new possibilities for scholar/practitioner relations, and which complement the work of so many others in pursuing this University’s historic mission and ongoing priorities. The National Security College has come a long way in five years, and it now has the capacity to achieve even more in the future.  I am sure that with sustained goodwill, strong partnerships and productive hard work, it will do so.


Updated:  14 November 2014/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College