National security relies on STEM

April 19, 2016

Building a highly trained STEM workforce is critical to Australia’s defence and national security, says Chief Defence Scientist, Dr Alex Zelinsky.

national security

For Australia to be a prosperous, healthy and sustainable country it must be safe and secure. We expect our defence forces and national security agencies to be at the leading edge in their capabilities. Increasingly, this edge is underpinned by science and technology, which requires recruiting and developing our country’s most gifted scientists and engineers.

These talented professionals do not emerge by accident. They must be encouraged in our schools and tertiary institutions and then nurtured and supported through dedicated programs to achieve fulfilling careers. Australian institutions, including the Department of Defence, must be deeply committed to developing a future workforce with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).


“In this age of digital disruption, the most secure countries will rely on platforms that are powered by STEM knowledge.”


STEM skills will underpin effective national security as Australia acquires sophisticated, multi-billion dollar platforms, including Future Submarine, Future Frigate, Joint Strike Fighter, Air Warfare Destroyer, Unmanned Aircraft and Cyber capabilities. All of these platforms will require STEM support during acquisition and throughout their service life.

Australia’s defence and national security sectors need to stay ahead of the technology curve to both create and prevent strategic surprise. Autonomous systems, cyber technology, electronic warfare, quantum computing and space exploitation are potentially game-changing technologies. In this age of digital disruption, the most secure countries will rely on platforms that are powered by STEM knowledge.

It is vital that our nation builds a ’talent pipeline’ to ensure a steady flow of highly trained scientists, technologists and engineers who can develop innovative solutions for future national security challenges.

A model for fostering talent in STEM 

The Department of Defence is actively engaged in a wide variety of STEM-focused initiatives, ranging from a ‘Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools’ program through to undergraduate and PhD scholarships.

We support further education by offering our employees generous study leave, and encourage diversity in STEM through scholarships and cadetships dedicated to women and Indigenous Australians.

We also encourage undergraduate university students to undertake summer vacation work and other paid work placements with Defence, both short-term and long-term.

In 2015–16, Defence provided over 100 STEM scholarships, cadetships and work placements. A number of sponsored students went on to win awards such as the South Australian Early Career STEM Professional Award (Mark McKenzie, 2013 and Tristan Goss, 2015), the South Australian Apprentice of the Year  (Dale Goldfinch, 2012), the inaugural Aerospace Australia Defence Innovation Scholarship (Luke Vandewater, 2012) and Materials Australia’s Ray Reynoldson Award for research (Genevieve Hart, 2013).

These success stories are testament to the promising rewards reaped by investing in Australia’s future STEM workforce.

Dr Alex Zelinsky

Chief Defence Scientist and Head of the Defence Science and Technology Group

Read next: Vish Nandlall, Chief Technology Officer of Telstra on To code or not to code?

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