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ASPI’s submission to PM&C’s review of funding for strategic policy work

Independent, expert and evidence-based national security research and analysis has never been more important than it is now that we are in a period of rising strategic uncertainty. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute believes that government support for such research is crucial to the nation’s interests.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Independent Review of Commonwealth funding for strategic policy work—led by University of Queensland Chancellor Peter Varghese—provides an opportunity to strengthen the role that think tanks play in bringing contestability and adding vitality to established national security policy debate.

Over the past two decades, ASPI has evolved and adapted to strategic developments, addressing immediate defence and security issues while identifying new trends and exploring emerging areas that fall into research gaps or require new expertise. Changes in technology and geopolitics have dramatically transformed the strategic landscape—and ASPI has demonstrated a continuing agility in keeping up with, and staying ahead of, those trends.

ASPI has developed a globally competitive advantage in foundational, data-driven and policy-relevant work that looks over the horizon. Our publication of original datasets, coupled with frank and fearless advice, provides contestability and an essential evidence-base to inform decision-makers.

ASPI’s leadership and Council is closely cooperating with the PM&C review, have met with Peter Varghese and the review secretariat several times and appreciate the ongoing engagement. ASPI is publishing our submission to the review to ensure stakeholders have full access to it. As we told PM&C and the review team, we believe all submissions to the review should be published.

As Australia’s only dedicated defence and security think tank—and one of the very few in the Indo-Pacific region—ASPI complements the work of other institutes in Australia that focus predominantly on foreign policy, trade and economics. Most of these institutes aren’t traditional think tanks but are embedded within Australian universities and hence are shaped by that academic setting. Both types—stand-alone and university-based—are valuable inputs to policy.

The establishment of an ASPI office in Washington DC in mid-2022 has filled a gap that existed in the non-government policy community between Australia and the United States—an important priority at a time when Australia’s strategic concerns, centred on the Indo-Pacific, need to be championed in the capital of our major ally. This value has long been recognised by other countries that have established think tanks in Washington, such as the United Kingdom, India, Japan and Germany.

ASPI’s submission outlines the role of think tanks in Australia and makes 10 recommendations to the PM&C review. Most of these recommendations aren’t limited to ‘strategic policy work’ but should apply to all Commonwealth funding, especially in related fields.

The submission also made the following key points to the PM&C review:

  • Australia’s think-tank sector is small and remains underdeveloped. Nonetheless, some now attract a very global audience and it would not serve Australia’s interests to lose that global access and influence. Ten years ago ASPI’s stakeholder base was largely in Canberra. Today, our stakeholders are global, and readership is just as strong internationally as it is in Australia. The sector needs to be supported and developed, and new entrants should be encouraged.
  • Fee-for-service funding and narrow grant parameters rarely generate work that is innovative, far-reaching and relevant to long-term policy making. ASPI’s most forward-looking and globally impactful research projects are the result of ideas that our staff generate, not simply responding to grants or tenders, many of which tackle yesterday’s policy challenges. As such, a narrow funding model would limit national security research to parameters set by the government of the day. Responding to current policy priorities is important, but think tanks must also look long-term and set their own research agendas to provide fundamental contestability.
  • Australian think tanks should have a presence in Washington as other countries do. The US has more than 2200 think tanks, with more than 300 in Washington alone. ASPI’s office in Washington has filled a longstanding gap. The ANU has a unique presence in the Australian Embassy in DC. Australian think tanks and universities should have a greater presence in Washington to share Australian perspectives.
  • Funding for sensitive research should be incentivised and increased. Australian Government departments and agencies tend to avoid funding research on sensitive topics. This goes against the national interest and puts a greater burden on Australia’s partners and allies to fund that work (notably, ASPI’s China research, for example, is heavily used by Australian officials, but most often funded by Australia’s partners). Think tanks can and need to delve into challenges that go beyond the topic and government of the day. There is demonstrably strong interest from government stakeholders and the public in that analysis.
  • National security has at times suffered from limited transparency and ‘closed shop’ tendencies, leading to a combination of considerable public interest but limited public knowledge. This can increase Australia’s vulnerability to disinformation and misinformation that can be easily and cheaply spread online. Platforms such as ASPI’s Strategist (and the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter) are powerful ways to reach wider audiences in Australia and globally, especially in an era where there is shrinking space for international news and analysis.

ASPI has an international reputation that reflects the appreciation that the policy community around the world has for Australia’s defence and security thinking. The PM&C review affords an opportunity to consider in depth the value of dedicated national security research and an informed public discourse. We encourage all interested stakeholders to engage with the review and with national security debate in Australia.