Andrew Davies is the former Director of the Defence and Strategy Program for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Before joining ASPI, Andrew was a post doctoral fellow in physics at Melbourne University and the ANU, and worked for the Department of Defence in the areas of capability analysis and intelligence. In our interview, Andrew spoke about the role of think-tanks in policy making, and his advice for building a successful career in international affairs.
What is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and what does it do? What role do think-tanks serve in international affairs?
ASPI’s work closely matches its charter from government (as it must). Our main roles are:
providing independent advice to government (and the polity more broadly)
fostering a more informed public debate on defence and security issues
helping to develop the next generation of strategic thinkers.
We do that day to day by hosting discussions and public events and by publishing reports and opinion pieces ranging from 800 word blog pieces to 20,000 word in depth research papers. We work with the media a lot, providing commentary of government decisions and contemporary issues, and sometimes just helping journalists to understand the issues to inform their own work. We also run a paid internship program and teach programs to graduate entrants in government programs.
I think that think tanks generally play a role in government decision making in two ways – by coming up with innovative policy ideas (which are sometimes taken up by governments, though never with credit to their source!) and by building interest in and knowledge about difficult policy areas in the wider community.
Can you tell us about your current role with ASPI? What has been the most rewarding part of your time at ASPI?
My current role is a mix of individual research (my favourite part), coordination of our wider research program (someone has to do it) and people management (which is as varied as the people).
The most rewarding part of working at ASPI has been the license to be a contrarian. It appeals to my sense of fun to be able to poke sacred cows with a stick and get paid for it. The price to be paid is that I have to work hard to have defensible positions, and data to back up my iconoclastic views. Anyone can be a nay sayer – but you have to be right, or at least mostly right, to do it for any length of time and retain credibility.
Going back to the very beginning of your career, what did you study at university? What was your first job when you graduated, and how did this background help you build the career you have today?
My degree was in physics and applied maths. I did a PhD in theoretical physics. My first job was as a postdoc researcher in physics at Melbourne Uni, then later at ANU. I moved from there into Defence as a research scientist (operations research in support of force structure decisions), and from there into capability analysis and signals intelligence.
One way or another I have used my scientific skills pretty much every day, in terms of analysing data sets, and applying the sceptical scientific approach to complex problems.
As someone who is a major contributor to the strategic and defence discourse in Australia, is there anything you would like to say about current international affairs and Australia’s role in them?
I lament the decline of evidence-based policy in today’s politics. And, more broadly, the polarisation of opinion/belief that has engulfed policy making. In 2018 nobody should seriously doubt CO2-caused global warming or think that trickle down economics works. But they do.
What advice would you give to students and young Australians looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
Read a lot. And read widely – academic texts are OK (and often just OK), but read history, economics, opinion (and not just opinions you agree with), science and philosophy (it’s fine not to agree with postmodernists).
Write a lot. And study writing as a skill to be perfected. Near enough is not good enough.
Find a mentor and/or make the most of any particularly good bosses you have. About 80% of what I’ve learned from bosses has been from two people (No, I’m not naming names!)
If you have a choice between jobs, go to the one that looks like the most fun. You’ll work harder at that one, and perform better at it. All else will follow.