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To STEM or not to STEM? Is it the right question?

21 March 2018
To STEM or not to STEM? Is it the right question?

In a world of increasing resource constraints and complex human and environmental challenges, technology is increasingly seen as the only driver of modernisation. Echoing industries’ cry for STEM skills to shape the cognitive foundation of Australia in the 21st century, Army is calling for a STEM revolution in its workforce. But STEM is not the panacea for future capability challenges. Limiting options to the pursuit of STEM at the cost of cognitive diversity can make Army vulnerable to the same future challenges that it wants to address exclusively through STEM.

There is a common perception that having a STEM workforce guarantees capability. After all, modern societies around the world owe much to the waves of technology-driven industrial revolution that have shaped and driven national power and continue to do so. STEM skills have undoubtedly contributed to these developments. For Army, STEM has valuable applications in the following broad areas: AHQ/Army Strategic Planning, Innovation, and Senior Leadership (SLG); Capability Life Cycle (CLC) and; Warfighter/Operators. STEM can be a capability multiplier in each of these functional areas and enable Army to be a ‘smart innovator’, a ‘smart buyer’, and a ‘smart user’ respectively. But the big question we should ask is: can STEM provide the most comprehensive top-cover capability for Future Army?

A key mechanism for the evolution of mankind has been adaptation. Adaptation has been essential for our survival in a hostile environment. Where capability has been essential for mankind’s continued survival, it has not on its own, guaranteed survival. If capability was everything, civilisations would have endured over time. A key factor in the rise and fall of civilisations has been the ability to adapt to complex challenges.

Against this historical backdrop, we need to remind ourselves of the real value of STEM. Investment in STEM can yield smart dividends where the outcome promotes greater adaptability and agility. STEM as a key component of capability does not have all answers to the challenges of the future. Future Army needs innovation to offer better solutions to the resolution of conflicts by physical means (war). Though STEM can drive technical innovation for Army and better equip it with the tools it needs to win future wars, it cannot on its own, help Army understand for example, future operating environments or more broadly, war as a complex and competitive exercise of human will through the use of force and involving a political struggle. Core qualities and values such as leadership, courage, and loyalty that are essential to win wars are something STEM does not create.

In an environment of demographic and other socioeconomic complexity reinforced by resource constraints and made increasingly vulnerable by shifting patterns of climate, Army needs the power of innovation to win future wars. Finding innovative ways to fight and win future wars can make Army agile and adaptive and hence more resilient to unpredictable adversity.

But increasing STEM capability does not always lead to innovation. STEM can be a critical enabler for Army innovation but on its own, falls short of preparing Army to meet all future challenges. For example, where STEM offers technical expertise, it does not give its bearer the strategic advantage of having an ‘intellectual edge’. To understand the nature of future wars and design effective strategies, the power of critical thinking developed holistically can be an asset and not a liability.

It may not be an exaggeration to mention here that a key aspect of our expectations of future operating systems run with the power of artificial intelligence is the application of critical, problem-solving skills to make smart decisions. Research has shown that innovative qualities of smart decisions and applications are products of cognitive diversity and not just the application of STEM skills.  Perhaps in a future society where human beings not only co-exist with but exclusively rely on intelligent machines that are immersed in artificial consciousness, technical skills contributed by STEM will be all that would be needed for strategic, tactical and operational levels of decision-making. But subsistence existence involving the transfer of critical thinking to machines may render human beings obsolete in the eyes of intelligent machines.

So the critical question to ask now is whether STEM is all that Army needs for building capability in the future? Relying on STEM alone to provide the capability edge is an oversimplification. STEM in sync with HAAS (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) can provide Future Army with the foundational capability that can best pre-position Army to lead and not be led. Thus, Army has the choice not to follow in the footsteps of the disillusioned and indecisive Prince of Denmark in Hamlet, but rather ask the question: “How do we win Future Wars using smart and innovative capability and think about problems to design effective solutions using a framework of cognitive diversity that is fuelled by STE(A)M; not just STEM?”

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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