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By Squadron Leader Tim Saunders

When Alex Zelinsky was growing up in Wollongong, the steel city was going through major reshaping. The ‘Big Australian’ was getting smaller, dramatically smaller, and the changes that later flowed from massive reductions in BHP’s workforce affected every corner of the city. They also created a turning point in the career of the man who recently became Australia’s Chief Defence Scientist. What he observed and learned during those times of change early in his working life have been of vital importance in the roles he has undertaken ever since.

As the chief executive of a world-leading science and technology body, Alex Zelinsky describes himself as both a scientist and an administrator, and says that both areas of expertise are essential.

"You have to understand science and have training in science to effectively undertake this role," Alex says.

"And with a workforce of around 2600 people, a budget of more than $450 million and the job of applying science and technology for Australia’s defence and national security, you also have to have management and administrative skills and experience."

Learning to be adaptive and agile and to make the most of changing circumstances has been a hallmark of his working life. Alex’s first job after leaving school was to train as a systems engineer via a cadetship with BHP, which included the requirement that he gain a university degree – which he did, at the University of Wollongong.

His work at BHP focused on automating parts of the steel-making process, an interest that later grew into a life-long fascination with robotics. It was also crucial work in tough economic times, and the slowdown in the steel industry led BHP to shed thousands of its Wollongong workforce and to shelve research and development for some years.

The change drove Alex to rethink his career plans.

"I wanted challenges," he says. "As it turned out, the professor of computer science at the University of Wollongong was looking to get some new people into the school and they invited me to join the faculty. I did my PhD part-time there while I was teaching."

The next challenge was working in Japan for three years at the Agency for Industrial Science and Technology, and this was followed by four years as professor of systems engineering at the Australian National University where the work presented its own challenges.

"We worked in research labs and were building systems that were very much oriented around real-world systems," Alex says. "We worked on autonomous vehicles for getting cars to drive on the road and things like that."

Part of the technology developed in this research project was commercialised by spinning it off into a private company – and the opportunity to become the CEO of that company, Seeing Machines, was another challenge grasped.

"I learned a lot of things about working with big business, big industry and working with commercialisation of intellectual property and transferring it out of a university – building a team, again, that could work in the high technology sector," Alex explains.

"That set me up very well to work in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which was very much a large industrial research organisation."

After joining CSIRO in 2004, Alex worked on some large and complex projects. One such project was the $250 million Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, a next generation radio telescope array made up of 36 dishes located in the desert 365km from Geraldton in Western Australia, which included building an $80 million supercomputer in Perth.

"That was a really interesting, complicated system, and that project showed me a lot of interesting things about working with stakeholders, state government, federal government, complex technologies and on a large scale," Alex says.

"That kind of work has made me interested in coming into an organisation such as the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and working here on that kind of large-scale high-impact project."

Alex has an ambitious schedule for his first 100 days at DSTO and has already set the organisation on the path of mapping out its future in an environment of constant change.

"Australia is moving into a situation where money is not as freely available as it was in the past," he says.

"The budget is effectively close to flat, which means that somehow we have to be very efficient and effective in the whole portfolio so we can afford these major pieces of important Defence equipment.

"DSTO will have to play a pivotal role in providing the technical and scientific advice around the procurement of these assets, while also providing crucial support to servicemen and women on operations, the top priority for all of us in Defence."

DSTO is about to embark on the development of a five-year strategic plan which will ensure it is aligned with the next White Paper, and ensure that it can plan for delivering science and technology solutions to the complex defence and national security problems of the future.

"Innovation will be key in our scientific support to Defence capability," Alex states.

"DSTO is an organisation of people who excel in applying science and technology to solve problems in defence and national security. The dimensions of the issues we deal with, and the factors which have to be taken into consideration when we are working on resolving problems, are changing all the time. And change itself is constant. The important thing is to find the challenges and opportunities that change presents and take advantage of them.

"DSTO has the necessary skills and experience to do that and is very well-equipped to adapt to all kinds of changing circumstances."