Unconventional Research and Diversity in Defence

Unconventional Research and Diversity in Defence

The world of defence research spans an astonishingly broad array of disciplines, from science and technology to policy, law and ethics. But while the former subjects often take centre stage, with advancements in weapons and vehicles capturing the collective imagination, it is often the latter governing the use of these technologies that is overlooked.

To advance the diversity of disciplines supporting defence and dispel the notion that defence research is all ‘bombs and bullets’, the Defence Science Institute (DSI) seeks to connect ‘unconventional’ areas of study with Defence Challenges.

It was in this endeavour that DSI crossed paths with a practicing lawyer in 2014. Dr Kobi Leins had already worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations in Geneva and New York. Having returned to Australia, she was considering a PhD with the University of Melbourne and seeking relevant topics that matched her experience and expertise.

Upon receiving a Research Higher Degree grant from DSI, and following conversations with DSI scientists, the need for an area of research became clear: the application of international law to the use of nanomaterials in warfare. These tiny particles of matter, invisible to the naked eye, had caught her interest, and Dr Leins was keen to learn more about the governance surrounding their use.

Aware that a fair amount of literature surrounding regulation of nanotechnology per se had already been published, Dr Leins focussed her thesis on a full review of the legality of three individual ‘means or methods of warfare’ that utilise nanomaterials: thermobaric weapons with nanomaterials, optogenetics and genetic modification. Further, she also examined the implications of environmental law, international human rights and even rights to use, concluding that there is ample room for interpretation of existing laws, and that stringent reviews be implemented by the State to ensure appropriate governance.

The support from DSI gave Dr Leins the opportunity to test her knowledge with defence science experts, receive feedback on her research, and attend conferences to broaden her understanding of the field.

The research itself found broad application to the law surrounding the use of new technology in war. Dr Leins found herself equipped with the ability to translate governance structures to scientists and conversely provide lawyers with a strengthened understanding of basic technology. “The problems facing Defence do not fall within one category or discipline – successfully approaching these problems requires interdisciplinary approaches with multiple areas of expertise talking to each other,” she said.

Dr Leins’ PhD research, however, was just one achievement in a career spanning multiple roles, countries and accolades. Starting out her career in 2002, Dr Leins worked for a commercial law firm in Melbourne (now Norton Rose), before moving on to the United Nations Compensation Commission in Geneva. Here, she analysed claims under a Security Council Resolution for environmental damage following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

In 2005, she joined the ICRC in Geneva, to support States in promoting national implementation of the Biological Weapons and Chemical Weapons Conventions. Dr Leins also worked with the International Service for Human Rights and the United Nations Secretariat in New York as a legal advisor in a number of different capacities.

In her current role as Senior Research Fellow in Digital Ethics in the School of Computing and Information Systems (CIS) at the University of Melbourne, Dr Leins works with the Centre for AI and Digital Ethics (CAIDE). She helps ensure computing communities and policy-makers contemplate technological and legal solutions to mitigate the potential misuse, dual use and enhance beneficial impact of computer science.

Dr Leins is also a non-resident fellow of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament, where she has presented and written on her research on multiple occasions. Her career is a great example of diversity and inclusion in the field of defence, not only in terms of academic background, but also gender and culture.

“Diversity of all kinds is required in the design of new technologies. Right now, we do not have enough diversity in the education pipeline to meet this need – this is something I care about very deeply and spend a lot of time translating so that different communities can participate in conversations,” she said.


Dr Kobi Leins’ story is one of many successful examples of research progression to come out of DSI, demonstrating how research outcomes are transferable and of value across multiple sectors not just defence. DSI encourages researchers to make contact and leverage the many grant and support options available to advance their research.

Find out more about the University of Melbourne’s broad defence research here.


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