Government proposes research infrastructure roadmap

The government has released a draft 10-year National Research Infrastructure Roadmap to ensure Australia’s future research spending will target priority areas to build on the country’s research strengths.

The roadmap – released for consultation last Monday – proposes nine national research infrastructure focus areas.

These are biosecurity, complex biology, environmental systems, digital data and eResearch platforms, arts and social science data platforms, astronomy and advanced physics, therapeutic development, and advanced fabrication and manufacturing, and ‘characterisation’, such as the use of technology in advanced microscopy and microanalysis and for visualisation and modelling.

A Research Infrastructure National Advisory Group will be set up to provide independent advice on future planning and investment and a Roadmap Investment Plan will be drawn up.

The report notes that a skilled workforce is “critical to national research infrastructure” and says “ongoing commitment to training and career progression, not only by the facilities and projects but also by the universities and research institutions that harness them, is essential”.

It also advocates a coordinated approach to international engagement to optimise benefits of international memberships and partnerships, including access to global facilities and participation in strategic collaborations.

It calls for the raising of awareness of national research infrastructure through outreach activities with both national and international collaborators and the end users of research such as industry and business.

The report also says there is an urgent need to “refresh” the National High Performance Computing facility, which underpins the most advanced and data-intensive research fields, such as medical science, environmental modelling, physics and astronomy and is “vital to maintaining a globally competitive research system”.

Additionally, it says there is an urgent need, from a biosecurity point of view, to upgrade the Australian Animal Health Laboratory or AAHL, which supports research in exotic livestock disease and high-risk zoonotic diseases.

AAHL is equipped to handle infected livestock at the highest physical containment level. It also houses an insectary where a variety of insect borne diseases affecting humans and animals can be contained and studied. AAHL needs to be upgraded to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, the report says.

The report says Australia’s existing national research infrastructure system serves more than 35,000 researchers and comprises a network of facilities and projects under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy; landmark facilities, including the Australian Synchrotron and the OPAL Research Reactor operated by publicly funded research agencies; and large-scale international collaborations such as the Square Kilometre Array.

“Coordinated planning and collaboration across research domains has consistently enabled Australia to achieve scale in emerging areas of research infrastructure and national priority,” the report says.

“We have successfully built on our national strengths in areas such as fabrication at the micro and nano-scale, environmental monitoring and modelling, data platforms, the design and development of complex instrumentation, quantum computation and high-throughput chemistry.

“Research in all of these fields has the potential to significantly transform the way we live and the patterns of economic opportunity across the world. It is greatly to our benefit that Australia’s best researchers are equipped to make a strong contribution through access to leading facilities both domestically and overseas.”

The report underscores the crucial leadership role of sustained government investment to give planning certainty to other co-investors in research infrastructure.

Key government role

“The government’s role cannot be overstated,” the report says. “It is not simply the leading architect of the national strategy but the major investor, and the anchor that provides state and territory governments, universities and research agencies with planning security to underpin their co-investment."

Universities Australia welcomed the recommendations, particularly the recognition of the need for a skilled research workforce and the plan to establish an independent body to provide expert advice to government on future infrastructure investment.

This was a measure recommended by Universities Australia in its submission to the roadmap’s earlier issues paper, it said.

“This roadmap is the big vision that we need for Australia’s research infrastructure capability,” said Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Belinda Robinson.

“In uncharted terrain, it’s easy to get lost or to take wrong turns without a detailed map of the landscape and a clear sense of your destination. This map sets out our destination and the paths we’ll need to take to get there to develop the research capacity so fundamental to our future economic prosperity,” Robinson said.

“The recommendations would also deliver certainty and stability to build on Australia’s internationally recognised research infrastructure, developed and supported in our universities.”

The extent of the implementation of the report's nine recommendations will, however, depend on the further development of an investment plan – the subject of the report's third recommendation.

Priority areas

The nine priorities were framed through extensive consultations with key stakeholders including the research community, universities, industry, state and federal government agencies, publicly funded research agencies and operators of research infrastructure facilities.

Under digital data, the report says the plan is to create an Australian Data Cloud to deliver a more integrated, coherent and reliable system to “meet the needs of data-intensive, cross-disciplinary and global collaborative research”.

The arts and social science platforms, bringing together multiple data sets from many disciplines will enable the “harvest and re-use of data” for research purposes. Enabling interoperability between existing portals and facilities will be a “revolutionary approach”.

Advanced manufacturing, or cutting-edge fabrication, covers the infrastructure needed, for instance, for Australia’s “world-leading research in nano-electronics”. Future research infrastructure must enable novel materials development, new and hybrid device fabrication and integration of devices and systems for industry.

Astronomy and physics research will aid the ongoing participation in the international Square Kilometre Array consortium and enable the building of global facilities in astronomy and next-generation instrumentation in physics, critical to areas such as quantum computation, non invasive scanning and additive manufacturing and aid the development of technologies such as quantum optics used for gravity wave detection.

Environmental systems research will enhance predictive modelling and risk assessment, and prediction of impacts, allowing better management of the continent and surrounding oceans to adapt to climate change and ensure sustainability.

Biosecurity research will improve the capability of managing risks, particularly in health.

Complex biology plans include grouping or networking life sciences facilities to improve efficiencies of scale and interdisciplinary research opportunities.

Therapeutic development plans will involve plugging significant gaps in the ability to translate novel molecular candidates into ready-for-market therapies, which is a national priority. It will also link state and federal health and disease control data sets to improve research outcomes.

The report says: “Internationally significant research that will underpin innovation, economic growth and social benefits depends on access to leading edge equipment, systems and services. Addressing these needs at national scale, collaboratively and strategically, is the most efficient way to achieve our goals.”

The roadmap was developed by an expert committee chaired by Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, and including University of Queensland Provost Professor Aidan Byrne and National Health and Medical Research Council Chief Executive Professor Anne Kelso. It is open for consultation until 16 January 2017.