Research infrastructure allocated record AU$1.9 billion

In one of the largest outlays ever made for Australian research, the federal government has committed A$1.9 billion (US$1.4 billion) towards research infrastructure to secure the future of the nation’s research efforts.

Under the latest grant, the fields of genomics, nanotechnology, astronomy, imaging and supercomputing will receive additional sums, along with a new building to house Australia’s national collection of insects, wildlife and plants.

Chief Executive of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson said the investment would provide 40,000 researchers with “state-of-the-art equipment that was crucial to breakthroughs”.

“This is a smart investment. It keeps us in the race on the kinds of research that are fundamental to our economic and social prosperity,” Jackson said.

The latest allocation is in addition to a grant of AU$260 million the government had previously announced to support high-performance computing and astronomy.

It is also additional to a AU$150 million grant for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy that the government provided two years ago.

Jackson said major investments in national research facilities would help Australia win “job-creating research races” in high-performance computing, advanced manufacturing and medical technology.

The latest grant for major national research facilities includes supercomputing infrastructure, advanced microscopic manufacturing facilities, and Australia’s deep ocean research vessel, Investigator.

“These facilities are the backbone of our research effort and it is great to see their future so strongly backed by government. Research and innovation support job creation in almost every sector of the economy so this is a wise investment in our productivity and economic growth,” Jackson said.

Infrastructure roadmap

The government has accepted most of the recommendations from an ‘infrastructure roadmap’ developed by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel. This included setting priorities in nine national research areas.

“We applaud the government’s decision to listen carefully to the expert advice on the roadmap,” Jackson said.

But she warned the government against its proposed closure of an AU$3.8 billion Education Investment Fund, the last remaining capital fund for higher education.

“It would make no sense to give with one hand and take with the other on vital research facilities,” Jackson said.

Under the latest grants, researchers will gain access to critical infrastructure such as new generation cryo-electron microscopy and pre-clinical Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which will support research to improve the health of Australians.

The grants will also contribute to state-of-the-art genomics infrastructure as part of the world’s largest coral genomics sequencing project. With Australia’s Great Barrier Reef under threat because of a warming ocean, the grant will help researchers identify the genetic makeup of corals.

Professor Andrew Holmes, president of the Australian Academy of Science, welcomed the infrastructure investment plan and the government’s response to the chief scientist’s infrastructure roadmap.

“New investment in national research infrastructure is welcome; however we remain concerned about the lack of detail as to when funding will be allocated,” Holmes said. “Upgrading, expanding and connecting many of Australia’s research facilities remain critical to allow the research community to continue seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges in industry, agriculture, health and environment.”

Professor Tony Cunningham, president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, said the investment plan recognised that world-class research was only possible when researchers had access to world-class research infrastructure.

The commitment of new funding would ensure that over the next decade Australian researchers had the tools they needed to make new discoveries in medical research, Cunningham said.

“This is how we can deliver the best health and economic benefits to the nation.”

Professor Peter Quinn, executive director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, said capital investments already made to Australian science had secured membership and access to the European Southern Observatory. It would also enable construction of a major part of the Square Kilometre Array astronomy project in Western Australia.

“This investment will ensure Australian astronomy is a world-leading activity for the next 10 years,” Quinn said. “It will also provide 10 years of access and operational cost for these, and many other facilities.”