Prioritised investments

Illustration by Galileo of one of his refractors
12 May 2017

A new roadmap proposes a new framework for future investments into Australia's national research infrastructure.

In addition to research infrastructure provided within institutions, Australia has also a network of national facilities that are accessible to both privately and publicly funded users.

They include landmark projects such as the Australian Synchrotron, as well as large-scale international collaborations such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and the network of facilities and projects funded under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

The 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, which was prepared by an expert working group chaired by chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel, sets out a strategy to consolidate our existing assets, and to expand the network over the next decade.

In his foreword, Dr Finkel said that our system of research infrastructure allows us to open an eye that will not just transform our capacity to fathom the universe to which we belong.

"Just┬álike Galileo’s telescope, we will count the returns through advances in technology that our industries convert to new sources of jobs and wealth."

However, Galileo's efforts were more at the DIY level, and just as well as his contemporaries probably would not have considered his research interests as targeting priority areas of his time, let alone opening pathways towards economic prosperity.

His modern peers require increasing expensive equipment, and while the Roadmap emphasises that the importance of Government in providing it "cannot be overstated", public funds are limited.

Australia's policy makers have therefore been keen to limit the spread of public investments on existing strengths and comparative advantages, as is reflected by National Science and Research Priorities and the Industry Growth Centres Initiative.

The Roadmap follows this sentiment with its key recommendation to focus future national infrastructure investments on nine key areas (see insert for details).

According to Professor Les Field, the Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, the expert panel chose the right set of areas. But he also points out that the Government has yet to release a more detailed research infrastructure investment plan which must be "long-term, strategic and insulated from budgetary fluctuations".

This is resonating with the Roadmap's call for a defined strategic approach underpinning ongoing investments. This will be essential "if we are to maintain the quality and scale of our national research infrastructure portfolio.

There are two areas that require immediate attention:

  1. Australia's National High Performance Computing requires new investment coupled with a review of its current governance arrangements; and
  2. the Australian Animal Health Laboratory needs to be urgently upgraded to ensure it complies with regulatory requirements.

Other key recommendations aim for a broader investment framework. They include:

Nine key areas government infrastructure spending should focus on:
More information: https://docs.education.gov.au