Research plan welcomed but concerns raised over lack of detail


By Mansi Gandhi
Thursday, 17 May, 2018


Research plan welcomed but concerns raised over lack of detail

Genomics, nanotechnology, imaging, supercomputing and astronomy are some of the areas set to get a boost from the federal government’s research investment strategy.

The Research Infrastructure and Investment Plan is the government response to the 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap developed by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO.

The plan includes $1.5 billion for equipment and capabilities to ensure researchers have access to the most advanced infrastructure and around $400 million to support critical operating funding for facilities, and scoping of potential new cutting-edge capabilities.

Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham said, “The Turnbull government is partnering with researchers and facilities across our world-leading universities and other research institutions that will deliver a stronger economy, a healthier environment and cutting-edge medicines and treatments.

“With the nearly $2 billion we’ve committed over the next decade to upgrade and strengthen Australia’s research facilities, our world-leading scientists and researchers will have the tools they need to support their vital work.”

The investment builds on the $189 million we announced last year for computational infrastructure and astronomy facilities as well as the $150 million per annum of indexed funding certainty delivered in 2016 for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy under the National Science and Innovation Agenda, said Birmingham.

“This investment will ensure our researchers and industry have greater access to state-of-the-art facilities and advances in research, driving economic growth, creating jobs and producing outcomes that will be enormously beneficial for us all,” said Minister for Jobs and Innovation Michaelia Cash.

“This investment will also facilitate international science and research partnerships in areas like astronomy, food security, bioscience, quantum computing, resource management and nanotechnologies.

“Our plan secures more than 370 technical roles and a further estimated 500 jobs for highly skilled technicians. Every year an estimated 40,000 students and researchers, people in industry, government and business will benefit from the upgrades.

“This is an investment to drive scientific discoveries and innovations that will improve the lives of people around the world, and create businesses and jobs in Australia.”

Lack of detail

Overall the plan was welcomed by the industry. However, Professor Andrew Holmes, who is President of the Australian Academy of Science, raised concerns about the lack of detail.

“New investment in national research infrastructure is welcome however we remain concerned about the lack of detail as to when funding will be allocated. The Academy notes that many of the priorities for new infrastructure outlined in the Research Infrastructure Roadmap will be addressed through funded scoping studies, and will be incorporated in future (two-yearly) iterations of the Investment Plan along with five-yearly reviews of the Research Infrastructure Roadmap.”

The Academy also welcomed the $393m budget allocation to national research infrastructure over the five-year period (2017/18 – 2021/22) of which $199m was allocated in the 2017/18 FY; however, it remains concerned that critical infrastructure investment may still be some years away.

The Academy said it looks forward to receiving further detail and certainty. Upgrading, expanding and connecting many of Australia’s research facilities remains critical to allow the research community to continue seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges in industry, agriculture, health and environment.

Training

Kylie Walker, CEO, Science & Technology Australia, said, “The STEM sector will be pleased to see the government’s commitment to sustained operational funding beyond the next 10 years.” Today’s announcement has given us a first crucial step towards long-term stability for research facilities to put Australia on a strong footing for the future, said Walker.

“We are, however surprised that there is no clear plan to provide training and a stable career trajectory for this highly skilled technical workforce, to ensure that these critical research facilities run at their highest capacity.

“Science & Technology Australia has been asking for long-term investment and certainty for research infrastructure for some time, and in the lead-up to the 2016 Roadmap, we called for stable operational funding and investment in staff to maintain and run the crucial kit that powers the nation’s knowledge production.

“We’re pleased that the government has taken a long-term view, and hope to see a consultative and proactive approach when renewing the Roadmap and Investment Plan in the years to come,” said Walker.

Long-term approach

The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) said the plan gives the sector a much welcomed long-term (10-year) commitment to ensuring Australian researchers have the tools they need to make new discoveries in medical research.

Professor Tony Cunningham AO, President, AAMRI said, “The Investment Plan recognises an important fact — that we can only do world-class research when we have access to world-class research infrastructure. The commitment of new funding will ensure that over the next decade, our researchers will have the tools they need to make new discoveries in medical research.”

These national research infrastructure facilities support work of Australian scientists like 2018 Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons and Senior Australian of the Year, plant scientist Dr Graham Farquhar AO.

The government’s investment in the national research infrastructure (NRI) will provide Australian researchers with access to critical infrastructure such as new generation cryo-electron microscopy and pre-clinical magnetic resonance imaging. Genomics infrastructure to support the world’s largest coral genomics sequencing project is also being supported to help researchers trying to understand the genetic make-up of corals and how they might respond to climate change, which will help save our Great Barrier Reef.

The Research Infrastructure Investment Plan is available at: https://www.education.gov.au/government-investment-national-research-infrastructure.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/kentoh

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