The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, or NCRIS, has been in the news quite a lot of late.

This was due to the federal government threatening to withhold funding from NCRIS unless the Senate passed of its controversial university deregulation legislation. Now that short term future of NCRIS is secure, it is worth taking a moment to look at what all the fuss was about.

So, what is NCRIS, and why did the scientific community kick up such a fuss about possible cuts to it?

The other kind of infrastructure

NCRIS was conceived in 2004 by the previous Liberal government under Prime Minister John Howard. After broad national and international consultation to prioritise the investment, NCRIS was announced by then Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop. This was the start of a program that strategically invested in research infrastructure in a coordinated way across the nation.

Through NCRIS, the government provides A$150 million each year to fund over two dozen research facilities that operate around the country. Whereas most government research funding goes to individual projects, NCRIS funds facilities that provide services to other researchers.

NCRIS funds support 1,700 highly skilled personal from 27 facilities spread across Australia, supporting the work of 35,000 researchers and churning out analyses and products used by millions more stakeholders in Australia and overseas.

In all, since 2004, approximately A$2.5 billion has been invested over in national research infrastructure.

What does NCRIS actually fund?

The 27 NCRIS facilities cover a broad range of research areas and disciplines. Here is a lightning tour of the facilities and what they actually do.

The infrastructure can be grouped into seven key areas:

From the God particle to spiral galaxies

Physical scientists use a range of techniques to understand how matter, from the subatomic to the astronomical, behave and interact. This knowledge forms our basic understanding of how the world around us works and lays down the principles for new manufacturing industries based on material, polymer, semiconductor and nano science.

This work also underpins developments in sensor, pharmaceutical, medical device, metallurgy, engineering, immunology, energy and electronic industries.

The NCRIS infrastructure includes:

The Australian Synchrotron, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisaion, the Bragg Institute, the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility and the National Deuteration Facility, which all help to better understand molecular structures, their role and behaviour using particle colliders, ion accelerators and chemical deuteration

There is also the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF), which manipulates hard (i.e. metal, semiconductor and ceramic) and soft (i.e. polymers) materials

And Astronomy Australia Ltd (AAL), which helps understand galaxies through optical and radio telescopes.

Reading the building blocks of life

Molecular biosciences have seen unbelievably rapid development over the last decade, largely driven by major life science investments, such as the human genome project.

The ability to view and analyse whole genomes, individual genes, biomolecules such as proteins, cells and tissues is driving innovation and underpinning breakthroughs in the health, personal medicine, pharmaceutical, immunology, disease control and detection, agriculture, plant and animal breeding and sensing industries.

The NCRIS infrastructure in molecular bioscience includes:

Bioplatforms Australia (BPA), which analyses biomolecules from genes through to genomes and the metabolome

European Molecular Biology Laboratory Australia, which links Australian researdchers with international leaders in molecular biology

Recombinant Protein Production Facility, which develops therapeutic biological products and proteins

The Australian Microscopy and Microanalysis Research Facility (AMMRF), which analyses materials through optical, electron and X-ray microscopes

The National Imaging Facility, which helps understand the form and function by electromagnetic imaging of animals, plants and materials.

Big Data

In the age of Big Data, we need to be able to store, analyse and exchange large volumes of data, particularly the type generated by large physical and bioscience infrastructure, such as the geosciences, radio astronomy and genomics.

This type of infrastructure also supports our forecasting, management and mitigation of the weather, climate change impacts, disease outbreaks, pest and weed incursions, wild fire and the sustainable use of our natural resources.

The NCRIS infrastructure includes:

The National Computational Infrastructure and Pawsey Supercomputing Centre (Pawsey), which provide high end supercomputer services to other researchers

The Research Data Storage Initiative, which supports national data storage to supports data intensive analysis

The National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources, which develops data analysis and modelling tools for researchers to use at their own desktop

The Australian National Data Service, National Research Network and Australian Access Federation, which help build better electronic communication, connectivity and collaboration networks between research institutions in Australia and overseas.

Environment and biosphere

Understanding the natural processes of our planet and the species we co-inhabit it with is fundamental to managing industries that rely on these earth and natural resources. Through this knowledge we are also able to mitigate and adapt our impact on these systems to sustain long-term ecosystem and planetary health.

This type of infrastructure directly supports the mining, farming, pastoral, forestry, fisheries, aquiculture, and environmental impact assessment industries. It underpins the development of our biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation strategies.

The NCRIS infrastructure includes:

AuScope, which helps analyse and understand geological and earth systems

The Integrated Marine Observing System and National Sea Simulator, which model and monitor the oceans by mapping the sea floor, measuring ocean currents and tracking sea life

The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training program monitors our impact on groundwater resources such as the Great Artesian Basin

The Atlas of Living Australia shares an inventory of Australia’s plants and animals and knowledge of their natural history

The Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), helps understanding the state and trajectory of our ecosystems through ecological monitoring and remote sensing.

Agriculture and biosecurity

Australian agriculture presents particular challenges, including climatic extremes and unpredictability, floods and droughts, together with nutrient limitation and salinity. Developing the next generation of crops that can thrive under Australia’s conditions is one of the key ways to help achieve food security in the future.

In addition, the relative isolation of the Australian continent over geological timescales also makes the country particularly susceptible to disease, pest and weed incursions. These also have a huge impact on our managed and natural systems, human health and economy.

Developing knowledge in these areas increases agricultural productively and decreases the human and economic impacts of disease, pests and weeds.

The NCRIS infrastructure includes:

The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility develops improved crops, healthier food, more sustainable practices and bio-pharmaceuticals

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory controls the risk of animal diseases

The Australian Biosecurity Intelligence Network monitors and responds to human, animal, plant and aquatic health threats.

Human health

In an age where personalised medicine we need to be able to develop new disease cures, analyse epidemiological trends, securely share health information and increase the translation of health science into health praxis and clinical applications.

In addition to improving health, such knowledge drives new pharmaceutical, immunology and health industries.

The NCRIS infrastructure includes:

The Australian Phenomics Network, which studies diseases, including cancer and blood disorders, in mice to provide a way forward for humans

The Population Health Research Network safely shares and analyses population health information to improve wellbeing and enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of health services

Therapeutic Innovation Australia improves translation of therapeutic discoveries into clinical applications.

Designing and powering societies of the future

Understanding the social and urban dynamics of human populations helps us manage and plan future societal developments. Moving towards cheaper, less carbon intensive energy production is also necessary for a sustainable future.

The NCRIS infrastructure includes:

The Australian Data Archive and Australian Data Archive Social Science collate and analyse social, political and economic trends in society

The Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network helps improve the built environment by sharing knowledge and solutions

The Australian Plasma Fusion Research Facility is developing fusion energy; a clean, virtually inexhaustible energy source that powers the sun and stars.

The Biofuels Research Pilot Plant program is developing a renewable biocommodities pilot plant and a photobioreactor facility.

What next?

By any measure, the NCRIS infrastructure program has been incredibly successful, and has meant that Australian science is now leading the world in several of its target areas. The infrastructure investment has also leveraged massive co-investment and now supports cutting edge research activity that impact and outcomes of which will be seen for decades.

Now that the short term future of NCRIS is secure, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb is leading the Research Infrastructure Review together with businessman Phillip Clark.

The review seeks to properly understand and gain support for allocating the investment required to appropriately support this critical national science infrastructure.

Some of the current NCRIS infrastructure was designed as a one off investment and some is currently being funded at caretaker levels. There will need to be a thorough analysis of what the infrastructure requirements are for the country for the next 10 years, which may require changing current priorities and a significant increase in funding in some areas.

The recent political shenanigans not withstanding, NCRIS is a name you might not hear very often. But the 27 NCRIS funded facilities are all contributing to world class research around the country.

Andrew Lowe receives funding from the Australian Government (including NCRIS) for a range of research. He is also Associate Science Director of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), and is on the advisory board of the Atlas for Living Australia, both capabilities of NCRIS.

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