By Ian Duncan
As Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics and a smart Kiwi, once said: “We haven’t got the money, so we’ll have to think”.
The principles behind Rutherford’s quote, while relevant globally, relate particularly well with Australia and New Zealand’s strategies and plans for competing and excelling in the increasingly resource hungry research sphere. This was reinforced at the recent annual eResearch New Zealand Conference in Queenstown, which brought together 171 researchers, infrastructure operators, developers, and strategists.
eResearch refers to the computers, storage, networks, platforms, processes, access rules, and people which support and underpin almost every facet of modern, collaborative, research ecosystems. These systems enable the generation, collection, analysis, linking, sharing, and interpretation of vast quantities of data.
Investments in eResearch are made by universities for local needs, as well as nationally through government programs, often designed to support other national research infrastructure investments or foster new collaborations.
Of course, national investments in research infrastructure (sometimes referred to as “big science”) covers more than ICT, and are made for many reasons. This might occur when the infrastructure in question is too big and/or expensive for one organization to afford, such as with the New Zealand research ship Tangaroa or Australia’s Investigator, or the Australian Synchrotron. National investment might also be used to develop research in a particular field (e.g. Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System), or to provide services to develop a broad and national, rather than institutional, perspective (such as increased availability and security of nationally significant data collections or national scale cloud computing resources).
A nation will invest in big science and big infrastructure because there are clear national benefits; it retains and attracts the best brains, can generate revolutionary changes in research methods and practices, and maximizes the value and potential of existing data and tools. As Australia and New Zealand are validating the alignment between existing investments and future national science and innovation strategies, we’re very well placed to garner an international advantage in collaborative development of services and resources.
The recent signing of the “Australia – New Zealand Science, Research and Innovation Cooperation Agreement” featured extensively during the Conference. This timely and topical agreement provides a framework for Australia and New Zealand to share and collaborate across national research infrastructures, giving us a fantastic opportunity to leverage the emerging opportunities being identified as we map out investment strategies for the future, matching effort to evolving national priorities.
The strong Australian presence at the Conference highlighted the opportunities and relevance of trans-Tasman interactions with keynote talks on Australian collaborative infrastructures in use by New Zealand researchers, such as the Garvan Institute for Medical Research and the Monash MASSIVE HPC facility.
It is these collaborative initiatives, embodied in Australia’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) Roadmap and New Zealand’s eResearch 2020 program, which can aggregate and identify researcher needs and essential skills over the coming decades. It also means we can identify potential opportunities for both nations to work together to enhance each other’s strengths and continue to excel in a highly competitive international environment.
Professor Jim Metson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland, presented a thought-provoking plenary talk at the Conference highlighting the need to develop measures which reflect quality, impact, and relevance in research (not just the number of dollars invested). Having the best tools and infrastructure is essential in attracting and retaining world-class researchers and ensuring institutional and national objectives are aligned, as well as providing security and sustainability for those resources and people.
The take home from the meeting for me was that there is currently a great opportunity for Australia and New Zealand, close neighbours and allies in so many areas, to take a strategic look at our research infrastructure investments – not just around data, but around all of our high-cost collaborative technologies.
We both face an increasingly competitive research world where we are relatively small participants (New Zealand’s e-investments being somewhat equivalent to one Australian state and Australia’s total probably being close to one US state) combined with greater demands on limited funding. This means Rutherford’s adage is still relevant today: we’ll have to think.
Ian Duncan is Director of Research Data Services (RDS), an initiative of the Australian Government under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).