Dr Cathy Foley: As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I am very pleased to be involved in the development of the new National Research Infrastructure Roadmap as one of my first tasks. This roadmap will shape our research. It will help the science and research community hone its thinking and priorities. It will ensure we have the equipment and capabilities we need. And it will provide the backbone for Australia’s future prosperity. We need to get it right.
I was involved in the development of the 2016 Roadmap in my previous role. One of the lessons for me is that we need to think beyond the limits of the present. With as much foresight as we can muster. And we need to be prepared for the unexpected.
The challenge is to recognise the speed of change, understand that there are unknowns in how science and research will develop, and devise a roadmap that will be useful and relevant not just five years from now, but well into the future.
For example, when I look back at the 2016 Roadmap, I can’t help but notice the word hydrogen doesn’t appear. Now, it is one of the key elements of Australia’s shift to a clean economy and has the potential to become our next big export industry.
Our vulnerability to exotic and zoonotic diseases did feature in the last roadmap. But the word pandemic didn’t make an appearance and it is only now that we have a renewed appreciation of what it means to be prepared for such an event.
The volume of data and our capacity to process it has increased at a pace none of us could have imagined. In 2009, when the Australia Telescope produced an image of the galaxy Centaurus A, it took 1,200 hours to collect the data and another 10,000 hours to process it. Now, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder can produce the same image in 10 minutes. That’s how much things have changed in the world of computing in just over a decade.
And in the coming few years, change will be even faster. We have now entered the era of exascale computing. The new computers coming online will be able to churn through a billion billion calculations a second. Australia has two supercomputers, but they need significant and ongoing attention to keep pace with the rate of change and the needs of the research community.
I sometimes think of the pace of change like a kind of runaway reaction. We can’t – and we don’t want to – slow the rapid progress. But the challenge is to make it a controlled reaction, if you like. When the breakthroughs come – in, say, quantum computing, or synthetic biology – will we have the right infrastructure in place to take advantage?
I’m talking about infrastructure that has been developed with sufficient foresight and ambition so it can be adapted for the arrival of those new technologies and capabilities which might be now only at the limits of our imagination.
This is how to ensure we can capitalise for Australia’s prosperity.
It is also how we prepare for the crises of the future.
The digital revolution, the volume of data and the interconnectedness of the digital world, brings enormous opportunities. But also new threats. What do we need to do to ensure we are prepared?
The climate threat is manifest already. Responding to it is our most challenging problem. And it will take every bit of human ingenuity to find a solution.
And we need to ask ourselves: Are we prepared for a threat from an unexpected quarter?
As we prepare this infrastructure roadmap we can take lessons from the pandemic and the bushfires. At a time of ever increasing global connectedness, these twin crises have thrown us back in on ourselves, on Australian capabilities. If we invest in science that can protect our nation, our country and our people, it will never be wasted. COVID-19 has sparked a renewed interest in ensuring we have our own manufacturing capability for pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. The bushfires have highlighted the importance of new technologies as we look for better ways to predict, monitor and fight fires, and combat natural disasters more broadly.
We must also harness the expertise of our indigenous people as we look for solutions that apply to the Australian landscape.
Another lesson from the pandemic is that it has limited our access to the laboratory, forcing us to find ways to do our research remotely. This reinforces a shift already underway in relation to scientific equipment and experimentation. We no longer need to spend all night at the radio telescope. Or buy our own desktop electron microscope. We don’t need lots of highly specialised equipment sitting in small labs in individual departments of universities and publicly funded agencies.
As equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated and automated, and built to handle exponentially growing datasets, I urge you to resist siloed thinking among researchers and specialties and think collaboratively. Collaboration needs to extend across institutions and importantly, across state borders. Territorial rivalries will hold us back.
My predecessor as Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has urged us not to shy away from the hard decisions and I would emphasise that alongside him. We can’t do everything. We need to prioritise while making sure we strike a balance between fundamental research, applied research and translational research. We have to be smarter with the money available, especially when the pandemic has taken such a big toll on universities.
This is a big challenge. But COVID-19 has shown us a different way of working and we can build on that.
The pandemic has also brought attention to Australian knowhow and helped us ask questions about the capabilities we need as a nation. The government says it wants research at the heart of policy. And that’s a very good thing. It is now up to us as a research community to have ambition about what the nation needs. You are the experts and we need to hear from you.