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The beginnings of NCRIS

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Interview with Anne-Marie Lansdown

Anne Marie Lansdown

Anne-Marie Lansdown was one of the original architects of the NCRIS program. She speaks to Share about how NCRIS came into being, and what it has achieved.

To start with, can you tell us what your role was in the early days of NCRIS, and how you first became involved?

Working in the national government, I was fortunate to undertake much of the early work on Australia’s National Innovation System and Broadband strategies. The opportunity to link business and research, and the developing importance of large scale technology investments to enable that research, presented a range of fascinating challenges.

Pioneering work by Dr Evan Arthur and Mike Sargent allowed the development of world leading investment principles and the first national infrastructure roadmap, which went through a process of Expert Working Groups and research community consultation. It was an incredibly exciting time – the challenge heightened by some who believed the community would never embrace the model of cooperation.

What was the thinking at the time by the Government about why NCRIS was needed?

Australia is a vast continent with equally vast research aspirations. Its large land mass meant the number and location of major resource facilities must be made through properly contested choices to make the most of finite amounts of central funding.

While institutions do invest in research infrastructure, a national collaborative funding model ensured there was certainty amongst researchers that the infrastructures would remain available and supported, and not be subject to investment decision and priorities of individual institutions.

The Government made it clear that data itself is infrastructure. What led to this important position ahead of the rest of the world, and how has the focus of NCRIS shifted over time as things have progressed?

The understanding of the threshold nature of data was something that emerged over time. We were heavily influenced by the work of the e-Science strategy in the UK, and were able to take advantage of their early experiences. The first roadmap recognised the need for significant and coordinated investment, and the 2006 roadmap emphasised that the linking of researchers, data, facilities and expertise was essential to deliver enhanced research outcomes and translate these into national benefit.

But it was not really until the 2011 roadmap that the place of data, underpinned by a push for greater integration of services, was clearly recognised. The roadmap devoted considerable effort to making the case that “the management and use of data is a pervasive issue through all capability areas  identified”. It identified “a continued and deepening focus on data integration and interoperability, supported by infrastructure both within and between capabilities” as being critically important. We now also know that methods and data are linked so that an active data infrastructure  that  researchers can use to perform research is a critical requirement looking forward.

NCRIS numbers infographic

Looking back, do you think NCRIS has done what it set out to achieve in regards to building Australia’s research data capacity?

The NCRIS facilities are making the previously impossible possible. As the scale and complexity of Australia’s investments in research infrastructure has grown, it has become clear that we needed a sophisticated national strategy to ensure we had the infrastructure to consolidate our existing research strengths and open new research frontiers. The consensus we have tried to achieve between universities and research agencies is leading to game-changing shifts in shared access to vital research data and facilities across the country.

Notwithstanding the significant growth in capability in network, compute, data and software needs across all fields of research, the landscape continues to change and evolve rapidly. The work currently being undertaken by Dr Rhys Francis and the Department of Education and Training will usher in the  next  stage of our data development.

What would you say is the biggest influence on the whole of the research system over the past decade, from a research data point of view?

The model has been highly successful and Australia has a world renowned and enviable cohort of the necessary experts. The success of individual facilities in integrating our national requirements has produced unexpected science outcomes. Infrastructure is now fully utilised, and supported by specialist staff who can maintain the equipment but also assist researchers in developing their work.

The quality of the facilities has drawn world class research teams from around the globe, and by extending the support in the facilities to businesses, many more university-business collaborations are emerging. Cross disciplinary teams are facilitated and strengthened and our international reputation for cutting edge research has been enhanced.

And what is the biggest challenge for continuing to build Australia’s research data infrastructure over the next 10 years?

Following a decade of sustained investment Australian research has capabilities of international standing. With today’s big social and scientific questions global in scale and urgent in nature, researchers need an environment that encourages and enables creativity.

Our next investments will need to be available over a sustained period of time; be of a scale to deliver national capacity; be open, accessible and innovative. The principal challenge will be the leadership require to integrate national and institutional investments to achieve the maximum benefits for Australian research.

Possibly the biggest challenge is to make extraordinary use of the durable operating funding that has been put in place – which is itself an action of vision and commitment that can cement in the benefits already achieved.

Anne-Marie Lansdown has worked extensively in public sector policy and planning including NCRIS, the Education Investment Fund, the Office of the Chief Scientist and Australia’s first National Broadband Strategy. She was also Deputy CEO of Universities Australia.

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