A roadmap for critical national infrastructure

By on 22 March, 2022

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Andrey Popov

Geospatial resources, space development, data use and skills development are on Australia’s research agenda.

By Jonathan Nally

In December 2021, the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment released an exposure draft of the 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, which is being put together by an Expert Working Group led by Dr Ziggy Switkowski.

The purpose of the Roadmap is to outline the national research infrastructure (NRI) ecosystem that will be required over the coming decade in order for Australia to maintain research excellence, increase innovation and address emerging research challenges.

The Roadmap touches upon many areas that of great interest to the surveying, spatial and space sectors. Among the trends it has identified are:

  • The digital revolution is making modern research rapid and data intensive, with AI/ML, IoT and automation accelerating research outputs.
  • Modern research is open, global, collaborative and increasingly mission-driven. Convergent and multidisciplinary research is necessary to address complex challenges.
  • Access to high-quality datasets requires strong national leadership, direction and coordination to deliver systematic data management and archival mechanisms.
  • Researchers of the future will expect a seamless ecosystem of facilities and services. Interfaces will be easily accessible, with no separation between physical instrumentation, digital tools and the necessary supporting skills and expertise.
  • Researchers will design and test on computers before starting physical experimentation and laboratories will be augmented by sensors, robotics and AI/ML.
  • Human capital is vital, with both technical expertise and a skilled workforce becoming increasingly important. Progressively complex instrumentation and exponentially growing datasets necessitate collaboration between researchers and well-trained technical experts to best utilise research infrastructure and carefully interpret results.
  • Increased collaboration, within and between different research areas and with industry, will require facilities to be multipurpose and serve many disciplines and industries.

Environment and resources

The Roadmap identifies a range of areas of “increasing prominence and national importance,” such as quantum technology, advanced climate modelling and materials science, but also Earth observation from space. It notes that “such observation is used for weather prediction and climate studies, environmental monitoring, mining and decision-making in agriculture and resource management” and that “Greater capability in this area will improve policy settings and management of natural environments and generate agricultural and industrial development opportunities.”

The Roadmap affirms that the resources and critical minerals processing sectors are vital to Australia’s long-term prosperity, noting that the resource sector “contributes approximately 10 per cent of Australia’s GDP and is expected to generate $349 billion in exports in 2021–22, accounting for more than 50 per cent of total national exports”.

Research to support this sector should be underpinned by research infrastructure, including integrated “national geo-mapping data” that “includes high-resolution geoscience data and information about the potential mineral, energy and groundwater resources concealed beneath the surface”. It adds that a “national geo-mapping database will enable interoperability of data and support enhanced identification of sites with high prospects of containing critical minerals”.

The environment and climate are also singled out as priority areas, with the draft report nothing that “Not responding to climate change could be costly with modelling predicting losses of $19 billion in reduced agricultural productivity by 2030, $39 billion per year in natural disaster costs by 2050 and over $225 billion in lost assets from sea level rise by 2100”.

Addressing environmental and climate challenges will require a variety of research infrastructure capabilities, including:

  • Marine, coastal, freshwater and atmospheric monitoring and observation infrastructure, including sea-floor mapping vehicles, observation and monitoring of Australia’s coastal, estuarine and freshwater environments and atmospheric measurement.
  • Integrated, publicly accessible environmental datasets covering urban, biodiversity, terrestrial, ocean, freshwater, estuarine and atmospheric data from national, state and territory monitoring programs.

The report calls for continental-scale observations that “produce and continually update datasets of national significance that are beyond the capacity of individual researchers to collect” to enable researchers to “identify national trends and understand terrestrial ecosystems, biodiversity, geology, oceans, coasts, climate and atmosphere, and how they are changing”.

The Roadmap has identified “gaps” in Australia’s continental-scale observational capability, in sectors such as the marine domain, atmospheric and air quality monitoring and biodiversity and biosecurity monitoring. “The requirement for wide spatial coverage, in addition to working in remote and challenging locations, makes the benefits of well-integrated continental observation infrastructures significant,” the draft says.

Space and data

Space capability is another sector identified as being essential to Australia’s interests, with the exposure draft noting that “Space technologies enable activity across the economy” and that “Space capabilities underpin innovation in communications, navigation (GPS), space situational awareness, and Earth observation capabilities”.

It adds that “Research to advance space technology… research should be underpinned by… Earth observation infrastructure” that “includes satellite imaging, sensor networks, LiDAR technologies, data storage and ground calibration sites”.

It goes on to say that “Increasingly, satellite data is being used in a wide range of observational applications, complementing ground-based and autonomous (eg drone) sensor networks. Earth observation capacity requires timely high-resolution satellite images, ground-based calibration stations and the expertise and software tools to produce datasets. Better coordination of satellite and ground-based observational infrastructures could improve interconnections, drive efficiency and allow richer datasets to be collected.”

The challenge of storing and maintaining those datasets has also attracted the attention of the draft’s authors. “With the rapidly increasing amounts of data generated, increasing data storage capacity is needed as a national research asset especially for long-term preservation,” they say. “Researchers may want to use data in 30 years and need certainty that they will be able to do so. Preservation standards, storage architectures and interoperability all need to be considered for any data storage solutions such as data repositories.”

A National Digital Research Infrastructure (NDRI) is also on the agenda, with the Roadmap draft’s authors acknowledging that “The future involves immense amounts of data from increasingly sophisticated and precise instrumentation. To manage this, key elements of computing processing power, data storage, expertise and researcher skills will be critical and require ecosystem-wide cooperation and planning.”

This will involve:

  • “The formulation of a clear Australian plan towards achieving exascale. Exascale computing could constitute a game-changer for the Australian research and innovation landscape
  • Unified data storage solutions that allow data to remain close and accessible to computing services. This will require integration of existing disparate data repositories as well as building new repositories, able to accommodate largescale datasets
  • Researcher training (data analysis and synthesis, AI/ML, data standards) to ensure that any data generated and stored will be FAIR [Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable], align with the CARE [Collective benefit, Authority, Responsibility and Ethics] principles and have appropriate metadata for use and reuse.”

Finally, as is well known, one of the biggest challenges facing Australia is the development of a highly skilled workforce sufficient to meet our needs. The report notes that “One of the immediate priorities for the Expert NRI Advisory Group should be the development of an NRI Workforce Strategy”.

“A NRI Workforce Strategy could drive coordinated improvements in NRI career pathways and technical skills shortages,” the draft goes on to say. “The Strategy should consider how staff development is embedded in future NRI investment planning, and how to cultivate sustainable career options for a new generation of NRI staff. Apprenticeships, better recognition of technical staff, improved external and internal training programs and the development of non-pay incentives have been suggested as possible solutions…”

A lot more is covered in the Roadmap exposure draft, which can be found at https://www.dese.gov.au/national-research-infrastructure. Consultations have now closed, and a final version is expected to be released in early 2022.

This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2022 issue of Position magazine.

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