Scientific infrastructure: the building blocks of good research

As part of the Science and Technology Lords Committee’s inquiry into scientific infrastructure, a report has been released detailing how the government needs to act in order to ensure that the UK continues to be a forerunner in scientific research.

The access to and existence of scientific infrastructure both within the UK and through wider EU and international collaborations mean that for many research disciplines, scientific infrastructure plays a crucial element in its impact and stature. Scientific infrastructure can range from top end microscopes to supercomputers capable of handling vast datasets, to polar ships and particle accelerators. As such, all scientific disciplines need scientific infrastructure at some level to enable research questions to be answered and advance their field. However, as knowledge changes, the requirements also alter; therefore having a strategy and planning investment is crucial in order to sustain research outputs.

The report released is part of the committee’s inquiry on medium and large sized infrastructure, including e-infrastructure, and considers the funding, governance and partnerships such facilities enable and require. Their document reflects the evidence they received around such issues and as such the committee raises a number of points that they feel the government needs to address in order to ensure that UK scientific research can develop in a sustainable manner.

One of the most prominent points made is the need for a long term strategy and investment plan for the next 10-15 years and beyond.  Given that scientific investment has been ring fenced in the spending review, it is important to consider how to best invest this money. Setting clearly defined targets in line with budgets which can be flexible to change is essential in order to make sure that maximum value is achieved from infrastructure and ensure the UK’s infrastructure and resulting research is internationally competitive. To help deliver this, the committee recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Director General for Knowledge and Innovation sets up an advisory group with independent expertise. Setting long term goals is particularly important with respect to ecological science given the long term research that is frequently undertaken in this area.

The report also found that there were some problems with respect to funding mid-range infrastructure, in addition to barriers associated with the sharing of infrastructure between universities and research institutions. As such, the committee encourages the Higher Education Funding Council for England and research councils to try and resolve these barriers and continue their support for such sharing initiatives. The recent shake up of NERC’s strategy fits in line with the committee’s recommendations as it now focuses more tightly upon cross disciplinary research and working partnerships, which in part will require the sharing of infrastructure.

Public Sector Research Institutions, such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the other NERC research centres, were also noted to be underfunded and suffering in their ability to meet national objectives. Ensuring that these centres are supported in terms of funding and governance is important to ensure their future outputs are not put at risk.

The overall message from the committee was that whilst the UK is well set up with scientific infrastructure, there needs to be better frameworks in place to support such facilities and ensure they are used to their full potential. Understanding both the short and long term research needs is also crucial in order to help UK science retain its competitive edge, and as such thinking strategically is integral to be able to do this.