I am writing this month’s CEAT Director’s message from home where – like 200,000 other people across Australia – I have been in COVID isolation for the past week. The mild nature of my COVID symptoms is a testament to the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines developed at unprecedented speed by researchers in 2020. Previously, new vaccines took a decade or more to be developed and authorised for broadscale use. While many factors contributed to the accelerated development of different vaccine options, core to them all were decades of investment into fundamental, blue-skies research in publicly and privately funded organisations across the world – research that not only helps us understand the nature of things, but also provides the base from which applied outcomes (such as production of novel vaccines) emerge. Australia’s fundamental research capabilities – both through its people and infrastructure – need to be nurtured. They need to be invested in. And they need not to be taken for granted. Investment is needed if Australia is to maintain the world-class research capabilities that underpin industrial innovation.
Thus, while it is great that the Department of Education, Skills and Employment wants to accelerate translation and commercialisation of research, equal attention needs to be given to finding ways to reverse the decades-long shift to reduced funding for fundamental research. Here, an option is to develop novel frameworks through which such investment occurs – frameworks that incorporate blue-skies investment into outcome-focused, mission-like projects. For example, imagine how great it would be if our farmers had access to new types of wheat that do not need to be fed with inorganic nitrogen fertilisers – wheat that is capable of biologically fixing atmospheric nitrogen just like nitrogen-fixing legumes. Achieving such an outcome would not be easy – but the benefits of the investment would be profound, both for the agricultural sector and the research community. As noted in an earlier Director’s message, ANU has been working with other universities to develop a mission proposal, with an updated version of that proposal to be released later this year. Such ideas provide forward-looking, proactive ways for the new Government to address many of the complex challenges facing the nation, while also ensuring that we nurture our research ecosystem.
Round two of CEAT’s Strategic Investment Program (SIP) has just concluded, with two great projects receiving funding. One of the projects – led by Prof. Justin Borevitz from the Research School of Biology – will develop new ways of measuring above and below ground plant and soil data across different crops and environments. In the other project, Prof. Lachlan Blackhall (Head of the ANU Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program) aims to work with industry partners to develop new ways to decarbonise the pork industry, including through harnessing methane by-products as an alternative energy source. You can read more about both of these investments, and the wider goals of the SIP, here.
Finally, I am pleased to welcome two new members to the CEAT team. Alex Maier joins us from the APS to lead our Marketing and Communications team, and will be helping to shape our internal and external comms strategies. We also welcome Ning Huang to our admin team in a shared appointment with the ANU node of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF). Ning has a background as a researcher in biology, ecology and sustainable agriculture through work and study in China, Germany and Denmark. She brings with her an understanding of the life of a researcher, and will provide administrative support to both CEAT & APPF teams.
Best wishes. And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!
Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT