Scientific Infrastructure - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Scientific Infrastructure

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.  The UK's international stature in research is founded in part on the availability of internationally competitive scientific infrastructure. For many areas of science, it is vital that both UK researchers and industry have access to scientific infrastructure, enabling them to be at the forefront of scientific discoveries and pioneering innovation. This might mean, for example, having access to the most up to date microscope or a new high performance computer, capable of handling massive data sets, such as the supercomputer used by the Met Office, which can do more than 100 trillion calculations a second, and was able to predict the path of the recent St Jude's storm.

2.  Scientific infrastructure needs may change rapidly. For example, across many fields, increasingly advanced computing power (termed e-infrastructure) is now needed to handle complex data sets and run simulations. Crucially, large facilities can take decades to plan and build before they become operational. It is therefore important that a long-term strategy is in place to enable effective prioritisation and timely investment. Likewise, national expertise and data may take many decades to establish, but could be lost rapidly without appropriate investment. The key purpose of this inquiry was to determine whether an effective long-term strategy exists for investment in internationally competitive scientific infrastructure in the UK.

3.  Scientific or research infrastructure has been defined by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) as: " … major equipment or sets of instruments, in addition to knowledge-containing resources such as collections, archives and data banks. Research Infrastructures may be "single-sited", "distributed", or "virtual" (the service being provided electronically)."[1] In addition, to meet the ESFRI definition, infrastructure must "apply an 'Open Access' policy for basic research, i.e. be open to all interested researchers, based on open competition and selection of the proposals evaluated on the sole scientific excellence by international peer review."

4.  For the purposes of this inquiry, however, we went beyond ESFRI's definition because we also wanted to consider the provision of mid-range scientific infrastructure. This inquiry therefore focused on large, international or national scientific infrastructure, where only one facility exists in the world, in Europe, or in a country, and mid-range infrastructure, shared between users at university or at a regional level. We include within the definition of infrastructure, not only large and mid-range facilities, but also data and national capabilities such as those in Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), for example, the British Geological Survey and the Institute for Animal Health. In all cases, such infrastructure requires substantial initial expenditure, often demanding capital investment, and has significant operational or recurrent costs.

  1. We would like to thank everyone who gave evidence to us, both at oral evidence sessions, which we held across June and July, and in writing. We also wish to thank our Specialist Adviser, Professor Brian Collins, who greatly assisted our work.

1   European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, Strategy report on research infrastructures: Roadmap 2010, March 2011. Available online: Error! Bookmark not defined.. Back

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