Can Australian researchers help maintain the technological superiority of the US Air Force?

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And what are the benefits for Australian research?

Today in Washington DC, the Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley will open a four day workshop with more than 60 US defence researchers and 33 Australian nanotechnology scientists.

The meeting, organised by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF), will explore opportunities for collaboration in nanotechnology and nano-manufacturing.

At first sight, it seems like a David and Goliath meeting. The US government invests US$80 billion in defence research, more than eight times the size of the Australian government’s total investment in science and innovation (AU$9 billion in 2010/11).

But this is the bleeding edge of science, and new ideas can come from anywhere.

It’s the Australian government’s investment of $1.8 billion in research infrastructure since 2001 that has brought the researchers together and, in particular, a $91 million investment in the ANFF.

The Facility, with hubs in NSW, Vic, Qld, SA and WA, gives researchers access to the tools to make their inventions. And they’ve been drawn like flies. Nineteen universities and CSIRO are partners in the Facility. Some of the inventions that the Facility has already contributed to are:

  • The invention at UNSW of an enabling component for a silicon-based quantum computer – a device that reads the spin state of a single electron. Now they’re making the writer. Put the two together and they’ll have the beginnings of a processor
  • Flu virus sensors that have the potential to detect infections in minutes rather than hours and could screen people at airports and medical clinics – developed at the University of Adelaide
  • A skin patch that delivers vaccines without a needle, developed at the University of Queensland.

The Australian delegation includes Mary O’Kane (NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer); Cathy Foley (Chief of CSIRO’s largest division – Materials Science and Engineering; ANFF leaders Rosie Hicks and Chris Fell; and 30 leading scientists.

The US delegation includes representatives of: Department of State; Office of the Secretary of Defense; Air Force Office of Scientific Research; NASA; Army Research Laboratory; Naval Research Laboratory; DARPA; National Institutes of Health; and the National Science Foundation.

The collaboration arose out of a government to government meeting of US and Australian science leaders held in DC in February 2011.

“There’s no single piece of science that brought us together,” says Rosie Hicks. “What’s drawn the Americans to us is:

  • The quality of Australian nanotechnology research
  • The breadth of the research issues we’re tacking and the infrastructure that backs that up.
  • Access to Australia’s leading nanotechnology researchers at 19 universities and CSIRO via one organisation – helping them simplify and unify their investments in Australian science.”

“We’ve become a portal for access to Australian nanoscience,” she says. “And Australia gets access to a network of researchers that would otherwise be nearly impossible to reach.”

Rosie hopes that the meeting will lead to collaborative research in several areas including:

  • the development of electronic systems able to work in high temperatures
  • new approaches to lasers
  • ways to bring colour vision to infra-red night imaging.

Contacts:

Rosie Hicks – Rosie is in DC from Sunday but is available for interviews until 1 pm Melbourne time daily

Niall Byrne, Science in Public, +61 (417) 131 977

Background at www.anff.org.au