Q&A: The CFI's Heidi Bandulet on being Canada's voice for international research infrastructure
October 19, 2021
Research infrastructure is, essentially, the physical structures that researchers need to do their work — laboratories, libraries, archives, data servers, research services. As research becomes more ambitious and advanced, ever-larger and more complex infrastructure is needed, often requiring national or international collaborations. In the case of an international crisis like a pandemic, it is crucial that these international research networks can function.
Dr. Heidi Bandulet, PhD, the Senior Programs Officer at the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is co-chair — and therefore a representative for Canada — on the OECD’s new Global Science Forum Expert Group on Very Large Research Infrastructure. The group, made up of experts from 17 different countries, will be studying large research infrastructure projects around the world to provide advice to policymakers.
The Global Science Forum last did a comprehensive study of very large research infrastructure in 2010, so there will be a decade of developments to catch up on. It's still early days for the group, and they expect to release a final report around the middle of 2023.
A preliminary document prepared by the Global Science Forum listed examples of very large infrastructure facilities, such as the Large Hadron Collider (CERN), the European Gravitational Observatory EGO-VIRGO and the Einstein Telescope. A few Canadian projects, such as the SNOLAB underground neutrino facility and the TRIUMF particle accelerator, also fulfilled several criteria.
Research Money spoke to Bandulet about large research infrastructure projects, her role as Canada's representative and how to better collaborate in the case of a global crisis like COVID-19.
To start off, what is "very large research infrastructure"?
The "very large" is mainly because it is the most complex. It is the most complex facilities, and we're hoping that these things will be extrapolated over to a broader set of facilities.
Our intent is to provide advice that will be useful and applicable to a wide variety of large infrastructure. We have established criteria to help us identify the most interesting cases. We're actually targeting the cross-section between scale and complexity, uniqueness and internationality, if I can call it that.
These must be still be challenging enough to warrant international collaboration. Big machines, big facilities. Or networks of facilities. But generally, you need several countries to pitch in. No nation would tackle this on their own — that's the way we define these things. The complexity component might be scientific and technological or stem from the distributed nature of the facility, but can also be from the scale of cooperation. We're looking for a complexity in the organization component: the funding, the complexity and the outcome and outputs need to be of international relevance. The facility should push beyond the national scope and have a world-leading element.
We're expecting these to be inherently international in the make-up of their governance, funding partners and their user base. It's a balance between the notion of global and very, very large. The scientific challenge has to be sizeable.
At the national level, when we have facilities like here in Canada — like SNOLAB
— they bring the whole Canadian community together. On the international stage, these facilities bring the whole world together. That's the type of facility we're targeting.
What will your role be on the group as co-chair?
My role as chair is to steer the project in the right direction, meet the milestones we've defined and actually do the work. But the next step is that I want to go beyond just representing the CFI but to be the voice of Canada in the group. ISED is helping me with that, connecting me with my counterparts at the NRC, the Tri-Council. And I might look towards, for example, the Canadian Space Agency. I'm not sure what players I will involve in Canada, but I'm surely interested in anyone who has a say in infrastructure.
Space is an interesting avenue for this group, because they have experience sending expensive machines into space, where failure is not an option and where they have a long tradition of being successful at putting these things together. So they might have some insight on how the rest of scientific endeavour can actually go about these things.
The activity will span roughly two years. Now we're on the first part to try to do some horizon scanning exercises, to identify some useful case studies. It's not like a road-mapping exercise to be an exhaustive list of all of the facilities, but we want to have a vision of what the global landscape of landmark infrastructure will look like in the near future.
Being on that list is not a certainty of anything, it's not a promise or an endorsement of any kind. But they want to gain an understanding of the emerging challenges and trends observed in the last decade so we can better identify changes in the systems and processes.
What are some of the challenges and trends that you'll be looking at?
We're revisiting the work we've done in 2010 through the lens of the [new] challenges, including the implications of the COVID-19 crisis as well as issues that may have become magnified over time. The complexity is increasing, and it's leading to new forms of collaborative models and partnerships that we hadn't seen before because of that complexity.
A really interesting aspect of this work is to explore the tension between global competition between nations and the need to unite forces to tackle world problems... there's pressure and necessity to turn to a more strategic and concerted approach among nations. We might want to have a more balanced landscape of global research infrastructure, where there is less duplication and more cooperation. Science is used for diplomacy as well, it's the good side of human nature. We want to explore the trends of open science, and equity, diversity and inclusion in the make-up of the facility and the countries that participate. And then of course the challenges and opportunities of the mounting data and managing it.
Another objective is to help facilities be more responsive to global crises and other unpredictable shifts. It could be a disciplinary shift, it could be any type of shift, not necessary health-related. We're looking at the resilience of those facilities and also their purpose.
[In terms of Canada's role] We're there to learn, but at the same time, our presence on this committee gives us visibility, makes us part of the global discussion. All of the major players are at the table and [my participation] sends a signal that Canada is a willing partner and is interested in finding ways to improve our participation as a country in these large initiatives.
You just mentioned that tension between competition and cooperation. How do you create a system that incentivizes more cooperation?
COVID-19 was a good example of bringing people together and an illustration of the necessity of having these global networks work efficiently. Data-sharing and all of the issues around crossing borders with sensitive data, these things need to be sorted out. We also noticed that when across nations, when you have pre-existing linkages, that is extremely helpful, because creating them when you have a crisis is a bit too late. So those are the lessons learned that you need to establish networks and collaborations ahead of time. More resources should be extended to connect infrastructures together, so they are already set to respond.
We've seen that the collaborative network established prior to the crisis greatly facilitated this cooperation work and data sharing. So that's why we said, in terms of policy actions, countries need to prioritize investment in R&D. That is always true.
Another lesson was that we need to sustain a diversity of research infrastructures in the landscape because no one can predict the expertise that will be needed in future crises, and we need ways to enhance that collaboration, and also find ways to link research infrastructure to other non-scientific facilities that are serving society.
I'm not sure how, but that's what we're trying to figure out. We're really at the beginning of this.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.