Research infrastructures (RIs) play an increasingly important role in the advancement of knowledge and technology. They are a key instrument in bringing together a wide diversity of stakeholders to look for solutions to many of the problems society is facing today. RIs offer unique research services to users from different countries, attract young people to science, and help to shape scientific communities.
New knowledge and, by implication, innovation, can only emerge from high-quality and accessible RIs: for example, radiation sources, data banks in genomics, observatories for environmental sciences, systems of imaging or clean rooms for the study and development of new materials or nano-electronics are at the core of research and innovation processes. Moreover, RIs help to create a new research environment in which all researchers - whether working in the context of their home institutions or in national or multinational scientific initiatives - have shared access to unique or distributed scientific facilities (including data, instruments, computing and communications), regardless of their type and location in the world. RIs are therefore at the centre of the knowledge triangle of research, education and innovation, producing knowledge through research, diffusing it through education, and applying it through innovation.
The term ‘research infrastructures’ refers to facilities, resources and related services used by the scientific community to conduct top-level research in their respective fields, ranging from social sciences to astronomy, genomics to nanotechnologies. Examples include singular large-scale research installations, collections, special habitats, libraries, databases, biological archives, clean rooms, integrated arrays of small research installations, high-capacity/high speed communication networks, highly distributed capacity and capability computing facilities, data infrastructure, research vessels, satellite and aircraft observation facilities, coastal observatories, telescopes, synchrotrons and accelerators, networks of computing facilities, as well as infrastructural centres of competence which provide a service for the wider research community based on an assembly of techniques and know-how.
RIs may be ‘single-sited’ (a single resource at a single location), ‘distributed’ (a network of distributed resources), or ‘virtual’ (the service is provided electronically).
These key infrastructures have not only been responsible for some of the greatest scientific discoveries and technological developments, but are also influential in attracting the best researchers from around the world and in building bridges between national and research communities and scientific disciplines.
CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, is an example of the success of European RIs. Neutral currents were discovered at CERN and the laboratory engineered the birth of the World Wide Web. Some 6 500 researchers of 80 different nationalities conduct experiments at the Geneva-based complex. It was at CERN that the idea of RIs first dawned on the research community.
The European Mouse Mutant Archive (EMMA), is a typical example of a distributed infrastructure. It consists of a large scale repository of mouse lines, with nodes in six different countries yet appearing as one unique centre to the users, via a single web interface and that distributes the lines to the broad biology scientific community.
The GÉANT high-speed network is just one of many examples of e-Infrastructure initiatives launched to facilitate cooperation among researchers. E-infrastructures enable scientists to share knowledge and resources and bring real benefits for ordinary people.
Video from the EuroRis-Net, network of National Contact Points for the Research Infrastructures action of the 7th Framework Programme.