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Future Canberra: Black Mountain science precinct a game changer for city

Canberra, Australia's youngest city, ended the 20th century best known for politicians, public servants, pornographers and prostitutes. This four part series looks at some of the emerging growth sectors which are broadening the ACT's economic base.

A state-of-the-art research building taking shape at the CSIRO's Black Mountain Campus as part of a $200 million consolidation of the organisation's ACT infrastructure is the cornerstone of a flagship scientific precinct that will help redefine how Canberra is perceived as the century unfolds.

The five-story, 13,700 square metre, building is to include physical containment level two laboratories and is due to be completed by the middle of 2016.

It will form the core of the National Agricultural Environmental Services Precinct, a joint initiative of the CSIRO and the adjoining Australian National University.

With the potential for high technology start-ups and public/private partnerships, the NAESP has been identified in the ACT government's 2015 "Confident and Business Ready" strategy as one of a number of education and research initiatives that will make Canberra more economically diverse.

Others include NICTA's Canberra research laboratory, another CSIRO initiative that also shares research links with the ANU and the push to establish an innovation district at the University of Canberra.

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Dr John Manners, the director of CSIRO Agriculture and the site leader for the Black Mountain laboratories project, said the CSIRO and ANU agricultural and environmental partnership would have a lasting impact on Australian agriculture and the region.

"This [the Black Mountain project] is an investment in meeting the challenges of an evolving future," he said.

"The longer term vision for this site is not just CSIRO and not just ANU. There will be other science-based ventures here, be they in the commercial sector or start-ups but also science focused and government initiatives."

Because scientific breakthroughs were usually the result of multidisciplinary approaches the research would be wide-ranging.

"We'll be bringing [in] environmental scientists, agricultural scientists, together with people now working with informatics and data science."

Projects will include work on crop genetics, improved farming systems and environmental research.

Informatics, a relatively new field, will put research results into the hands of farmers in the paddock.

"Informatics is digital technology – the use of tablets, telephones – to make better and faster decisions based on information that comes from multiple sources," Dr Manners said.

"You might be able to use your phone to obtain information about decisions about fertilising, weed control [or] crop protection. We call it decision agriculture."

The synergies expected to flow from the link-up with the ANU could be game changers.

"It is exciting, absolutely," he said. "The co-location of one of Australia's top universities with the facilities of the CSIRO creates one of the largest concentrations of agricultural and environmental science in Australia. We're jointly funding positions."

The importance of the precinct, not just to the ACT and farmers but also the Australian economy and the broader region, cannot be overstated.

"The whole world has the challenge of meeting a growing food demand on a static or shrinking arable land footprint," Dr Manners said. "We have to maintain our natural environments as well as our production environments."

The future for Australian agriculture was "very, very positive".

"We've got basically 2 billion people to our immediate north who are gaining in wealth and who want to buy clean, green, high value products," he said.

"It [the precinct] is about creating that value in Australia before they [the products] are exported."

The dairy industry and the recent run on Australian-made infant formula in China was an example of this.

"People in Asia are prepared to pay very high prices for Australian products because they know they have high standards of food safety [and] they know they are produced in sustainable farming systems," Dr Manners said.

The CSIRO's 37.3 hectare Black Mountain Campus is the longest serving science site in Australia.

The organisation has more than 6000 staff in 11 research divisions in Australia and overseas.

More than 1600 of these are based in Canberra.

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