Paul Nicholls – Curtin University, Board Member

Building research infrastructure and research communities

Although Paul has been Curtin University’s representative on the Pawsey Board since 2016, his association with Pawsey extends back to his commencement at Curtin in 2010.  As Curtin’s then Director of Strategic Projects, he was involved in the development of Information Technology (IT) capability at Curtin, particularly its partnership in the supercomputing joint venture iVEC.  In 2012/2013 Paul became the interim CEO overseeing the transition of iVEC into a national supercomputing facility, with the construction and commissioning of the $80 million Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

Since then, as the Director of Research Partnerships at Curtin, he has continued to build research capability in computation and data intensive science at Curtin, alongside its partnership with Pawsey.

“I’ve historically had a very strong focus on building research communities,” says Paul.  “It’s critical that strong relationships are developed between universities, the State and federal governments and industry to support investment and the creation of critical research infrastructure such as the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.  And then we need to make sure our research communities can maximise the benefit that can be gained from it.”

Having ‘sat in the seat’ at Pawsey and now chairing the procurement of the current $70 million Capital Refresh, Paul has more detailed insights about the operations at Pawsey than is usual for a Board member.  “It’s not just buying new equipment and creating a step-change in terms of our supercomputing capability, it’s also making sure we support our research communities to transition into making the best use of these new technologies,” Paul explains.

Paul sees Pawsey’s support for research communities as central to the services Pawsey offers.  “We aren’t just providing infrastructure and hoping that researchers can use it.  At every stage, and particularly during the Capital Refresh, we’re being proactive in ensuring the infrastructure we’re developing here meets our user community needs, and we’re helping our user community to build their skill sets to make the best use of it.  Equally, we’re always extending the range of research communities we’re able to support, most recently in the areas of bioinformatics and space sciences in support of the recently established Australian Space Agency.”

From its beginnings with iVEC, Paul is very proud of the work that has been done to position Pawsey as a critical part of our national HPC infrastructure.  “It’s incumbent upon the Board to ensure we maintain these strong working relationships with other national infrastructure like the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI).”

“As part of the national infrastructure, we now have a federal government commitment to a regular cycle of upgrades like the one we’re working through now.  Ensuring that Australian researchers have ongoing access to the newest and most powerful supercomputing facilities, whether at Pawsey or the NCI, is really important when the technological capabilities are expanding so rapidly.”

Pawsey’s strengths also provide the biggest challenges, as Paul notes: “There is such a diverse range of research community needs, and High Performance Computing (HPC) technology is moving very fast – matching the technology to the needs of the community in the right timeframe is an ongoing challenge!”

Through his long association with Pawsey, one idea has remained central to Paul’s commitment.  “It’s about providing Australian researchers with a really critical piece of infrastructure to support them in undertaking world leading, transformative research.  As an example, Pawsey was intrinsic in turning radio astronomy into a competitive advantage for the State and Australia.  Transitioning Pawsey-scale supercomputing to full Square Kilometre Array (SKA) operations with the radio astronomy community will be a huge achievement for us in the next decade.  But that’s only one example – helping really smart people solve problems faster will ultimately drive benefit for the broader Australian community.”


Paul Nicholls, Director of Strategic Projects, Office of Research and Development, Curtin University