National Research Data Programme – NRDP

Major Programme Outcomes

The big building blocks of a programme of change have been identified by the research community through workshops and interviews over 2014 and 2015 and drive the intermediate outcomes we think will lead to achieving the true objective of transformational change across the entire system. These major aspects will need to be tailored so they’re complementary to aligned Government initiatives in non-research areas, and refined to fit the exact needs of the New Zealand system; however, in each case we seek to prioritise impact from the first use of new data.

A National Meta-Data Catalogue for Research Data

As we’ve noted, data doesn’t need to be free to be open and accessible, however data does need to be discoverable. Right now, our researchers don’t design their data to be findable, let alone searchable. Our institutions, and indeed our research funders, do not have a consistent approach to data management or sharing meta-data. Our research communities do not have agreed meta-data standards for creating, collecting or sharing new data, and we often lack the tools to fully participate in international collaborations. Creating a meta-data catalogue across all New Zealand institutions, and adjusting incentives to help researchers manage meta-data, could realise much of the untapped value in our research system.

A national home for research meta-data is not the same as a repository, storage would remain the responsibility of research institutions (while meta-data technical standards need to be governed by research discipline communities). Such a catalogue would allow traceability and measurement of data value created, and of additional use of passive data. New Zealand currently lacks a deputised cross-sector agent that can engage with international research data efforts on behalf of NZ research, an implemented national research data facility would correct this. Even greater potential exists for a national meta-data catalogue to underpin new or ad hoc research initiatives such as NSCs or regional institutes, reducing duplication and contributing to the effectiveness of research investments. As noted earlier, coordinated strategy for research data really needs to be the starting point for research collaboration and multi-institution research efforts.

Where research is conducted across institutions and alongside industry, such as with the National Science Challenges, a national catalogue facility might also provide a unified home and structure for the data that emerges from the collaboration over the decade-long research journey, without developing dedicated structures around each endeavour. Examples of this approach can be seen in Europe, and most recently in the United States with the establishment of the US$500m Materials Genome Initiative – a discipline-specific response data infrastructure funded by the federal Government to support a major scientific challenge in materials science, but hosted and operated by a cross-sector consortium – the US National Data Service. Once such a national mete-data catalogue is established for New Zealand, providing ongoing support to major research efforts could be an important factor modelling the sustainability of the facility. We think our university libraries and CRI data programmes will be well placed to take on ongoing management and development of this facility. CONZUL, the Council of New Zealand University Librarians, highlighted in their recent Universities NZ report, “Managing Research Data,” both the need for a national approach to meta-data and data discoverability, and the willingness of the research sector to progress this goal. CONZUL are already making efforts to understand the feasibility of such a national catalogue and how researchers, institutions and research publishers would interact.

A Comprehensive Professional Development Programme

If the time is ripe for the research sector to leap forward, we need to provide the tools and opportunities for our researchers to excel. The research activities involved in the first use of newly collected or created data is an important opportunity, as it suggests the possibility of getting additional value from projects or research streams that are already funded. Professional development needs to improve the way we design our research, structure and describe our research data, and shape our research goals. We should know how to find other researchers who are also funded to do complementary research to our own, and we should know how to access major infrastructure that can expand the boundaries of our research scope.

While there’s no doubt the research institutions will need to play a big role in any professional development of their staff, we can expect that accelerating change across the entire industry to the next level of capability will require a cohesive, national approach. New Zealand researchers are not the only ones who face the challenge of learning new skills for new, digital research methods. The European Commission will soon announce a €6bn European Open Science Cloud initiative, much of which is aimed at changing researcher behaviour, increasing data interoperability, and overcoming researcher fragmentation. Much of the development we’re suggesting is required can be found in online training modules, nano-degrees, and digital discovery, the role of a national Programme would be to engage researchers, coordinate access and standards, and to agree assessment protocols and goals. Key programme partners in developing and implementing metrics and expectations at a national level might be the pan-sector research governance committees at Universities NZ and Science NZ. A big push in sector-wide development does not go on forever – once the next tier of capability is reached by an early majority and a degree of momentum is established, conventional Continuous Professional Development Plans can take up the ongoing responsibilities of training.

Operational Support for Data Management

Research discipline specific communities across institutions need to be the ones that govern the technical standards for creating research data (in conjunction with international research and industry standards where these exist). To date, these communities and technical standards have not appeared organically. Our researchers and institutions need help to come together, agree and implement the necessary technical standards and tools that will drive meta-data creation and sharing.

The goal is that shared tools and standards for data from the outset of the research process, both within research and across disciplines and industries, will improve interoperability of research data from different sources, easing collaboration and ultimately more impactful research outcomes. A strong understanding of the expectations of industry will lead to graduates who are better equipped when they emerge from study. We already have a number of permanently instituted, research-discipline specific committees, mostly focused on making funding decisions; however, we need to permanently establish Technical Working Groups between our universities and CRIs that guide meta-data standards, data analysis and tools both within the research discipline and the interface to industry. While this is an ongoing operational element of the programme, much of the institutional policy foundation for setting up these technical working groups has been laid by the Royal Society of New Zealand, and research sector initiatives such as the Lincoln Hub Data2 group. Resourcing our existing groups to provide an evolving and ongoing level of guidance across the sector will have immediate impact on cross-sector collaboration such as CoREs or NSCs, and ensure the other Programme initiatives have a touchstone for engagement and development across the broadest base possible.

Development of Active Data Bridges

Social license, privacy, confidentiality, and ownership issues all play an appropriate part in developing the value of data. As research and public-sector data become increasingly linked and aggregated, the research sector needs to ensure that society can have confidence in the ability of researchers and research institutions to adequately manage their research data – not only for privacy, but also for research value. New Zealanders should expect greater transparency from research institutions on their research data management practices, and measurement of how effective these practices are at generating benefit to New Zealand and at safeguarding confidential data. The NZ Data Futures Partnership (formerly the Data Futures Forum) is developing a framework for New Zealand data in society, and the research sector has a significant role to play by creating structured, trusted access for data to safely change hands. Trusted data bridges already exist to some extent, for example between Landcare Research and the Ministry for Primary Industries in biosecurity, or between AgResearch and Livestock Improvement Corporation in herd genomics; however, these are one-way bridges, and only scratch the surface of what could be achieved. A meta-data catalogue and a higher general skill level are starting points for expanding data capability into society and economy, and our existing PGP and NSC programmes are good candidates for new, permanent data bridges. A data bridge could as simple as a set of agreed protocols for safe data sharing, or as advanced as dedicated, shared storage and curation facilities – more of either is desirable. Callaghan Innovation has already extended an invitation to help prototype NRDP initiatives, and developing a proof of concept “active data bridge” between a research community and an industry segment could be a tangible first step. For a national investment in data capability to really pay off, we need to ensure that the capability flows into society, and has a measurable, sustainable impact on the wealth and welfare of New Zealanders.

Aligned National & Institutional Policies

To succeed as a programme of change, our researchers and institutions need clear incentives and expectations. In the transition to digital, there are a number of policy areas to coordinate, not least the engagement with public and ensuring the sector has the social license to exploit data for knowledge. A National Research Data Programme would complement other national efforts in data – including Statistics NZ (e.g. the NZ Data Futures Partnership) and the Department of Internal Affairs (e.g. the Digital Preservation as a Service initiative), and better enable the sector to meet statutory expectations such as the Public Records Act 2005.

Specifically in the research sector clear expectations and incentives probably include a common legal framework for data across institutions, and an appropriate accounting treatment for data assets in research institutions to ensure data retains value beyond the financial year it was created in. There are also policy levers that can begin to influence researcher behaviour – a common policy for research data management across all contestable research funding would be helpful, as would a requirement for researchers to specify and share indicative meta-data for the agreed research during the contract negotiations phase of funding.

Finally, a centralised approach to accessing enabling technologies and licenses for tools might not only access economies of scale but might also reduce platform divergence and investment duplication across the sector. Some of these might be as transactional as joining New Zealand to the International Foundation for the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) standard that identifies data resources for citation, or adopting the business model and meta-data guidelines provided by international organisations such as Datacite. At the other end of the scale, the NRDP might champion change through rolling out the unique researcher-focused ORCID digital identifier at a national level. ORCID is a not-for-profit international standard that aims to increase trust and transparency in data and research, potentially delivering new methods and metrics for governance, peer review, and collaboration in research. Much of this could be seen as policy tinkering and procurement alignment, yet clearly stated goals and incentives to change can help the sector to progress rapidly and evenly. The role of the programme will be to assess each of these initiatives at a national level, and to execute on those that the sector agrees can offer the best outcomes for New Zealand.