Technology dynamics have changed the potential cost structures of data related infrastructure and services cited in the earlier studies. In estimating costs in Australia, Houghton & Gruen directly applied the UK experience of between 1.4% and 1.5% of total public research expenditure. A direct extrapolation to New Zealand would suggest costs of NZD21m per annum (based on total research expenditure), however we suggest these figures are likely to be misleading for three reasons:
Small Country Premium
New Zealand investments seldom achieve economies of scale or geographic co-location of equivalent overseas investments. Typically, we pay a premium on like-for-like investments in order to optimally serve a small, geographically fragmented research population and therefore best realise the potential of the investment. While comparative data would be needed to assess this premium, it might be as high as 20% during initial programme development, increasing annual costs by NZD4.2m.
Catch Up Costs vs. Late Adopter Advantages
New Zealand researchers are starting behind the pack in terms of skills and access, therefore costs are likely to be higher in the near term when there will be increased focus on training and development across the sector. That said, New Zealand may benefit from late adopter advantage in many of these areas. Training and professional standards in many areas of data-intensive research have already been developed overseas. International standards and resources for skills and access have become well-established over the last 5 years, and associating ourselves with these existing resources (i.e. ORCID) should be considerably less expensive now they are up and running. Overall, we think the late adopter advantages have the potential to fully offset any catch up costs, provided the NRDP is well managed and our research institutions are aligned on their goals for research data in New Zealand.
Falling Technology Costs
The pace of technological change in cloud services and data technology is driving costs down and lifting capacity at an astonishing rate. At the same time, the number of researchers working with data and the quantity of data generated is also on the rise. These factors will not only affect operational costs in terms of people and training, but also improve access to economies of scale in data technologies for the New Zealand research sector as a whole – provided coordinated sector investments can be made. We think well managed, timely investment should be able to take advantage of compound annual savings of at least 10% of total costs over the first 5 years of the programme, suggesting total savings of up to NZD10.5m through falling technology costs.
Funding Options for Coordinated Action on Research Data
Taken together, these cost figures suggest annual investment across the NZ research system of approximately NZD15.1m per annum would support research data related services and infrastructure, and lift researcher digital skills development in New Zealand. Considering that our total annual investment in creating, collecting and analysing research data is about $300m, costs of $15.1m per annum to sustain that stock of knowledge don’t seem unreasonable. Unfortunately, eResearch 2020 estimates New Zealand research institutions currently invest $6m – $8m per annum in research data management activities (mostly data storage, curation, and digitisation), or 0.5% of total public sector research expenditure. This would suggest a funding gap in 2016 of $7.1m to $9.1m; however, we estimate this institutional spend will grow by up to 30% by 2020 as rapid growth in data generation and digital research stretch the resources of our institutions. Given that total public research expenditure is not expected to grow at this rate, the gap between New Zealand investment levels and international benchmark investment levels will narrow. Unfortunately, our existing investment is uneven across institutions, is focused on narrow institutional priorities, and is fragmented and duplicative across research disciplines. Given the substantial benefits of good research data management, and the volume of under-realised potential in our research system, we think we have a real opportunity to get significantly more value from this annual 0.5% of public research spending.
The NRDP has been designed as an opportunity for Government to provide short-term for uplift in research data management across the New Zealand research sector. As such, the NRDP would lift total research data management funding to 1.5% of public research expenditure on average over the course of 5 years, with Government making up funding the difference over this time period. Based on the investment gap and the potential returns, we propose Government allocate $45m – $50m in total to fund a NRDP over a 5-year period aimed at super-charging the existing investment our research institutions are already making in research data. The Government’s NRDP investment would be towards design and implementation of 5 major workstreams, and to develop key, missing pieces of the research data eco-system.