Strategic Case for Data
The goal of the National Research Data Programme is to encourage. The strategic opportunity is to transform the quality and impact of research output in New Zealand through a programme of major professional development and training, along with implementation of significant national collections and meta-data curation that enable data co-location and additional data use. This opportunity is available now due the aging demographics of the research sector workforce; the change in cultural attitudes towards data sharing and adoption of digital technologies, and the falling costs of data-related
infrastructure and services at a global scale. The way data is considered by international research funders and the heightened expectations of peer reviewers for international publishing are lifting the bar for New Zealand researchers working on the global stage. Beyond this, getting better at valuing and managing research data offers the opportunity to significantly expand our research horizons, do significantly more with the research funding and resources we already have, and intensify knowledge and data transfer between research, industry and the public sector.
At a national level, New Zealand will not achieve our strategic science goals without a coordinated strategy for research data.”
Stephen Whiteside, Chief Digital Officer, The University of Auckland
More Impactful Research
Our current research system does not encourage digital efficiency. New Zealand researchers cannot access complementary NZ research or data until after it’s published (no sooner than their international colleagues), limiting the scale and impact of every project. Our researchers are geographically scattered, further solidifying barriers to collaboration and sharing, and encouraging duplication of expenditure across (and within) organisations. In their October 2014 briefing to the incoming Minister of Science and Innovation, Universities NZ noted that co-location of researchers produces better research outcomes. Given the rapid advance in data and sharing technologies, national collections and repositories (along with professional data curation and shared data analysis environments) can play a major role in bringing researchers together, as publishing meta-data could help researchers across the country find others doing similar work, or gathering similar data. Such virtual co-location has potential to widen the scope and scale of research goals, reduce the time and cost of research activities, and increase the impact of multiple research efforts and funding streams.
The time and cost savings generated through upskilling researchers and providing data curation and sharing through national collections can be reinvested in producing additional research, or in transferring research outcomes to the wider economy or society.
Furthermore, analysis of meta-data in research collections in Europe, Australia, and North America is now allowing for greater targeting of research funding and connecting those researchers and research groups who have complementary interests. Unless we reorganise for digital research and data management, the efficiencies and research opportunities of “big data” and “cloud” will remain largely out of reach for New Zealand researchers, research institutions or research funders.
Prioritising Standards and Trust
To accelerate our high value industries, we need graduates who arrive in the marketplace already equipped with the data skills they’ll need, and familiar with the data standards and expectations of industry – we need our researchers to value these skills and be able to impart them. If collaboration is to thrive across the research sector and into the wider economy, we need our researchers to have similar base skills in data and technology, and to have a basic understanding of each other’s tools and standards across research disciplines. Interoperability of data and tools is a huge challenge for researchers around the world; recent New Zealand experience establishing the cross-sector National Science Challenges shows we also struggle to collaborate at the most basic levels of data design and collection.
Like most research sectors around the world, we have our share of research councils, research panels, discipline-specific groups, all of which are effective within their mandate and resourcing – but none of which are mandated towards data. To achieve the scale of transformational change in data capability we are seeking, we need to challenge these groups to provide greater leadership, insight, and technical guidance in data standards (as has recently been the case with the RSNZ report on Taxonomic Collections). In the UK, enabling data and standards in research has allowed the Higher Education and Research Funding Council to propose an entirely new kind of transparency and metrics for research quality. It will not be enough simply to ask for guidance, we also need to empower and resource our research leaders to implement and enforce the standards required. This is important if we’re to ensure a high level of transparency in research methods, so that researchers and society can have high trust in research data management and confidence in the outcomes of research.
When it comes to standards, the aim is to encourage New Zealand research institutions to participate fully in the emerging norms and expectations for research, and for research management, both for the internal benefit of the research sector and to more ably fulfil the role research plays in the wider society and economy of New Zealand.
Sustaining Research Excellence
International university rankings have become an important scorecard in the global research sector. The rankings are published using data on the quality and quantity of published research, and have a tangible impact on the performance of a research sector in the form of key hires, student admissions, and access to international and commercial research funding. For the foreseeable future, competing universities and nations will have greater access to resources and greater scale than we do; therefore as a sector, New Zealand needs a change that makes a positive impression on our international rankings without beggaring ourselves. It’s no longer enough for a faculty or school to have a few research stars publishing in top journals – we will need the majority of our research population (i.e. >50%) to be able to publish at this level if we are to position New Zealand institutions in the upper echelons of the research world. A coordinated approach to research data and digital research will be vital if we are to attract the talent, admit the students, or win the research contracts needed to sustain research excellence.
In their analysis of census data from 2006, consultancy BERL Economics noted that 62% of all university researchers were aged between 40 and 59 years old, and that the largest cohort of research staff by age bracket was 50 – 54 year olds. Ten years later, that cohort are heading towards retirement and the research workforce as a whole has aged considerably. Researchers don’t retire quickly – we’re not going to lose experience en masse – however we do have an opportunity to address attitudes, experience and skills of the new generation of research leaders who will be taking up key positions over the next 5 years. Our goals should be to lift the digital maturity of research leaders across all disciplines, rather than letting those already far down the track get even further ahead. Many of the barriers to adoption of base skills in data-intensive discovery will weaken over the coming few years, offering opportunity to accelerate those areas of the research sector, and the economy, that have been slow to adopt and adapt.
An Increasingly Engaged Sector
An eResearch 2020 review across research disciplines and institutions suggested a wide variation in maturity and adoption of digital methods and ICT intensive research. Just as we have some world class researchers scattered across the research sector, we also have pockets of excellence in research data management and digital skills. At the same time, we can also observe increased awareness that research data and digital research methods are challenges we need to take on.
Research data is a uniting issue – a 2015 eR2020 Research Data Workshop included participants from every research discipline, every research institution, every NSC and CoRE, along with government officials, research ICT experts, and institutional leaders. Our research sector might be late to the party in digital and data analytics, yet the sector has the advantage of a highly educated workforce, increasingly led by a new generation across a relatively small industry, with a very high level of connectivity into industry and major public services. All factors that suggest the bang for every buck spent on data capability in the research sector is potentially much higher than elsewhere. What’s more, research into similar large-scale shifts in technology, such as internet adoption in the 1990s, tells us that the uptake of new technology by students at university level can rapidly transfer skills into wider society and lower access barriers for those who wouldn’t normally be exposed to new technology.
There are fundamental infrastructural, training and capacity needs to be addressed; access to expertise will become a core capacity in its own right; and standards will be needed in many disciplines for how data is captured and filed, with clear data governance protocols to be established and likely tailored to particular disciplines.
Sir Peter Gluckman KNZM, June 2015
Deep Links to Societal & Economic Development
There are key parts of the New Zealand economy and society that will need to rely heavily on advanced data and digitally intensive methods to operate and to advance – a few of which are summarised in Figure 2 below. In many cases, the research sector already has a major role to play in providing national capacity; however in each case, our researchers and institutions struggle with a lack of skills, tools, standards and access to data. The growing flows of data streaming in from sensors in our infrastructure and environment; our homes and cities; and our productive industries suggest our researchers are going to need significant data management and analytical abilities if they’re to keep up with the expectations of society and Government.
More Effective Research Methods
Our current research system does not encourage digital efficiency. New Zealand researchers cannot access complementary NZ research or data until after it’s published (no sooner than their international colleagues), limiting the scale and impact of every project. Our researchers are geographically scattered, further solidifying barriers to collaboration and sharing, and encouraging duplication of expenditure across (and within) organisations. In their briefing to the incoming Minister of Science and Innovation, Universities NZ noted that co-location of researchers produces better research outcomes. Given the rapid advance in data and sharing technologies, national collections and repositories (along with professional data curation and shared data analysis environments) can play a major role in bringing researchers together, as publishing meta-data could help researchers across the country find others doing similar work, or gathering similar data. Such virtual co-location has potential to widen the scope and scale of research goals, reduce the time and cost of research activities, and increase the impact of multiple research efforts and funding streams.