Technology is remaking the world around us, and the opportunities for human discovery are as vast as they are thrilling. ICT intensive research, or “eResearch” has found the Higgs-Boson particle, identified earth-like planets across the galaxy, detected gravity waves, created genomics as a powerful force in our lives (along with a few other “omics”), and will soon be driving our cars! Some of the world’s largest companies have been built on data and computing power – Amazon and Google are becoming the old guard in this respect and yet even they are rushing into new areas of digital research. Few New Zealand companies need to be sold on the benefits of digital and data analytics, even though the investment required by digital initiatives is substantial. Unfortunately, the story is less glossy for the New Zealand research sector; where we still have considerable opportunity to grow our participation in digital globalisation and data-intensive research.
Over the last 25 years, our universities have become some of the largest and most advanced ICT organisations in New Zealand. The Government has invested heavily in ICT and digital infrastructure at a national level, as well as in eResearch with NeSI, NZGL, REANNZ and the Synchrotron. Our research institutions house some of the highest tech equipment and most advanced skills to be found in the country. Some New Zealand researchers regularly punch well above their weight in global terms, yet overall we have seen neither the emergence of any broad digital capability in our research sector, nor the skills diffusion into society and the economy we had hoped this would engender. Our high tech equipment is not connected, the output not shared. Our skills are in silos, our research projects often disconnected, ad hoc collaborations such as the National Science Challenges (NSCs) are launched lacking the digital fundamentals. We need to reach a point where new national initiatives in research can be born digital, with a strong data foundation and the security that the knowledge created will add value into the long term.
Flows of physical goods and finance were the hallmarks of the 20th-century global economy, but today those flows have flattened or declined. Twenty-first-century globalisation is increasingly defined by flows of data and information.
Digital Globalisation: The New Era of Global Flows; McKinsey Global Institute, March 2016
In global terms, the ability of humanity to create, collect, store and share data has never been greater. From a research perspective, the scale of global challenges and the scope of computation and data available to tackle them are breathtaking. Digitised literature, data from public services, or data generated by connected sensors can now be collected, stored, and analysed like never before. Mobile technology and the rise of social media offer unprecedented opportunities for researchers to contribute in new ways and with immediate feedback. With the right skills and the right tools, we could have the opportunity to understand and manage our environment, our primary industries, and our urban systems with greater detail and precision than ever before.
In general, New Zealand has been a late adopter of technology and change in the research world, for the very good reason that while adopting early is risky and costly, these risks and costs fall over time. National data collections, research discipline data repositories, sensor networks and data intensive discovery have all emerged over the last 20 years in the international domain; however in the last 5 years these technologies have matured rapidly. Since 2010, the capabilities of data infrastructure and services (research and otherwise) have exploded even as the costs of the necessary underlying technology and systems have plummeted. At the same time, a new generation of research leaders are emerging who are, generally speaking, enthusiastic to embrace the scale of technological change that’s occurring. Getting better at digital methods and data-intensive skills at a research system-wide level is a complex challenge, however now is the time to get on with it.