National Research Data Programme – NRDP

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.

Notable Exceptions: NZ researchers invented R, and Weka, two key platforms with broad scale adoption internationally – so we innovate, though we don’t diffuse and absorb our own innovations. 23+ years since R was developed, it is a key language at the heart of a global revolution, including one which is taking hold in our government agencies, and has been a mainstay of international research for a couple of decades.

Nick Jones, Director, NeSI

The Change Occurring in Research

At the most fundamental level, the role of “data” in research is changing at pace. Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, suggests data has been transformed from an output of hypothesis testing into a starting point for hypothesis generation. The advent of the “Cloud” – the infrastructure for managing, transporting and analysing huge and diverse flows of data – is a phenomenon that is changing our economy and society, and enabling major discovery and innovation. “Data-intensive Discovery” is rapidly altering the fundamentals of science systems around the world. Unprecedented collaboration (papers with over 1,000 authors), new models for funding hypothesis-free research, and even more rapid and widespread sharing of research findings all contribute to new expectations of research and researchers.

As it stands, New Zealand is somewhat underprepared for this evolution of the role of data, for three reasons. Partly this is a generational issue, the leaders of our research sector are from the baby-boomer generation and many are nearing retirement age – the contribution of their experience is in their research outputs, rather than in new technologies and methods for conducting research. Partly this is a resourcing issue; just how much time do we expect our research institutions to spend thinking about digital research and data, and have we made our expectations clear? And partly this is a confidence issue; our researchers are clustered in relatively small geographical groups, they don’t have broad access to baseline professional development in this area, and they aren’t sure how “big” they could be thinking. While being a late adopter has certain cost and risk advantages, it will be important we take a coordinated approach to these challenges, as becoming a digital laggard in research may run an entirely new set of risks.

The Rise of Data Analytics

As the fundamentals of mobile technology shift, the societal and cultural expectation will become that data, be it climate data, health data, language or cultural data, will be available. Underlying data collections, such as genomic records, environmental observations, traffic flows, and biological integrity databases, become the “data infrastructures” that will support decision-making in government, in public services such as health and social development, along with productivity growth, innovation and marketing. The recently released 30 Year New Zealand Infrastructure Plan makes this point explicit, highlighting both the real-time nature of data and the impact common standards and open data can have on infrastructure management. While these are broad-brush examples of societal reliance on data, the digital standards and tools that underpin these data infrastructures, along with a large percentage of the data that feed these systems, are typically generated and maintained within the research sector.

FIGURE 6.

GLOBAL FLOWS OF TRADE AND FINANCE ARE FLATTENING, WHILE DATA FLOWS ARE SOARING

The current MBIE review of the Telecommunications Act 2001, “Regulating Communications for the Future,” points out that convergence is reshaping our telecommunications and broadcasting markets, that the Internet of Things will play an increasing important role, and that the Internet is eroding national boundaries for content and services. McKinsey, a consultancy, recently noted that, as global data flows have increases at stunning rates, digital infrastructure has become as important as transportation infrastructure in growing national economies, however they point out that New Zealand participation in the digital globalisation is lagging up to 75% behind the developed world. Our research sector can help NZ catch up, yet for digital success in the research sector, certain capabilities – especially those that build foundations for other key processes and activities – will be more important than others. Foremost among them are IT platforms that can overcome fragmentation, enable effective research, and cope with the peak demands of research equipment and the inter-relational interdependence among researchers (often working from diverse locations) required for high impact research. The typical IT platforms of our research institutions are organised to prioritise their larger franchise corporate IT and student-focused consumer needs, making it difficult for them to recognise or service the small to medium enterprise nature of research and research data. Change is upon us; McKinsey also reckon over 900M individuals are participating in digital globalisation directly, 80% of tech start-ups are born global, and that the impact of data flows on world GDP growth over the last 10 years has been larger than the global trade in goods.

Once the IT platforms begin to address research data needs, the focus shifts to the capability of our researchers to engage with their “customers” digitally, be they the scholarly customers of their collaborators and peers in the research world, or the customers of research outputs in central or local government, or in industry and society. Impactful research requires researchers to be engaged with each other for collaboration, and connected to the users of research. In a digital world, this requires the digital capability to collaborate, and to translate findings into data-empowered decision making.

Building Foundational Capabilities

The technological and organisational changes required to shift our research sector towards digital methods and data-intensive research are complex and challenging. For firms, experts highlight “Mind-Sets” and “Technology Systems” as the two fundamental elements for successful digital enterprise. We think these two major elements translate well in developing focus for New Zealand researcher efforts such as our National Science Challenges, and designing a National Research Data Programme:

Mind-sets and Skills. Being digital is about using data to make better and faster research decisions; expanding research goals to bigger, more impactful work across larger, more diverse teams, and developing much more iterative and rapid ways of doing things. Thinking in this way shouldn’t be limited to the top scientists of leading disciplines, it should incorporate the broad scope of researchers’ work, including collaborating across disciplines, institutions, and with industry and the public service to extend necessary capabilities. A digital mind-set builds environments to encourage the generation of new ideas, and values the digital and data assets as both metrics of success and keys to supporting decision-making agility.

Technology Systems & Data. In the context of ICT, digital research is focused on creating a two-speed environment that decouples legacy or consumer systems (which support corporate and commodity functions and often run at a slower pace), from those that overcome research fragmentations, and support complex, sometimes peak performance interactions (often in a highly interdependent way). A key feature of digital research IT is the commitment to connecting devices, instruments, objects, and people with the meta-data architecture, standards, storage, and analysis that can enable interoperable, systems-level coordination in research.

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