Next-generation research environments

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Chris Brown asks whether the environments in which we conduct our research are up-to-scratch

The image of the lonely researcher working in isolation is long gone. As digital innovations have advanced at pace, and costs reduced, so technology has come to proliferate our lives, at work and at home, to make them increasingly interconnected.

Research is no different. Particularly within the last decade, researchers have adopted certain technologies to enable collaboration, share information and push the boundaries of what’s possible, by opening up research efforts within and outside of their organisations.

For example, a popular application of technology in research is to use common web tools or services, either in place of existing systems, or as a supplement, say, with organisations outsourcing some or all of their data to a cloud provider, in order to improve information flow and processing power. A research team may also chose to create their own, bespoke, web-based environment, which integrates the various web tools, applications and access to data they need.

This varied and somewhat siloed approach to technology and the research environment has worked reasonably well, up until now – but such a disjointed approach creates barriers in joining up the whole research lifecycle, is ineffective, and inefficient, and is likely to run into problems in the longer-term. It creates, in effect, lots of micro-environments that don’t integrate with each other, and are limited in scope, for example, to a specific project or domain.

For those of us at Jisc whose role it is to look ahead and develop new solutions, we think it’s time to define the next-generation research environment. To do this, we need to determine what is it that researchers will want to do in the future that they wouldn’t be able to now.

If we want the UK to be able to continue delivering world-leading research – which, of course, we very much do – then we must strive for a sustainable research environment that encourages openness, but is secure and trusted; that links the research process to outputs; which shows provenance and encourages reproducibility; and where the barriers across disciplines, institutions and nations are properly broken down.

While it’s impossible to predict the future, I want to offer a few suggestions about what a next-generation research environment could look like, based on growing or emerging trends and technologies and tools that have already gained some prominence, and raise some important questions to consider:

  • Virtual research environments (VRE) are already deployed, within and across organisational boundaries, to share online tools and other network resources, and aid collaboration. The six projects funded under Horizon2020 on e-infrastructures for virtual research environments will identify and build on requirements for both domain-specific and domain-spanning systems, including BlueBRIDGE and VRE4EIC, supporting multidisciplinary, data-driven sciences. Are there opportunities to expand the use of virtual environments even further?
  • Research integrity is underpinned by it being reliable, verifiable and reproducible. Could we create a more transparent, secure publishing environment that supports integrity and gives credit where it is due, including ‘non-successful’ results?
  • In place of siloed, specific research environments, could we instead facilitate an overarching ecology that everyone plugs into, but hosts separate, flexible environments into which researchers can add their own tools and work as they wish?
  • Historically, subject disciplines have tended to work quite separately, with little join up. Is there potential and appetite for a research environment and reward system that supports greater inter-disciplinary research?
  • The advent of high performance computing (HPC) has brought new powers to researchers in terms of how quickly and reliably they can process data. Can we go further, to support new, secure access routes to HPC facilities, whether institutional or external?
  • Other sectors are recognising the role of emerging technologies such as the internet of things and artificial intelligence in supporting collaboration. Can we do the same?

It is not for Jisc alone to dictate the future research environment. We need the sector – including researchers, funders, publishers and other professional bodies – to come together to help us understand their needs, pressure points and potential challenges, so that we can start devising solutions before they become mission critical.

As part of our latest co-design consultation, over the next few months we will be inviting anyone with an interest in research to tell us what they want from a next-generation research environment. The best way to do this is by visiting the project page or blog, sharing their experiences by contacting or following the Twitter hashtag #codesign16 – where you can also find out about our other co-design challenges, including digital skills for researchers.

Chris Brown is senior co-design manager at Jisc