Role of Research Infrastructures in addressing societal challenges

The R&I landscape is evolving in a quite uncertain, complex, and dynamic world, where societal, economic and environmental challenges require research and technology developments to grow and adapt at faster pace. The key questions currently visible in policy   discussions include the following: How do Research Infrastructures (RIs) contribute to developing the R&I landscape? What is the role of Research Infrastructures in addressing societal challenges? How technological advances enabled by RIs’ collaboration are contributing to tackling such crucial challenges as the pandemic?

The International Conference on Research Infrastructures (ICRI) 2021, which took place on 1-3 June virtually in Ottawa, put forward the role of Research Infrastructures in building bridges to a sustainable world. It brought together more than 600 delegates, including policy experts, facility managers, leading researchers and other stakeholders to debate challenges and emerging trends for Research Infrastructures around the world. EFIS Centre continuously works in the field of Research Infrastructures through different EU-funded projects such as eInfraCentral, RI-PATHS, CaTRIS, as well as specific projects on socio-economic impact assessment, sustainability, governance and resilience. Our staff actively participated in ICRI 2021 and here we share some of our key takeaways from the conference. (EFIS presentation available here – PowerPoint available here)

Addressing the broader societal benefits of Research Infrastructures

Currently there is a high degree of consensus that given the large amount of funding invested RIs need to be able to explain not only their scientific achievements, but also their broader impacts on the economy and society to policy makers, funders and the public in general. The evolving question is whether RIs can and should adopt a mission-oriented approach to satisfy both scientific and socio-economic goals at once? Discussions during ICRI 2021 sessions pointed out that, while RIs cannot be expected to serve as a solution to all our present-day challenges, we should gain a much better understanding of the broader societal impacts that activities carried on and by RIs induce to maximise their contribution societal welfare and well-being.

RIs’ adaptation to respond to crucial societal challenges has been evident, for example, in the role they played in life sciences during the recent pandemic to enable researchers to rapidly share analysis and results on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and candidate molecules tested for cures and vaccines, also through the common effort on the COVID-19 platforms. RIs in environmental sciences are providing new data and insights for the design of a more sustainable development. Technology transfer by large RIs is bringing new products and solutions to the market in various sectors, with particular interest in the health applications of some technologies developed within RIs in Physics and Astronomy field. RIs in Social Sciences and Humanities have a crucial role in interpreting and co-designing the economic and social framework essential in preparing responses to the emerging global challenges.

Policy makers and RI managers are gradually gaining more experience in how to define expectations as well as manage and report on these broader societal benefits. Yet more support and guidance is needed in shaping meaningful impact assessment requirements and feasible responses to them. Regarding this, EFIS Centre Principal Researcher Elina Griniece presented recent conceptual advances in this field from a H2020 funded project RI-PATHS and offered ICRI 2021 participants some insights into key learnings from EFIS Centre experience.

Listed below are some key conference takeaways regarding approach to measuring RI broader impacts:

  • Each RI is a unique system of interactions hence an impact assessment needs contextual understanding (systemic view) of these interactions. There can be no one-size-fits all model applicable to all infrastructures.
  • Each RI needs to develop its own tailored impact framework highlighting strategic impact pathways and hence setting the rationale for monitoring and reporting routines.
  • The understanding of and measurement metrics for societal benefits need to be integrated in the RI business case early on.
  • To address policy needs, we need some more common key performance and impact indicators that are relevant for all RIs, but each facility should have the flexibility to design also a set of very tailored measurement metrics.
  • The final indicator system should be understood by and agreed with main RI stakeholders.
  • Use of evidence-based narratives are a powerful means to convey the essence of achieved impact to policy makers both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

Lessons learned on legal framework implementation and data sharing

Legal and administrative frameworks are critical for effective operation of RIs, and lessons learned from RIs in the maturity phase can help and guide the ones in the preparatory phase. Striking the right combination of governance framework and legal structure has proved to be very difficult. A wide set of legal tools ranging from international agreements to contracts and simpler MoUs are currently in force across RIs. The level of flexibility or rigidity resulting from the instruments chosen, whenever unexpected technical or organisational challenges arise at implementation level, could determine or undermine the operational effectiveness. Some available legal frameworks can hinder flexibility in aspects such staff mobility, pay structure, etc as it become evident during the recent pandemic. For RIs in preparatory/first implementation phase, it is crucial to strike a proper balance between the timeline of the administrative and legal processes and the time of technological obsolescence of the envisaged equipment.

Data sharing is increasingly regarded as a need to carry on excellent science, yet the management of the data value chain still leaves many questions open, particularly on assessing the impact of data sharing practices for high-quality datasets resulting from the implementation of accurate data curation policies. Instead of sharing data, focus is also on sharing access to data, though cross-national access is still problematic in terms of recovery of costs for providing access. And ideal balance between open access and controlled access is a shared concern as the objective is to make data usable also by non-expert in different scientific fields.

Another constant challenge is the delivery on quality data products researchers can build on. With an enhanced push on open science practices, the production of valuable data curated and tracked with appropriate policy for persistent identifiers (PIDs) can generate a high rate of citations useful to demonstrate the value of the investment by states in existing and future RIs. The policies, frameworks and gateways under developments within international initiative like the EOSC are also contributing to increase the effective exploitation of data generated by RIs.

The role of governance in achieving long-term sustainability of Research Infrastructures

The role of RI governance and organisational efficiency was brought to the attention in one of the parallel sessions. The discussions covered both micro and macro perspectives. On the operational level it is important to agree on formal and informal procedures among partners, external policies and interactions, internal written procedures and recordkeeping. On a more macro level, the acceptance of governance models is crucial. Here communication of the purpose and expected impacts were raised as well as consistent internal documentation and procedures; a need for structural reorganisation of culture and governance for different phrases in the lifecycle; and different expectations and constraints when serving external users onsite and remotely.

When talking about setting up the right governance with long-term sustainability in mind financing of research infrastructures was raised. The discussion led to these take-aways:

  • Long-term strategies are very important – it is easier to build long-term funding models once a consensus strategy is agreed
  • The initial phase of an international RI is challenging for developing a portfolio of funding and better models to involve relevant stakeholders are needed
  • The business cases of RIs need to evolve over time and funding partners bring need to be flexible for adapting priorities and be risk-tolerant
  • In-kind contributions play a critical role in most international RIs but having a reserve fund in case to adapt to contingencies is a valuable instrument
  • Funders should adopt a portfolio approach regarding international RIs, to manage national priorities and Project leadership over a diversity of projects and be transparent about national contracts.

It is clear that societal impacts or benefits need to be better understood, discussed and ‘programmed’ into RI main operations early on in the process and the RI lifecycle. This calls for a design of an initial societal benefits impact framework already at the ex-ante assessment stage of the RI business case. EFIS Centre team offers a unique combination of expertise that can be helpful in this process:

  • In-depth experience with evaluations and impact assessments in R&I field
  • A decade long track of record for assistance to RI strategy development, implementation of monitoring and evaluation frameworks and RI policy consulting
  • Cutting-edge knowledge and global networks on the topic on socio-economic impact assessment of research infrastructures
  • Extended knowledge of participatory evaluation techniques and novel impact assessment methods
  • In-house facilitation and whiteboard design skills very useful in guiding collaborative work also in virtual settings.

Plenary recordings are available here.