Government to consider expansion and greater coordination of digital research infrastructure

Mark Henderson
November 15, 2017

Canada’s digital research infrastructure (DRI) is fragmented, oversubscribed and underfunded, according to officials close to the file. Its precarious state compared to competitor nations comes at a time when more and more areas of R&D are becoming digitized and data driven while the size and complexity of data sets are increasing exponentially.

The fractured state of DRI and the pending tsunami of data have prompted the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) through Science minister Kirsty Duncan to commission a report by the Leadership Council on Digital Research Infrastructure (LCDRI) to try and move Canada ahead of the curve.

The LCDRI report being submitted to Duncan this month focuses on DRI’s five functional areas – network, advanced research computing, data management, storage and advanced research software. It is being spearheaded by Robbin Tourangeau, the organization’s founding executive director on secondment from the Council of Ontario Universities where she is senior director of strategic initiatives.

Two position papers on data management and advanced research computing have already been forwarded to Duncan’s office and a full report with a roadmap and recommendations is being submitted this month for consideration in the next national Budget.

“ISED knows there is pressure on the (current) system and that there are lots of players so there has to be buy-in – a coalition of the willing,” says Dr Steven Liss, VP research and innovation at Ryerson Univ and a long-time advocate for DRI. “It’s a very difficult landscape to deal with. Converting immediate needs into policy is another matter.”

Liss is an LCDRI board member and former co-chair who has long advocated for the need to keep pace with the global explosion in digital research, the escalating costs of infrastructure and constant renewal. In 2014, Liss co-authored an Opinion Leader column for RE$EARCH MONEY on DRI outlining the urgent challenges it faces – challenges that still exist today.

Previous efforts by CANARIE and Compute Canada at that time to secure additional funding for DRI and double capacity were unsuccessful, leading to the current effort to secure federal support.

In addition to being seamless and invisible for researchers, DRI must coordinate what’s been described as thousands of points of light with overlapping layers at the national, regional and individual research levels.

“Capacity in the system and the funding to support infrastructure and underlying issues revolve around resources,” says Liss. “We need to do it in a relatively seamless fashion but we have an oversubscribed system at the moment.”

The report comes on the heels of a recommendation from the Fundamental Science Review (FSR) (a.k.a. the Naylor report) calling for a national strategy to coordinate DRI capacity, activities and funding. The review also recommends that DRI organizations be consolidated starting with the largest players – CANARIE and Compute Canada and it coincides with a data research management policy being developed by the granting councils.

“It’s imperative that we communicate to all stakeholders to step up on our own campuses and develop strategies for tools, research and libraries. There’s huge demand but it’s a shared responsibility,” says Liss. “Everything is now digitally enabled and researchers work globally using advanced computing resources. The Canadian advantage is in software, analytics and digital tools.”

The LCDRI report to ISED will offer several options to absorb growth in the system and meet the current need. They include a functional merger of CANARIE and Compute Canada which is backed by a majority of researchers using the infrastructure.

Functional or formal merger

Whether the functional merger will be extended to include an actual merger of the two organizations is the focus of considerable debate, exacerbated by the different funding mechanisms they currently utilize. CANARIE is currently part way through a five-year, $105-million award contained in the 2015 Budget while Compute Canada is working on core support of $69.5 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiatives (MSI) program, awarded earlier this year. CFI funding provides just 40% of costs, however, leading to tensions at the regional level and the recent departure of Compute Canada president Mark Dietrich.

Liss, CANARIE president and CEO Jim Ghadbane and Compute Canada board chair Dr Christopher Loomis are backing a so-called federated model featuring greater coordination and cooperation with higher oversight.

“There’s currently no consensus of thought around this which is why the government is asking and has commissioned the LCDRI to look at this,” says Loomis, adding that he’s not convinced a formal merger is in the best interests of researchers. “Our funding comes through the MSI and we need to find 60% elsewhere. We therefore depend on the regions, provinces and members for operating funds.”

Ghadbane also supports the federated model as well as a formal merger, arguing that the two models are not mutually exclusive.

“CANARIE already has a federated system, with national coordination supported by local delivery. We fully support that model,” he says. “The question is, will there be a national coordinating body for all aspects of DRI. If yes, that’s great ... We believe that fewer moving parts are preferable at the national layer … The LCDRI is attempting to provide an answer and everyone is hopeful.”

  DRI Functional Ecosystem
Function Key Players
Network CANARIE, Regional Advanced Network partners, individual institutions
Advanced Research Computing Compute Canada, regional partners, and individual institutions
Data Management Canadian Association of Research Libraries/Portage, Research Data Canada (RDC), Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI), individual institutions, discipline-specific communities of practice

  • active - Compute Canada, regional partners, individual institutions
  • archival - unfunded, Portage in partnership with Compute Canada, and regional associations/individual institutions are beginning to develop approaches

Advanced Research Software Compute Canada, CANARIE & Canada Foundation for Innovation, discipline-specific communities of practice, individual researchers


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