National research infrastructures need to improve management and optimize use: OECD report

Mark Lowey
September 16, 2020

National research infrastructures (RIs) need to establish standards for managing their facilities and resources to optimize the RIs’ scientific capabilities, says a new policy report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Science Europe.

RI managers, operators and decision-makers face several challenges, including limited research budgets, increasingly large and complex RI portfolios and databases, and more diverse and numerous potential users, the report says.

It provides two new "guiding models" of best practices for improving the operation and use of RIs, The report also recommends countries collaborate on developing mechanisms to monitor the performance of national and international RIs on an ongoing basis.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) represented Canada on the report’s expert group of more than a dozen countries and provided significant input and guidance.

Dr. Heidi Bandulet (PhD), senior programs officer at CFI, said a key message is that how funding is delivered and the research ecosystem within which an RI operates are as important in determining the RI’s success as how an individual facility is governed and managed.

“If Canada wants to make the most of its investment in national research facilities, funders and policymakers can help create favourable conditions for that efficiency,” Bandulet told Research Money. “The report points to the importance of working collaboratively and having open channels of communication.”

The report cites CFI’s Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund as a case study in RI “portfolio management” to help national organizations better operate their research infrastructures. CFI invited seven Canadian national research facilities, supported through the MSI Fund, to share their experiences and expertise for the report.

RI portfolio management includes how a country selects, funds, builds, upgrades and terminates the RI facilities, tools and services made available to research communities.

Another key message of the report is the need for RI managers to do a thorough analysis of the entire resource-use and user base of their RI, so they can begin the process of optimizing the use of their facilities, resources and services, report co-author James Morris, a senior policy officer at Science Europe, said in an email to Research Money.

“Guiding models” offered for best practices

The report offers two new guiding models of best practices, one for portfolio management and one for optimizing and increasing the number of RI users.

Peter Fletcher, lead consultant on the “managing portfolios” theme, analyzed the responses from several governments and agencies in developing a guiding model setting out the key elements that need to be present for an effective, world-class approach to RI portfolio management.

Transparency and community input are vital to securing a strong national plan that’s accepted by the research community, portfolio managers and politicians, Fletcher said. “This doesn’t mean that every element is guided by the community, but that the portfolio is based on clear science input and that any strategic management or political elements are transparent to the community.”

The Canada Foundation for Innovation evaluated its portfolio management approach for the seven national RIs supported under its Major Science Initiatives Fund against the key elements in the guiding model.

“We’ve established a very comprehensive oversight and management framework which addresses all of the elements,” Bandulet said.

However, at a national level, Canada – unlike the UK and other countries – has never done a comprehensive “landscape analysis” to compile all its RI assets and identify future gaps and needs, she noted.

Also, Canada lacks a decision framework to guide leadership and investment in new, very large-scale RI facilities, Bandulet said.

Fletcher said another issue that needs attention is securing full life-cycle funding for national RIs. “In some countries, financial decisions are not well coordinated, for example between capital and operating costs, which presents RIs with difficult management challenges.”

Bandulet said the CFI is already reviewing the MSI-supported facilities’ capital, operational and maintenance needs to explore options for incorporating life-cycle funding, such as capital expenditures for new laboratories or facility enhancements.

COVID-19 crisis spurring positive changes

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered an “unprecedented and extremely rapid mobilization” of RIs to provide support to the research community, report co-author Dr. Frédéric Sgard (PhD), a project administrator at the OECD Global Science Forum, said in an email to Research Money.

As a result, the increasing service-oriented nature of many RIs, their versatility, flexibility of management structures, and scientific and data production and dissemination capacities show RIs’ ability to respond to a broad diversity of requirements, including emergency needs, Sgard said.

Many RIs offered researchers dedicated fast-track access to equipment or services to facilitate research on COVID-19, without having to undergo regular evaluation procedures.

As part of this process, RIs had to clarify their access rules, more clearly inform potential users, and open up their facilities to a broader community of users.

“Those were recommendations of our report that have clearly been implemented due to the COVID crisis,” Sgard said.

On the data management side, RIs with biological, environmental, societal and other data of interest for COVID-research have set up dedicated portals and structures to facilitate access and use of this data by the research community.

The OECD report pointed to The Centre for Phenogenomics, which is based in Toronto and supported by CFI’s MSI Fund, as an example of how RI users can access website data and research infrastructure managers can rely on analytics to understand how data is used.

“Facilitating data access and data sharing was an important recommendation of our report which has been implemented by many RIs during the crisis,” Sgard said.

The report also recommended more cooperation between RIs and developing synergies among infrastructures.

In response to COVID, several biomedical RIs created coordinated structures to facilitate research on COVID-19. For example, CGen, Canada’s federally funded national platform for genome sequencing and analysis, established a Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Consortium in partnership with national and provincial health labs, hospitals, academia and industry.

“While many of these actions  undertaken during the COVID crisis were actually bottom up, initiated by the RIs themselves, we hope that their umbrella institutions and stakeholders will take note of these efforts and actively promote them in the future,” Sgard said.


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