Data infrastructure: how does the UK decide where to invest?

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For years, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK has one of the world’s leading data management portfolios. The organisation’s mission is to make long-term decisions about how to make public investments in data infrastructure for the benefit of UK citizens.

But new technological innovations, legal frameworks and developments in the amount and types of data created are forcing the ESRC to renew its data management strategy. The aim is to ensure that high-quality data can be used to address pressing societal problems and to enhance the UK’s reputation as a global leader in the social sciences.

VentureBeat recently spoke with Melanie Knetsch, deputy director of impact and innovation at the ESRC, on the organization’s new data infrastructure strategy and what drives it. She identified four key elements that are critical now and will become more important in the future. They are:

  • Climate resilience and behavioral change of both individuals and organizations
  • Economic performance and the UK’s position on the world stage
  • Education and skills in an advanced digital world
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion

An edited portion of the conversation between VentureBeat and Knetsch follows.


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VentureBeat: The ESRC has launched a new data infrastructure strategy to help inform its investments in data collections and services related to social science research. What are the key elements of that new strategy?

Melanie Knetsch: The strategy has identified five initial goals and a set of related broad objectives.

Focus area one: Building and maintaining a foundation. The aim for this area is for ESRC’s portfolio of data investments to be a fundamental pillar for the role of the UK social sciences in research and policy making.

Objectives for this area are:

  • To create evidence for investing in and laying the foundations for a sustainable mainstream research resource, complementing other UKRI infrastructures.
  • Ensuring that research users in all sectors and places can discover and access data and data-driven research to achieve societal benefits.
  • Building on the UK’s position as a highly collaborative player making a significant contribution to national and international challenges.

Focus area two: Leadership and connection. The goal for this area is for ESRC and investments to work together and lead in making connections between people, organizations and infrastructures, and for ESRC and investments to work together and lead in making connections between people, organizations and infrastructures.

Objectives for this area are:

  • Demonstrating, strengthening, developing and facilitating collaborative leadership in the research data landscape.
  • To support and facilitate effective integration and work together to strengthen links with other disciplines.
  • Strengthening the talent pipeline of researchers with the skills to lead infrastructure investments of increasing complexity.
  • Promoting easy access to and coherence in the data infrastructure.

Focus area three: Commitment and responsiveness. The goal for this area: ESRC and investment make decisions that support innovation and evolving research and policy needs.

Objectives for this area are:

  • Proactive, transparent and agile investing to support innovation and capacity building of both people and infrastructure potential.
  • Ensuring a holistic, comprehensive, ambitious and long-term sustainable approach with due regard to funding considerations.
  • To ensure that data owners, policy makers, other users and the general public recognize that ethical, data-based research has delivered social and economic benefits.

Focus area four: Impact and public benefit. The goal for this area: ESRC and investment facilitate public and community engagement to ensure that the investment benefits all UK communities.

Objectives for this area are:

  • Develop a better understanding of different outcomes for individuals and groups, through data and data-enabled research that delivers social and economic benefits.
  • To ensure the performance and impact of both individual investments and the entire portfolio is part of a comprehensive reporting, monitoring and evaluation strategy.

Focus area five: Data usage skills and capacity. The goal for this area: ESRC and investments enable skilled researchers to use data effectively in their research for the public benefit.

Objectives for this area are:

  • Delivering appropriate capacity building and methodological development interventions that enable the use of high-quality data to advance the UK social sciences and provide public benefit, and respond to current and emerging needs.
  • To deliver a portfolio of training resources that users can easily find and navigate.
  • To ensure that support is differentiated according to needs over the life course.

VB: What is this new strategy from a social research perspective in response to, or why was it necessary?

Knetsch: ESRC needs a data infrastructure strategy to guide the management of existing investments and the pursuit of new opportunities. The following factors create an urgent need for a strategy:

  • The UK is facing unprecedented changes, challenges and opportunities, creating an urgent need for economic and social science data.
  • Technological changes and methodological innovation create new possibilities for collecting and using data.
  • Public recognition of the importance of ethical, lawful, safe and secure handling of data is greater than ever and ensuring reliability remains paramount.
  • Researchers’ expectations are growing regarding the integration, interoperability and responsiveness of the infrastructures that support data use across disciplines

The strategy will also help the ESRC respond to shifts in societal values ​​and priorities. For example, ESRC’s investment in understanding society has demonstrated the value of longitudinal data in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on certain areas of society, as well as its adaptability in collecting data under the constraints of the pandemic.

VB: What are the changes, upgrades or new implementations required for your data systems as a result?

Knetsch: The strategy will help us understand where we can best invest in new breakthrough opportunities that will truly catalyze and transform our data infrastructure and modernize and integrate our data services.

With regard to any changes, upgrades and new implementations, the delivery plan in the strategy describes the program of activities that we have designed to achieve our goals and objectives over the next five years. These activities will help steer the ESRC and our investments towards achieving short- and longer-term results and help identify where any changes, upgrades or new implementations may be needed.

ESRC itself has no data systems that are directly affected by the new strategy. However, the data systems it invests in on behalf of the research community, and which are largely managed by universities, are being upgraded as needs arise and funding opportunities permit.

The strategy helps the directors of these infrastructure investments to prioritize areas for change and/or upgrades. For example, the data infrastructure strategy reaffirms the ESRC’s existing commitment to the safe and secure use of data for research. The strategy will be delivered in accordance with the ESRC Research Data Policy and the Five Safes Framework.

In particular, the ESRC will continue to invest in data services infrastructure to ensure appropriate access to data, by providing trusted research environments and training and support for accredited researchers who require the use of sensitive data for their work to have.

VB: What are the expected benefits or performance of this new strategy?

Knetsch: The strategic goals and objectives enable us to:

  • Prioritize and balance needs between supporting current investments, pursuing new opportunities and supporting innovation, guided by our strategic objectives.
  • Connect our data infrastructure to broader strategic activities and identify opportunities for collaboration, integration and innovation to realize the goals of this strategy.
  • Develop user capabilities and methodologies to use resources effectively and ethically and foster leadership ability.
  • Establish guiding principles for decision-making and a pipeline of ideas so that we can pursue, respond to and access new funding opportunities.
  • Encourage collaboration and contributions from the research community and government.
  • Make decisions fairly and transparently about adjusting or discontinuing funding elements of data infrastructure investments, if further investments would not deliver value to the public compared to other opportunities.
  • Help define a clear impact strategy, supported by effective communication and engagement.

VB: How is this initiative likely to best impact the public?

Knetsch: The ESRC’s data infrastructure strategy aims to ensure that high-quality data can be used to address challenges to maximize public benefit and promote the UK’s reputation as a global leader in the social sciences.

The strategy sets goals and objectives to guide how we will work with existing and future investments as partners in how we execute the strategy. It provides a framework to guide how we and the investments work and will guide future investment decisions.

The “theory of change” in the strategy includes the following statement about the desired effects to be achieved by the strategy’s activities: “The delivery of public services is enhanced by better policies, informed by the effective application of highly valued ESRC data investments and infrastructures by skilled researchers.These improvements, supported by reliability, deliver better societal and economic outcomes, better respond to major challenges and enable the advancement of science through innovation and leveraging the opportunities that data brings. Embracing the value of data and effective data use strengthens the UK’s reputation as a leader in innovation, driving collaboration and the international flow of data.”

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