Data infrastructure: How is the UK deciding where to invest?

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

But new technology innovations, legal frameworks and development in the amount and types of data being created are forcing the ESRC to revamp its data management strategy. The goal is to ensure that high-quality data can be used to address pressing public social issues and to advance the U.K. reputation as a world leader in social science.

VentureBeat recently spoke with Melanie Knetsch, deputy director of impact and innovation at the ESRC, about the organization’s new data infrastructure strategy and what is driving it. She cited four key elements that are crucial now and will grow in importance going forward. They are:

  • Climate resilience and the behavioral transformation of both individuals and organizations
  • Economic performance and the U.K.’s position on the global 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 investment in data collections and services tied to social sciences research. What are the key elements of that new strategy?

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

Area of focus one: Building and sustaining a foundation

The goal for this area is that ESRC’s portfolio of data investments is a foundational pillar for U.K. social science’s role in research and policymaking.

Objectives for this area are:

  • To create evidence to inform investment in and lay foundations for a sustainable mainstream research resource, complementing other UKRI infrastructures.
  • To ensure research users across all sectors and localities can discover and access data and data-driven research in order to deliver societal benefits.
  • To build on the U.K.’s position as a highly collaborative player that makes a significant contribution to national and international challenges.

Area of focus two: Leadership and connectedness

The goal for this area is that ESRC and investments work collaboratively and lead on making connections between people, organizations and infrastructures.

Objectives for this area are:

  • To demonstrate, empower, develop and facilitate collaborative leadership in the research data landscape.
  • To support and facilitate effective integration and working together to strengthen linkages with other disciplines.
  • To strengthen the talent pipeline of researchers with the skills to lead infrastructure investments of increasing complexity.
  • To promote ease of access to and coherence across data infrastructure.

Area of focus three: Engagement and responsiveness

The goal for this area: ESRC and investments make decisions that support innovation and changing research and policy needs.

Objectives for this area are:

  • To invest proactively, transparently and agilely to support innovation and capacity building of both people and infrastructure potential.
  • To ensure a holistic, comprehensive, ambitious and sustainable approach over the longer term with due focus on funding considerations.
  • To engage and secure recognition from data owners, policymakers, other users and the general public that ethical data-enabled research has delivered social and economic benefits.

Area of focus four: Impact and public benefit

The goal for this area: ESRC and investments facilitate public and community engagement to ensure its investments deliver benefits for all U.K. communities.

Objectives for this area are:

  • To develop a greater 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 whole portfolio form part of a comprehensive reporting, monitoring and evaluation strategy.

Area of focus five: Skills and capacity for data use

The goal for this area: ESRC and investments enable skilled researchers to effectively utilize data in their research for public benefit.

Objectives for this area are:

  • To deliver appropriate capacity-building and methodological development interventions that enable the use of high-quality data to advance U.K. social science and deliver public benefit, and respond to current and emerging needs.
  • To deliver a portfolio of training resources that is easy for users to find and navigate.
  • To ensure support is differentiated according to needs across the life course.

VB: From a social research perspective, what is this new strategy in response to, or why was it needed?

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

  • The U.K. is facing unprecedented changes, challenges and opportunities, creating a pressing need for economic and social science data.
  • Technological changes and methodological innovation create new opportunities for data collection and use.
  • Public recognition of the importance of ethical, lawful, safe and secure handling of data is greater than ever and ensuring trustworthiness continues to be centrally important.
  • Researchers’ expectations are increasing regarding the integration, interoperability and responsiveness of the infrastructures that support data use across disciplines

The strategy will also help ESRC respond to shifts in societal values and priorities. For example, ESRC’s investment in understanding society has shown the value of longitudinal data in addressing the impact of the COVID-19 on particular sections of society as well as adaptability in conducting data collection under the constraints of the pandemic.

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

Knetsch: The strategy will help us understand where best to invest in new pioneering opportunities that will genuinely catalyze and transform our data infrastructure and modernize and integrate our data services.

In terms of any changes, upgrades and new implementations, the delivery plan contained within the strategy sets out the program of activities we have designed to realize our goals and objectives over the next five years. These activities will help guide the ESRC and our investments toward achieving the near-term and longer-term outcomes and help identify where any changes, upgrades or new implementations may be required.

ESRC does not itself have data systems that will be directly impacted 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 upgraded as needs arise and funding opportunities permit.

The strategy will help the directors of these infrastructure investments prioritize areas for changes and/or upgrades. For example, the data infrastructure strategy reaffirms 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, ESRC will continue to invest in data services infrastructure to ensure appropriately secure access to data is delivered, through the provision of Trusted Research Environments and training and support to accredited researchers who require the use of sensitive data for their work.

VB: What are the hoped-for benefits or achievements of this new strategy?

Knetsch: The strategy goals and objectives will enable us to:

  • Prioritize and balance needs between sustaining current investments, pursuing new opportunities and supporting innovation, guided by our strategic objectives.
  • Connect our data infrastructure to wider strategic activities, identifying opportunities for collaboration, integration and innovation to deliver the goals of this strategy.
  • Develop the capabilities of users and methodologies to utilize resources effectively and ethically, and foster leadership capacity.
  • Establish guiding principles for decision-making and a pipeline of ideas so we can pursue, respond to, and access new funding opportunities.
  • Encourage collaboration and contributions from the research community and government.
  • Make decisions around adapting or stopping funding elements of data infrastructure investments in a fair and transparent way, if further investment would not provide value for the public compared to other opportunities.
  • Help define a clear impact strategy supported by effective communications and engagement.

VB: How will this initiative likely best impact the public?

Knetsch: The ESRC’s data infrastructure strategy aims to ensure high-quality data can be used to address challenges to maximize public benefit and advance the U.K.’s reputation as a world leader in social science.

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

The ‘theory of change’ contained within the strategy includes the following statement on the desired impacts to be delivered through the strategy’s activities: “The delivery of public services is improved through better policies, which are informed by the effective application of highly valued ESRC data investments and infrastructures by skilled researchers. These improvements, underpinned by trustworthiness, deliver enhanced societal and economic outcomes, improved response to major challenges and enable the advancement of science through innovation and from taking advantage of the opportunities that data offers. Embracing the value of data and effective data use enhances the U.K.’s reputation as a front-runner in innovation, which encourages collaboration and the international flow of data.”

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