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From time-to-time I can’t help but think of myself as a social science researcher focussing on sustainability and climate breakdown as the poor relation to many other disciplines across the university and, indeed, across the third level sector generally. While colleagues in business, medicine, engineering and the ‘hard’ sciences appear to be somewhat well supported, money for research in crucial areas of environmental social sciences is frequently rather thin on the ground. I must premise my remarks by saying that I’m a relative newcomer to this space – an early career researcher, so-to-speak but I do detect an air of almost giddy appreciation once even small amounts of money are secured by some social science researchers; researchers who are attempting to understand and tackle some of the socially and ecologically disruptive issues of our time.

Why is this the case, I often ask myself? Indeed, recognition of the research work in many areas of the social sciences don’t appear to carry the same weight for policy designers and key decision-makers as that of economists, engineers, technologists, and researchers from the world of medicine. The cynic in me would suggest that seeking the positive behavioural change essential to tackling climate breakdown requires less production and consumption right across society, which flies in the face of our prevailing economic model.

In the absence of a clear ecological imagination we appear to be locked into a ‘business as usual’ model that does fully appreciate the enormous opportunities and benefits that go with being leaders in positive system change and green innovation. By the time we wake up these opportunities will have passed. Nevertheless, while I always want to see a higher visibility for social science disciplines and the corresponding monies that must go with our genuine concerns about societal, cultural and environmental issues I’m not continually ‘crying into my convoluted books of social theory’ (yes, someone once described my discipline as just that). So rather than a negative ‘whingy’ blog post I’d like this to be one that positively shines a light on a practice I’ve been involved with over the past few years that has greatly benefited my students and I in our cooperative research and learning.

I teach research methods for social science to second year undergraduate students in the School of Political Science and Sociology here at NUI Galway. The overall aim of this course is to enable students appreciate what sociological and political data are, how to critically interpret them and, how to use them more effectively in their own research work. My primary aim, as a university lecturer, must be to enable students to learn and understand the relevant material so that they fully appreciate the real value of such learning and find their own pathways to understanding. I fundamentally believe that students gain a much better understanding of the material if it becomes more practical and ‘real world’, and in this regard the material taught in a large lecture hall setting often fails to adequately connect with students, particularly in the context of material such as research methods and understanding.

There is a pressing need to tie research and teaching together in a very practical manner to create a creative and progressive agenda for undergraduate teaching and learning. Indeed, this has become an important development in how we now think about teaching and learning in Higher Education. These particular concerns led me to regular appeals over the last number years for student participation in practical research projects, the aim of which is to design a project from concept to dissemination a truly collaborative venture between researchers and students. To date, over 20 students have voluntarily become involved over the summer months in a number of practical research projects which have resulted in four separate peer-reviewed publications, in addition to several additional presentations and other such outputs that have greatly benefitted the students and researchers involved. It has largely been a REaL win-win venture (see

My appeal in this instance is, therefore, for much better engagement between researchers and undergraduate students in an environment of mutual respect and benefit, particular in social scientific research. Rather than just complain about the lack of funding maybe we should utilise the enormously rich resource that presents itself to us on a weekly basis. The students I have worked with have been extremely capable, enthusiastic, motivated, hardworking and meticulous in their work and research once given the necessary guidance and oversight. They have added great value to the school’s research environment and have enthused and enriched my own and other staff member’s research agendas in a number of positive ways. The students themselves have gained a number of important practical ‘real world’ research skills and competencies that would not have been possible from a lecture hall setting alone.

The amount of money spend on a research project does not always determine its impact. Guiding and directing student researchers through their formative university years is hugely rewarding and their experiences in these instances bodes well for the future of social scientific research. That said, I’ll never turn down research money in trying to gain a better understanding of the social world and the cultural and ecological consequences of our collective actions; it’s just I’d probably engage a lot more undergraduate student researchers in paid internships to assist in this quest!

With thanks to Mike Hynes, NUIG, for authoring this post. Opinions expressed are the authors own.

About the Research Infrastructures blog

An Academy blog series by researchers discussing the next steps in the delivery of excellent research infrastructures to achieve Ireland’s higher education, research and innovation goals.

Most HEIs have been outsourcing their productivity services to cloud providers and hence havedecommissionedalargeportionoftheiron- premise Data Centres for cost savings and efficiency gains. Whilst this is very beneficial for standard services it does create a problem when it comes to research requirements. This drive to outsourcing rightly meets a lot of resistance when it comes to data, especially sensitive and personal data. Private Industry is not trusted to operate in good faith with this data, and indeed their scale can allow them to suppress innovation when it comes to public data-sets by leveraging their resources on them.

Research Data Centres are required to host this data, in a secure but accessible fashion, with the accompanying Research Infrastructures (RIs) necessary to generate or process that data. They need to be flexible enough for very high-density HPC (Super Computing) requirements and medium density virtualisation (cloud) and storage needs. They need to have the potential for physical segregation; to provide additional security, environmental conditions, or to provide space for research in new paradigms – such as wireless only Data Centres . And finally, they need to be large enough to have the capacity to host multiple HPC clusters (or other high resource demanding systems) to allow for resilience, smooth service migrations and opportunistic deployments.

Our own research data centre in WIT is an example of this, where we run EU funded research projects on the operations and management of the data centre, whilst also hosting national research testbeds and RIs including ICHEC’s HPC cluster ‘Kay’. Additionally, we are seeing the need to obtain internationally recognised certification for security and privacy, especially around health informatics, to engage with larger research projects.

The issue being that research Data Centres also need to be of sufficient scale to be viable and not a millstone around the host HEI. We need to consider national scale facilities, that are publicly run for public research needs. HEIs have great connectivity via HEAnet and so can be service providers to each other by co-locating facilities with the required human expertise, technical infrastructure, operational standards and best practices.

Ireland’s investment in RIs, over the past decade in particular, is not sufficient, and whilst some funding for systems may be increasing the actual systems are getting comparatively weaker based on international standards. For example, ICHEC’s 2008 HPC cluster – ‘Stokes’ cost ~€1.9M and was ranked 118th in the world, funding since increased to €4.1M and €5.4M for subsequent systems and yet relative international performance rankings have slipped to 358th and ~815th respectively. Compare this with the £100M investment in the UK MET Office’s latest HPC cluster that was ranked 20th in the world. This highlights our slide in international competitiveness. To follow on with a HPC example again, I was at a talk in 2016, the speaker was from Los Alamos National Laboratory who was describing the 20 HPC clusters that they had there (Ireland has only 1) and how they operate them. He gave an example of 7 HPC clusters, where 5 were always active, 1 was down for maintenance and 1 was in testing/pre-production.

There is a lack of research Data Centre capacity in Ireland. Recently when ICHEC were changing their HPC Clusters (Fionn being replaced by Kay) they had to suspend the national service for 2 months whilst they removed Fionn and then deployed Kay back into that same space. Ideally, ICHEC should have been in a position to run both clusters side by side until Kay was fully ready to take over.

This lack of capacity is also affecting our ability to compete in Europe. We have a very low rate of leadership roles in European Research Infrastructure Consortiums (ERICs). These European infrastructures are growing, such as the €1B EuroHPC exascale joint undertaking or the €600M European Open Science Cloud (EOSC), and Ireland’s ability to participate and contribute resources to them is very limited. As ERICs are based on national participation it again makes sense to have national research facilities.

Data is growing at an exponential rate, estimated at 61% per annum , effectively doubling every 18 months. This is the age of Big-Data. Funding rounds now need to be annual to keep up with both the growth in data and the advancements in technology to maintain efficient RI deployments. Additionally, Data Centre network speeds are getting very fast in comparison with Internet speeds. 100 Gigabit networks are now common with 400 Gigabit networks on the horizon. In our research Data Centre we can achieve up to 5.6 Terabits per server cabinet with a total network capacity of 20 Terabits per second. Due to the potentially very large data-sets that would be housed in an EOSC or research data centre, data mobility could be very costly or slow (taking weeks or months), therefore it would make sense to co-locate processing (HPC) and storage (EOSC) nodes where possible in national research Data Centres.

What we need is fit-for-purpose funding schemes, especially around long-term facilities such as research Data Centres. These facilities last so long that the initial upfront capital costs cannot cover their lifetime. They should be considered national facilities, rather than simply belonging to the host HEI and thus should have a dedicated funding line available for researchers or facility providers to bid on. It is also very difficult to bid for large RIs, when there is nowhere suitable to host them or the available facilities are too impractical to host them in a cost effective manner.

The funding for RIs to date has relied on a high level of Industry support, especially around access charges to support operation and maintenance costs. If these costs cannot be met then the RI enters a degraded state and eventually becomes unusable. Additionally, this focus on Industry promotes a more applied style of research which naturally reduces research capability in FET and ERC areas. In particular, we are witnessing scientific research that leads to major breakthroughs would have close alignment to HPC facilities, by making use of novel algorithms and techniques developed in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to crunch large quantities of data.

A great example is the Human Brain Project , where one of its aims is to unify all the neuroscience data that will allow us to understand the functions of neuronal networks within the brain, also known as the Brain Simulation Platform. Therefore, if Ireland is to target major EU FET and ERC projects at all levels, a national research Data Centre infrastructure is a major requirement to pave the way for researchers to embark on novel research fields and topics of the future.

This Industry focused funding model is not the norm in Europe and in the long-term will have a detrimental effect on Ireland’s fundamental research capability. The government needs to hit its investment target of 2.5% GERD of GNP by 2020 . This should include the upfront capital funding of national facilities, as well as their operating costs; such as technical staffing, research community outreach for training and onboarding, and additionally upgrade and refurbishment costs. By my calculations that is an additional €600M per annum.

With thanks to Jerry Horgan, TSSG Infrastructure Manager, WIT, for authoring this post. Opinions expressed are the authors own.

About the Research Infrastructures blog

An Academy blog series by researchers discussing the next steps in the delivery of excellent research infrastructures to achieve Ireland’s higher education, research and innovation goals.

‘We want to make sure that our graduates get the best job for their skills. Not just a job, we want them to get the right job for them’.

When I heard this statement at a conference on ‘Developing Future-Ready Researchers’, organised by the Association of Higher Education Careers Services at Trinity College Dublin in 2018, I honestly found it mind-blowing. It is an ambitious, hopeful statement that, if adopted as a guiding principle, could have the potential to transform the way in which research is integrated into our society, economy and culture.

This excellent conference focused on supporting career pathways for PhD graduates, both within and beyond academia. Drawing on a range of international contexts, conference attendees heard about the number of PhD researchers who are likely to enter academia (less that 10%, according to the conference report), and the need to think about supporting alternate career paths for people who have dedicated at least 3 years of their lives to an intensive process of research, investigation and writing. Universities across Ireland are encouraged to continually increase our PhD student numbers. We want to ensure that our PhD cohorts are diverse, that the opportunity to progress from BA to MA through to PhD is open and available to all, and that this pathway is not blocked by socio-economic or other factors. This is all positive, and building a diverse PhD research community will ensure that the knowledge that informs design, policy and practice across our society is robust and fit for purpose.

However, while we encourage researchers to undertake a PhD, I do not believe that our existing research infrastructure is fit for purpose for PhD graduates. When a researcher graduates with their PhD, they have to navigate a very complex web of opportunities and options, often without institutional support (and in some cases, without institutional access to essential resources such as academic journals once their library access comes to an end).
In an ideal world, a PhD graduate would be successful in applying for a post-doctoral position, via a national or international scheme, enabling them to continue to develop their research and to produce the research outputs (books, journal articles, creative or design works) that would help them to position themselves within the jobs market.

The reality, unfortunately, is that post-doc schemes are underfunded, particularly at national level, and most of the eligible candidates who apply will not be successful. International post-doctoral schemes are available, but these are not going to be suitable for all applicants – for people with caring responsibilities, for example, the emphasis on international mobility within early career progression can form an insurmountable barrier.

Furthermore, in order to access these opportunities, it is necessary to network internationally, and to participate in conferences – even availing of early career registration rates, costs can easily mount into the thousands. While faculty members can usually avail of some institutional support, this is often not available to graduates without an institutional affiliation. When we talk about diversifying our universities and the knowledge that is produced through research for society, these are just two of the very practical and immediately obvious examples that ensure that the gates remain closed to all but a few.

This is an infrastructural problem that requires a connected and integrated solution. At a very basic level, it is very clear that we have a leaky pipeline. We are investing in PhD research, and investing in the development of a diverse knowledge base, but we risk losing that capacity and potential at the very first post-graduation hurdle. At present, individual universities are aiming to address this issue by, for example, providing training around transferable skills, research career planning, and on developing partnerships with industry. This is all moving in the right direction, but in order to really capitalise on our investment in PhD research, we need an integrated national approach supported by a robust policy framework and appropriate supporting funding. We also need to ensure that this is designed with diversity and inclusion at the centre, in order to avoid replicating a system which is really only suitable for a non-disabled individual with substantial personal funding available, and with no caring responsibilities.

At present, we are investing in potentially transformative research, but failing to really support and manage its integration into society. To return to my opening quotation, imagine if we had an infrastructure that would be dedicated to ensuring that graduates found the best job, the right job for them, focusing on ensuring that their key skills and expertise were able to be embedded within society and to grow, rather than focusing only on a basic metric of employment. What would this infrastructure look like?

It could include a national post-PhD Academy, which would include training in terms of identifying and applying for post-doctoral opportunities, as well as providing access to support for conference attendance, networking, and library resources. It would need to include greater funding for national postdoctoral schemes, and would need to address international mobility requirements in relation to equality and diversity issues. This post-PhD Academy could also focus on proactively enhancing links between policy-making units at regional, national and international level, and the research capacity available. Such a post-PhD Academy could also work on a campaign to highlight the attributes of PhD graduates to a broad range of potential employers, focusing on the potential value that they would bring to an organisation. Indeed, a post-PhD Academy could provide a venue for graduates who work beyond academia to maintain a career-long connection to academic research, and continue to participate in research, providing a model for a new kind of hybrid post-PhD career path.

This is an ambitious model, but such ambition is required in order to realise the potential that exists within our fourth level sector, and to become an international leader in developing an impactful, dynamic and connected research infrastructure that serves our society, economy and culture.

With thanks to Dr. Niamh NicGhabhann, Assistant Dean, Research (Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), University of Limerick, for authoring this post. Opinions expressed are the authors own.

About the Research Infrastructures blog

An Academy blog series by researchers discussing the next steps in the delivery of excellent research infrastructures to achieve Ireland’s higher education, research and innovation goals.