Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An idea for wealthy donors: alternative to direct research funding: fund libraries to help with e-research

Next week, I am attending the E-Science Institute Capstone event, along with Rob Olendorf and Dale Hendrickson from U. New Mexico Libraries.  As part of our preparation for this event, we are interviewing several people around the university to capture their views on e-research.  Today, Rob and I interviewed Martha Bedard, Dean of the UNM Libraries.  Rob and Dale figured it would be good to have me lead the interview, since I'm coming from outside of the library and thus would ask different questions.  At least from my perspective, this was a success and I learned a lot in the generous one hour of time that Martha gave us.

At this point, I can't share the interview notes publicly, but I did want to share one idea that emerged during our discussion (and there were several good ideas!).  I'm having trouble getting the idea in writing so maybe by poorly blogging it, someone else can turn it into a good idea, if it's sensible at all.  Here's what I'm thinking: wealthy donors, or a group of donors that want to make a big impact on research at their university have at least the following two choices:

1.  Provide substantial money to fund research in a specific field, for example by providing 10's million dollars to fund a nanomedicine research center.  Or to build a new biomedical engineering building.  Etc.

2.  Provide substantial money (say $10 million) to the university library in order to vastly improve the ability of ALL researchers at the university to conduct e-research.  The money would go towards hiring many new library faculty and staff members and procuring and implementing storage and networking infrastructure.  The goal would be a completely transformed library that would make it easy and almost automatic for all university researchers to conduct connected, networked, open, archived, discoverable, etc. research.

Option 1 is common and makes a big impact on specific research fields.  Performing research in excellent facilities, with dependable funding is a great thing for researchers.  As far as I know, option 2 is less common, and I'm not aware of a good example.  But I think there'd be tremendous leverage compared to option 1.  The reason there is so much leverage is because currently the huge potential of "e-research" remains almost untapped.  There are shining examples of successes.  (For an excellent overview of the successes and the vast, untapped potential, read Michael Nielsen's excellent book.)  But in reality, for most researchers it's really difficult to manage data, share data, provide open access publications, etc.  And this is true even for researchers like me, who've decided to be as open as possible yet are finding it difficult to do so effectively!  So, it's basically true that there are huge technical barriers for most of the researchers to maximize the impact of their research by sharing.  Because we're so bad at it and because it's so difficult, I think there's a ton of room to make a huge impact at a university with a medium-sized grant.  I think the uinversity library is the natural and only choice to lead the effort.  And by doing so, it would impact all of the researchers across all of the disciplines (humanities, science, medicine, etc.).  How would they implement option #2?  I don't actually know, and that's a big reason why I want the library to do it!  Rob Olendorf, my collaborator at UNM on open data projects has a vision for how to make it seamless and almost automatic for researchers like me to connect, archive, and share our research and data.  I don't understand how that can work, and I don't have time to understand.  But I would LOVE to participate in that system.

That's the final key to the idea.  I think a university would gain a huge competitive advantage by becoming the "e-research leader."  There is a perception that most researchers are content with limited sharing and the status quo.  This may or may not be true.  But regardless, it looks like there is a lot of momentum, driven by the public interest, for funding agencies to go much further with data sharing, data management, open data mandates.  These mandates are scary to many researchers.  Even if researchers want to have excellent data management and share their data, it's almost impossible to do so now.  So, compliance will be a huge and new headache for researchers.  If a university could boast that compliance is "seamless and easy" it would be a real and strong recruitment incentive.  This probably sounds questionable to some, but I really see it as a huge incentive.  It would be just as appealing as the opportunity to work in a fancy new research facility.


  1. There was a recent Medical Library Association webcast about the need for library involvement in the e-sciences too. I encourage you to connect with the presenters, especially Holly Falk-Krzesinski. More at http://www.mlanet.org/education/distance_ed/escience/escience_webinar.html#3

  2. One aspect that I am missing here is integration of the e-research environments with ones for e-teaching, especially after the recent launch of OER University (cf. http://wikieducator.org/OER_university ).

    Also, wealthy donors have of course the option to participate in crowdfunding initiatives, e.g. the SciFund Challenge (cf. http://scifund.wordpress.com ), by way of which 49 projects are currently seeking crowdfunding on RocketHub (cf. http://scifund.rockethub.com/).

  3. @Nikki, thanks for the link! I read the bios and definitely interesting work. I expect to meet similar people (if not them) at the conference this week. Definitely looking forward to it!

    @Daniel I agree on all. Teaching is critical component that we didn't end up talking about in our brief interview, but I'm sure will be talked about at the e-science workshop. And I agree SciFund is a great idea. Rooting for your project here: http://www.rockethub.com/projects/3755-transforming-the-way-we-publish-research

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