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International Conference on Research Infrastructure: Coming together to build the cathedrals and connections of science

By Julia Glenday, Postdoctoral Researcher - Ecohydrology, SAEON Fynbos Node
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The 2018 International Conference on Research Infrastructure (ICRI) opened with something of a ‘big bang’.

In their keynote speech, physicists Dr Fred Raab and Dr Livia Conti explained that, on 14 September 2015, space and time here on Earth rippled with gravitational waves created by the merger of two black holes!

These black holes were over 1 billion light years away, but the gravitational waves the merger created were detected by laser interferometers both in the United States and Italy.

These interferometers are massive instruments, 3-4 km in diameter, that can pick up the tiny changes in distance between ‘stationary’ detectors which occur when space and time bend a bit. They took decades to build and develop before finally achieving this: the first detection of the space-bending gravitational waves predicted to exist by Albert Einstein a century ago. There have been five more detections since, including one of waves caused by two neutron stars colliding.

The talk filled me with wonder, not only for the universe, but also for humanity’s deep and multi-faceted investment in understanding it. Outside of the mind-blowing physics, made accessible with great visuals, their talk was an inspirational story of dedication and collaboration.

This was worth reflecting on as SAEON embarks on expanding its observational network through EFTEON (Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network) and SMCRI (Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure), and growing participation in international networks. Discussions throughout the ICRI conference had import for SAEON and other South African research infrastructure, as we move forward with the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) projects.

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From left: Bill McDowell, US-LTER; Marjut Kaukolehto, LTER-Europe; Hank Loescher, NEON; Beryl Morris, TERN Australia; Michael Mirtl, ILTER chair and Julia Glenday, SAEON (Photo: Michael Mirtl)

Hot topics at ICRI: Openness and communication to increase value, relevance and sustainability

ICRI, held from 12 to 14 September in Vienna, Austria, was a convergence of scientists, research institute managers, government department representatives and other funding bodies, there to discuss the ways forward for developing, managing and investing in research infrastructure (RI). The main discussion topics were planning for the future of RIs, enhancing societal value of RIs, internationalisation of RIs, fostering diversity and overcoming inequality in RI development and use, human resources in RIs, and managing data.

Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST), was among the opening speakers. He spoke about the need for research and RI to feed directly and purposefully into helping achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals. This set the tone for many of the discussions that followed.

South Africa has been a key voice in global discussions on RIs for some time. South Africa’s DST is a member of the Group of Senior Officials (GSO) on Global RIs (GRI) and the previous ICRI conference was hosted in Cape Town in 2016.

It was noted in the conference that ideas of what is considered as ‘research infrastructure’ have broadened over time. Research infrastructure refers to the facilities and resources used to conduct research. These range from small instruments, like individual rainfall gauges, and instrument networks, to very large facilities, like the gravitational wave interferometers or the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope facility.

However, RI also includes libraries and laboratories; species collections, gene banks and cultural media archives; and servers, software and IT systems used to store, process and share massive volumes of data. Various types of RIs are becoming increasingly networked, both to increase capabilities and efficiency through sharing resources, and to address scientific questions that can only be answered by distributed monitoring or replication across many facilities.

Means of achieving openness, both in terms of data and access to the RI itself, were discussed in almost every conference session. It was recognised that data sharing and improved communication about research with a broad stakeholder base can help advance the knowledge gained from the RI and help this knowledge reach decision-makers.

Communication and data management plans are now more standard requirements for RI funding. Universities and other facilities globally are increasingly creating dedicated positions for ‘data stewards’, with mandates to manage and store data created in the institution and to make it accessible.

On the theme of access, government representatives from several countries, such as Canada and Austria, described programmes in which comprehensive databases of RIs in universities and research institutions nationwide, as well as the conditions of access to equipment or facilities, are being compiled and made publicly available online. This facilitates sharing of resources across institutions.

At a broader scale, a European Union (EU) initiative called RI-SCAPE is aiming to document the global landscape of RIs and scope potential for EU collaboration.

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ILTER member institutions’ display at ICRI: Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), Chinese Ecosystems Research Network (CERN), LTER-Europe, ILTER, the United States National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and US-LTER, and SAEON (Photo: Michael Mirtl)

SAEON as part of a global network of RI

The theme of internationalisation of RI at ICRI 2018 tied in well with SAEON’s growing participation in international networks of Earth observation and the initiative of the International Long Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) to formally become a global RI. SAEON has been a member of ILTER since 2002 and hosted the first ILTER Open Science Meeting in 2016.

In 2017, the GSO on Global RIs (GRI) published a framework for GRIs, which defines different kinds of GRIs and makes recommendations for their management. Following on from this, and from a systematic review of the development and trajectory of ILTER (Mirtl et al., 2018), ILTER members had a workshop in Zhoaqing, China in April 2018 to discuss what a global ecological research infrastructure would look like, in terms of global-scale governance, compatible site and data management, science focus and instrumentation (Pauw & Bornman, 2018).

Several of the national network ILTER members were present at ICRI: LTER-Europe, Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), Chinese Ecosystems Research Network (CERN), the United States National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and US-LTER, and SAEON. This allowed for further discussions between partners about the development of more globally organised environmental RI and for co-learning during the ICRI conference sessions.

The presence of institutions managing environmental observation RI at ICRI was also important for learning and strengthening connections across fields of science, and growing awareness of environmental observation networks in the broader science research fraternity. It allowed environmental RI managers to share and learn from RI experiences, for example managing spatially distributed networks of instruments or creating data-sharing platforms with other fields of science with whom there is typically less interaction, but which have experiences in common.

This can also open up opportunities for sharing of RI resources such as laboratories, instruments, computing power, IT solutions or physical sites across research fields. An example of this close to home is the collaboration between SAEON and the SKA facility in sharing a physical site that can both support a massive telescope array and serve as an important arid ecosystems observatory. 

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Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the South African Department of Science and Technology in a keynote panel at ICRI (Photo: Julia Glenday)

St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Julia Glenday)                                                                                                                       

Broad-based effort for a bigger cause

As I walked through the streets of Vienna after ICRI, I passed by the towering St Stephen’s Cathedral, another kind of public infrastructure. I couldn’t help but see the parallels. The initial construction took decades, 1137 to 1160. The intricate and ornate cathedral went through many additions and reconstructions over the centuries, each one taking a decade or more, employing countless specialised artisans and a significant workforce, and requiring community and political support, resources and epic devotion.

The most recent addition is the colourful roof consisting of roughly 230 000 tiles, built to repair the roof lost in World War II. It was done using a ‘citizen science’ model of cathedral building: individuals and businesses across Austria funded it through small contributions, tile by tile.

To build and manage the research infrastructure needed to support sustainable development, and our universal curiosity, similarly requires a dedication to long-term and shared visions of something beautiful, creativity and ongoing development, highly skilled people and broad-based participation and support.

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