February 24th, 2016

Day two of eResearch NZ 2016 started with Rob Elshire (of the Elshire Group Ltd.) taking the theme of the conference and explaining what it means to him. The theme for the week was "collaboration, capabilities and impact", and Rob asked: how do we bridge the gap between where we are and where we'd like to be?


So what do we mean by "collaboration, capabilities and impact"?

Collaboration:

Rob has been described as the "Master of Collaboration", as he feels so strongly about the importance of people with different skill sets getting together to tackle the problems we all face. No one person can do it on their own.  

Capabilities:

This includes the eInfrastructure provided by NeSI, NZGL and REANNZ, but that's not all. Our capabilities include us and all of our colleagues in the research community.

Impact:

What do we do with what we have? And how does what we're doing compare internationally?

In April 2014 the New Zealand Productivity Commission put together a working paper "An International Perspective on the New Zealand Productivity Paradox". This was to address the gap between what high level government policies and structures indicated was possible in terms of productivity (that New Zealand would by in party with the OECD average) and what was actually happening, which was a 30% differential between actual and expected productivity. One of the areas highlighted was an underinvestment in knowledge based capital ("what we do", said Elshire).

The eResearch Challenges in New Zealand Discussion Document identified four areas in which we have a lack of skills:

  • There is a skills lag due to an underinvestment in the broad-based research skills and methodological training that underpins the international shift in research methods to digital evidence and data intensive discovery.
  • Impactful research collaboration usually occurs at the inter-personal, research-discipline level, not at project or institutional level.
  • The way incentives are applied currently distort research design, subvert resources, block collaboration and lead to sub-optimal application of the balance of government investment in science overall.
  • The need to invest in future infrastructure. 

The report says that, "major innovation or discovery in the coming decade is likely to stem from teams of researchers working across disciplines, institutions, and national boarders". Elshire says it's not just going to happen over the next decade, it's already happening now.

Elshire says we need to close the gaps, which include, but are not limited to, social, research, technical and legal issues. Researchers need to build trust by having open, honest and frank discussions. We need to bring together all of the different technical platforms and get things working together seamlessly.  We need to change our default position from "it's ours" to "we share unless there is a very good reason not to".

One of the final thoughts we are left with concerns the different between needs and perceptions. Elshire went to two very different research events last year and heard contradictory opinions. At one of MBIE's breeding days, the purpose of which was to work out how to accelerate plant and animal breeding with no extra funding, a researcher said that one of their issues was that they couldn't move data fast enough. A few months later Elshire was at the REANNZ Parliament event and an MBIE representative said that in terms of a high-speed network REANNZ had "built a Ferrari". How can these two comments match up? It seems that the experience of the researchers working 'on the coal face' doesn't match up with what people see on the outside. Elshire says that "central government have funded a superhighway, but not invested in the on-ramps".

In science, Planck's principle says that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it". Elshire says he doesn't want to advance science through his funeral, he wants to be an active part in the change, and he invites everyone in our community to be a part in that change too.

There is also a brief Q&A session at the end of his talk - the sound isn't great in the audience, apologies for that!