When COVID hit and the demand for equipment became a pressing issue, local governments and universities across the UK mobilised their equipment and facilities to combat the virus. This exercise showed that a review of the research estate is essential.
As we move towards a programme of vaccination, we recall examples from earlier in the pandemic where UK higher and further education institutions supported the response to COVID-19, working with the NHS, government, industry and local authorities to respond rapidly.
Many of these institutions offered their expertise and assets in a range of ways, including designing and testing products, analysing data, and sharing buildings, laboratories and facilities.
The equipment, facilities and infrastructure landscape across the sector, in particular in research-intensive universities, is diverse and complex. Maintaining a holistic, representative and current understanding of that landscape can be challenging.
It soon became clear that there is potential for the development of open asset registers that bring together this information at a national level.
There are many examples across the sector of initiatives that bring together information about institutional research equipment and data. For instance, several groups of research-intensive institutions have come together in geographically-oriented clusters.
Bringing assets together in one place
Helping to bring together knowledge about research equipment, Jisc has run the equipment.data service since 2014. It’s an open digital database of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded research equipment and enables institutions to improve the visibility of their research equipment and infrastructure facilities by harvesting and aggregating data.
The platform was created in response to funder mandates such as the UKRI’s grant requirement, which obliges “all new equipment purchased over £138,000 to be registered on the equipment.data national database”.
Originally funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, the service now provides details and contact information on more than 17,000 items of equipment at nearly 60 research institutes and universities, including the virus spot machine at University College London and the cell counter at Sheffield Hallam University.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an opportunity to better support the UK research and innovation sector in the management of its research estate.
Our members reported:
“There is much potential to identify every lab in the UK and its specification. If another crisis arises, we need to know what we have and allow institutions to draw the information together systematically.”
The physical and intangible assets which comprise the ‘research estate’ such as equipment and software, are also central to the civic agenda, discussions focused on place and levelling up and form are seen as vital components of the open research and net-zero ambitions.
Jisc is seeking input to garner community views on the potential for a next-generation digital approach to the management of the research estate. What are the opportunities to provide better utilisation, encourage higher quality multidisciplinary research and reduce costs?
What is the potential to bring together persistent identifiers and to create standardised metadata in support of greater transparency, visibility and reproducibility of the physical and intangible assets which comprise the ‘research estate’?
These are questions Jisc seeks to address by working with our members and funders and by engaging the Jisc research strategy forum which is a group of pro vice-chancellors for research from institutions across the UK and involving the newly formed digital research community.
There are strategic drivers that support the development of an enhanced research infrastructure, too. For example, the UK Government research and development roadmap includes the ambition to “champion the development of a truly strategic, national laboratory capability and identify opportunities to strengthen their capabilities and ability to collaborate, especially with the private sector, devolved administrations and local civic authorities”.
The recent Spending Review aims to “ensure that the government matches the ambitions of a global Britain. This includes reinforcing the UK’s role as a scientific superpower by investing in research and development (R&D).”
Part of the overall uplift for research and development of the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) includes the “Up to £17 million in 2021-22 to support the exploitation of government-owned intangible assets by launching a new unit and fund to scout for and develop government ‘knowledge assets’ (IP, data, R&D, tech and other intangibles).”
Higher education institutions (HEIs) have requested support to deliver against these requirements, in association with industry. Support for the digital management of the research estate will be pivotal for a thriving research sector.
Meanwhile, UKRI has announced it will invest £88 million to modernise research laboratories and expand world-leading facilities to equip scientists working on research challenges, such as climate change and COVID-19.
On the road to clarity
A review of the management of the research estate, whether it concerns bricks and mortar such as equipment or intangible things like metadata or persistent identifiers, will be the first step toward a holistic and more efficient research sector.
Anyone interested in joining the discussion about the development of an enhanced approach to the management of the research estate should get in touch with me.