NSights Blog

Cyberinfrastructure (CI): Scaling campus capability for 21st century research

The coordination of cyberinfrastructures is helping the University's research competitiveness

Research! Over the last few years, we’ve seen a huge swing in campus emphasis to research activity, culminating with our listing as a “Carnegie R1” institution. This classification reflects a decade of change at the University in terms of maturing doctoral programs and faculty hires, coupled with incentive from our governing bodies to pursue “very high” research activity levels.

But how do we support sustainable R1-level research while maintaining quality and impact? Those faculty who spent formative years in established R1 institutions know all too well the culture of increased operating tempo, expectations, and support levels. This is our institution’s next challenge.

New faculty arrive, eager to put their early-career plans for research and education in motion. A constant stream of graduate students successfully accomplish their projects, graduate, and leave for professional careers. In the midst of this, academic culture is changing. Early-career faculty life has been significantly altered by mainstream instant communication and affordable advanced technologies, sadly combined with documented declines in work-life balance. How does one read all the papers? Collect all the data? Perform all the analyses? Mentor all the students? Go to all the workshops? Comply with all the things? Fix all the technology?

Answer: one can’t, and it’s getting worse, not better. But smart support structures can go a long way to redeem the professor’s time! There is no question that technology applications at scale are the key to taming complexity. A solution that many research universities across the United States have begun to implement is coordinated cyberinfrastructure (CI).

Not to be confused with cybersecurity, “CI” is a much broader term that encompasses the “ecosystem” of technology used across the research lifecycle. Until recently, it was common practice for an individual lab or PI to manage, from the ground-up, all lab tools (including technologies). As many fields transitioned into computational workflows, deep technical knowledge and expertise became a requirement to keep labs functional. Today, the scale of the data revolution across a wide range of disciplines requires broad technology (networking, data management, software, computing nodes, automation) to be provisioned at the organizational level, by dedicated engineering and facilitation teams.

Access to such centrally-managed systems saves the time spent by a researcher (and their lab) in tinkering with their desktop appliances, and instead increases their data resiliency and velocity. A friction-free digital infrastructure allows researchers to acquire, analyze, and share orders of magnitude more data. In a highly competitive research world, this can mean the difference between discovery and disappointment. Key technology tools that allow faculty to scale and accelerate their research (for the same amount of time spent) are strategic investments that many institutions have made in the last 15 years, with the realization that state budgets, student enrollment, faculty hires, and grant funding do not linearly scale forever. The old ways of doing business individually are all but over.

With the push to R1, our University has taken the first steps to changing our research technology support situation. The Office of Information Technology, through efforts from CIO Steve Smith and Provost Carman, created a Director’s position to develop a comprehensive program of CI at Nevada. There has been initial investment by Research & Innovation in a high-performance computing system, and other research technology services are being piloted. A faculty committee representing all divisional units is starting to engage university administration with a plan for smart CI investment and growth over the next few years.

For 2020, the UNR CI Program is conducting a survey of all campus researchers to scope primary technology needs, performing inreach awareness activities, supporting pilot researcher facilitation in HPC, remote systems, data transfer, and edge networking. UNR will be participating in a national CI maturity model survey, which will help our university compare its organizational readiness for 21-century research. As the CI Director, I have made a special effort to bring Nevada into the national conversations around these topics in order to adopt best practices, avoid common pitfalls, and make best use of future institutional investment. This engagement is also opening the doors for wider Nevada participation in infrastructure funding opportunities, student and staff training, and regional science strategic alignment.

No doubt about it, this growth and new competitive tier brings with it additional challenges, particularly for a venerable institution that has evolved slowly as opposed to undergoing a rapid and pervasive organizational transformation. If you are a researcher (and made it to the end of this blog!), make your voice heard in the surveys, annual CI Day, and with engagement with the CI team. If you are an administrator, now is the time to work across divisional boundaries to advocate for and make common investments in research technology support.

As an active researcher myself, I’m looking forward to hearing from many of you on this topic, and learning more about what your individual technology needs are!

Take the 2020 UNR Campus CI Survey!

Register for the CI Day 2020 (March 12th at The Joe) now!

Scotty Strachan
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