University research is arguably one of the most important activities undertaken in higher education, accounting for nearly $70 billion in funding in 2014. For many faculty members, research is as important as teaching, and their findings routinely contribute to societal advances in medicine, business, humanities and other disciplines.
Despite this significance, parts of the research sector may have some catching up to do when it comes to leveraging educational technology and integrating more effectively with institutional IT. There’s a strong imperative to do so, starting with the fact that more strategic technology investments and deployments can dramatically increase efficiency. State-of-the-art tech solutions are also critical for ensuring that valuable research assets, such as confidential data and proprietary intellectual property, are protected from malicious intruders.
The good news? Institutions that rethink their approach to research infrastructure have a golden opportunity to help researchers work smarter, faster and more securely.
The Potential for Big Gains in IT Research
Back in 2009, a commissioned review of the research infrastructure at the University of California, Los Angeles, found some surprising gaps related to technology. According to the report, despite the large sums that UCLA invested in research — at the time, roughly $1 billion annually — it lacked an overarching strategy to guide research-related IT.
Several months after the review, UCLA released a nine-year IT Strategic Plan that called for a new approach to IT infrastructure, one that connects investments in IT to the university’s larger strategic goals. Among other changes, the plan included a dramatic realignment of administrative activities that support research.
When the infrastructure that supports complex research projects is not maximized, it creates inefficiencies in the administrative tasks that consume much of researchers’ time, making projects more expensive and time consuming. Less-than-optimal technology means that researchers may not have the most cutting-edge tools at their disposal when it comes to collecting and analyzing data and performing compute-intensive experiments.
By contrast, state-of-the-art technology solutions increase opportunities for collaboration with experts around the world and maximize efficiency through cloud-based platforms and services.
The Security Imperative in Protecting Assets
A more strategic approach to research computing — customized to the unique needs of research environments — is important to ensure that researchers can protect proprietary and confidential assets. Research universities possess extensive amounts of such data, both their own and that which they handle on behalf of government agencies and private companies.
At the same time, to accommodate the information sharing that many projects require, institutions often maintain greater openness in their IT environments compared with private businesses. Together, these factors make institutions an attractive target for malicious intruders — a critical concern in an era of rising cybercrime in higher education.
When research programs are too disconnected from IT departments, or when they lack a guiding technology strategy, they run the risk of becoming more vulnerable to attacks. This is important not only to protect data, but also to keep institutions competitive: Increasingly, federal research funding is tied to more stringent cybersecurity guidelines, such as the Federal Information Security Management Act.
Improved Infrastructure Creates Benefits Across the Board
At many institutions, research is closely integrated with teaching and learning, in both formalized curricula and assistantships outside the classroom. Undergraduate and graduate students often support research teams to gain hands-on practice in their disciplines, take advantage of unique learning opportunities and develop real-world skills for the workplace. These benefits, coupled with the extensive use of research assistants in higher education, mean that improving technology infrastructure can also have a dramatic effect on teaching and learning outcomes.
Institutions have many reasons to take a fresh look at research computing, and all of them make a compelling case. Researchers also have at their disposal some of the best minds in the world, not to mention those billions of dollars in research funding. Just imagine the great work they could accomplish with even better IT infrastructure.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.