UK must not close its doors to skilled researchers

By Dr Sophie Laurie, Head of RCUK International.

Last August the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the shortage occupation list; occupations where the UK currently lacks skilled workers. Usually, employers recruiting outside the EEA are required to complete a test to demonstrate that there is no suitable settled worker, but this requirement is waived for occupations on the list. The UK maintains its well-deserved reputation as a global research leader in a number of ways, and the ability to attract the best international talent is essential, particularly in areas where we currently lack sufficient home-grown highly skilled researchers.

 One of the review’s proposals is that that all occupations and job titles which have been on the shortage occupation list for longer than two years should be removed. At present, many of the research areas where we need a reliable and uncomplicated migratory route are included on the shortage occupation list, but this could all change if the MAC upholds this recommendation when it reports on 31 January.

 As RCUK we work closely with the UK research community to identify current and emerging skills gaps and to ensure that the right support and investment goes into addressing them. But it’s simply not possible to create a highly trained researcher in two years. In fact, we estimate that it takes 7-8 years to progress from gaining a PhD to the first steps in an independent career. Add A levels, an undergraduate degree and the PhD itself to that and it’s clear that only long-term action can help us ‘grow our own’ researchers. While we’re building capacity, it is of course vital that the UK doesn’t drop behind our global competitors and, to avoid this happening, it’s essential that the Government’s immigration policy enables the Research Councils to attract and retain the best international talent via a flexible approach.

 The automatic removal of key occupations from the shortage list after two years risks shutting down the UK’s ability to participate in emerging research fields. Closing the door in the face of those immigrants – geoscientists, biostatisticians, informatics specialists to name but a few – whose skills can benefit the UK so greatly, would surely be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

 The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently wrote to Immigration Minister Mark Harper to make the case for protecting these vital immigration routes into the UK for key research staff, a letter to which RCUK gave our formal support. We therefore hope that the Government will maintain its valued commitment to research by making sure any changes to the shortage occupation list do not have an adverse effect on the UK.

India’s new 12th Five Year Plan – Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth

By Dr Nafees Meah, Director RCUK India.

The Planning Commission in India has been producing Five Year Plans since 1951.  These Plans set the strategic direction for the Government of India for the following five years.  In December 2012, the Planning Commission published the near final draft 12th Five Year Plan – Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth  Simultaneous achievement of these elements is seen as crucial for the success of the Plan.  The 12th Plan says that ‘[it] must be guided by a vision of India moving forward in a way that would ensure a broad-based improvement in living standards of all sections of the people through a growth process which is faster than in the past, more inclusive and also more environmentally sustainable’

Thus the 12th Plan calls for more attention to be given to problem of sustainability. It states that ‘No development process can afford to neglect the environmental consequences of economic activity, or allow unsustainable depletion and deterioration of natural resources’ and several chapters are devoted to the issues of water, land use, environment, forestry and wildlife.   

There is wide ranging discussion of how India should deal with the effects of climate change whilst an international agreement to tackle this issue remains to be reached.  The National Action Plan for climate change has evolved with eight component missions and implementation of these missions is seen as an integral part of the 12th Plan.  

The Plan is a substantial document in three volumes.  The first volume is an overarching document (the second and third volumes look in more detail at the economic and social sectors respectively).  Of particular interest to UK scientists is the extensive discussion and description of the scientific and technical challenges facing India.  Thus Chapter Four on Sustainable Development summarises the findings of the Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies.  One of the interesting things in the Plan is the renewed interest in wind power.  Chapter Five on Water sets out the daunting challenges faced by Indian society and economy.  Water tables are falling and this comes at a time of rapid industrialising economy and urbanising society.  Climate change, of course, poses new challenges with its effects on the hydrological cycle.  It asserts that there is a need for a paradigm shift in the management of water resources in India.  Chapter Five on Environment, Forestry and Wildlife posits a new set of targets to be monitored covering, inter alia, environment and climate change, forests and livelihoods and ecosystem and biodiversity. 

Finally, science and technology is recognised as playing a critical role in the delivery of the 12th Plan.  There is an ambition to increase investment in in R&D from 1% to 2% of GDP.  Chapter Eight sets out the plans for the six major science Ministries and all see a substantial increase in funding.  Specific focus areas for the 12th Plan are: a) Enrichment of Knowledge Base – the aim is to position some of its R&D institutions in the top 50 in the world; b) Human Resource Development and University Interaction – a radical transformation of the science education system to improve the quality of S&T education and research at university level; c) Aligning S&T to Development Needs – to develop solutions to issues that are important for the country’s development goals, particularly in areas of energy, water, sanitation, farm production, health care, waste disposal, computing and communications, and e-infrastructure.

If the ambition of investing 2% of GDP on R&D is achieved and the quality of its research base is improved, then India, by virtue of its size is likely to be one of the most important scientific nations in the world.  What is certain is that India faces a host of challenges where capacity and capability in S&T and an innovation system that translates knowledge into solutions is going to be crucial.  All in all, an interesting read.

Gateway to Research – activities for early 2013

This blog post is intended to set the scene for the Gateway to Research project’s focus over the next few months. It covers:

Next system and data release
Persistent IDs
API access and development;
JISC Project – Gateway for HEIs.

Next system and data release

The December go-live of GtR was with a static dataset, and although we are working on routine updating of all data, this will not be possible for a few months yet. We intend to release the next version of GtR in early February, and this will include a fresh dataset. If you contributed data to MRC’s recent ResearchFish data collection or have entered data onto the Research Outcomes System (ROS) before 31 January this should be reflected in the new release. We also hope to address some of the gaps identified in the original dataset, and improve the quality of the user experience.

Persistent IDs

The team is also designing a mapping solution to persist what we consider to be the most important IDs:
• Organisation;
• Person;
• Project.
This should be completed by the time of the data refresh, in early February.

API access and development

The first GtR hack event is planned for 14/15 March at the Open Data Institute. This will be an invitation only event, designed to test drive the APIs and help us improve them. There are two APIs being developed for this event, a CERIF one (using the CERIF XML Schema 1.5.1 http://www.eurocris.org/Uploads/Web%20pages/CERIF-1.5/CERIF_1.5_1.xsd) and a bespoke GTR XML Schema built around the current GTR web application. Further iterations of both will be made publicly accessible as soon as possible.

The two APIs will provide data in both XML and JSON formats.

A further hack event will take place later in the year aimed at demonstrating innovative uses for the GtR dataset.

Regarding the current situation, we are in the process of creating documentation with examples for the early rudimentary CERIF and GTR APIs. Note also that:

• We are developing a search interface for both CERIF/GTR APIs;
• Both are REST based;
• Output is XML or JSON;
• You will need some understanding of CERIF to traverse the CERIF API.

A number of organisations have contacted us about getting data using them and wanting to work closely with the GTR, but we are unable to promise exclusive access to any organisation. However, we will try and keep all interested parties informed of progress through the blog and other communications channels.

Looking further forward, we also hope to develop an OAI-PMH interface and SPARQL/RDF interface – but that will be towards the latter half of 2013.

JISC Project – Gateway for HEIs.

JISC have funded a project that will be to aiming to use GtR to improve the information exchange between HEIs and the Research Councils. The project is at an early stage in examining Use Cases that will form the basis for the work and more information on the project is available here: http://g4he.wordpress.com/

Introducing the beta Gateway to Research

Today (12 December 2012), Research Councils UK (RCUK) release the first phase of the Gateway to Research (GtR) portal and dataset –  a beta release. http://gtr.rcuk.ac.uk

In January, we agreed with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to to deliver a “proof of concept” by the end of the year.

We hope we have delivered more than a proof of concept. The portal is live, the data is real. This is the first time that it has been possible to use one location to explore the entire breadth of the RCUK portfolio that results from the investment of around £3 Billion of public money annually in research and innovation.

The beta is an early release which will enable users to try out the system under real conditions. It has gone through robust testing in-house and is close in look, feel and function to how we envisage the final product. We want to engage with users to ensure that the functionality and data we are delivering meets their needs.

A few points about the system and data:

  • The dataset is currently a static dataset (i.e. at this stage it will not be routinely updated);
  • A public interface is available (API) that will enable external users to use the data. This will initially be a simple CERIF (XML) API, based on an international research information standard but others will follow (REST, OAI and SPARQL) to maximise potential users. Data that is visible on all the detailed screens will be viewable in XML;
  • We have used Open Source, Open Standards and adopted an Open Government Licence.

We intend to make user engagement a central part of the project’s development. Complementing this, there are a number of activities that we have identified which will enhance the user experience, enrich the information available, and help the Research Councils meet their obligations to make research information more open and better aligned with users’ needs. Some highlights of the next 12 months include: 

  • Expansion of the GtR dataset to include further Research Council information for example, studentships, all intra Council grants and linking to research datasets and publication repositories.
  • Making the GtR dataset dynamic, reflecting changes in source systems rapidly;
  • Further iterations of the User Interface based on feedback on the beta-system and changes prompted by the expanding dataset;
  • Working with JISC to enhance the experience of HEIs and other data users in depositing and harvesting data from the Research Councils;

The next year should provide exciting opportunities to demonstrate the value of RCUK research information in diverse settings. Hack days are being planned for the spring, with at least two different providers to ensure a range of approaches. This project has involved the Research Councils working cooperatively on a complex project, and rapid agreement has been reached on the key decision points to date. The final phase of the project will build on this.

New RCUK study on the impact of doctoral training

By Dr Iain Cameron, Head of RCUK Research Careers and Diversity.

There are existing studies that look at the career pathways and impact of doctoral training – after six months from graduating and then after three years. But what difference do PhD graduates make in the longer term?

As part of a larger of programme of longitudinal tracking of doctoral graduates, RCUK has launched a new study, with the UK funding councils, to examine the economic impact of doctoral training with PhD graduates from 2004-05. We want to gain a deeper and more evidence-based understanding of their impact and how their skills contribute to innovation and the competitiveness of the UK. The study is being carried out by the research consultancy CFE in partnership with the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) and Sheffield University.

As well as examining their impact to the economy and in the workplace, we will be looking at the vibrancy of the research base and the contribution of doctoral graduates across the economy, not just in academic fields. We want to find out the range and scope of career destinations and how their careers are developing, which will help to inform guidance for researchers on the career choices available to them.

We know that, logistically, this is going to be challenging. Getting back in touch with people after a number of years is not straightforward. People move, change jobs, change emails, change phone numbers. Unusual names might pop up in searches but while we might find lots of people called Jane Smith, knowing which the right one is, is much harder.

To identify typical career pathways and routes for innovation for different subjects or groups of people, we need enough replies to be confident their paths really are representative. It’s not going to be easy and enough replies to do even broad subject groupings may be ambitious, so we may also include graduates from 2003-04 and 2005-06.

A first stage is inviting anyone who completed their doctorate between 2003 and 2006 to get in touch with CFE so we can work out whether we will be able to reach enough people for a survey to work. We need the help of supervisors, research centres, alumni offices and other networks of doctoral graduates to help us to identify and make contact with graduates. Providing we have enough contact information, the research will begin with a short online survey and, for some, more in-depth interviews.

We are confident that if we can reach doctoral graduates, they will be pretty good at responding and many will feel compelled to be involved for the ‘greater good’. By telling us about what they doing, it will provide more evidence that is vital to inform decisions on future investment in doctoral training.

The other big challenge is, of course, about what we’ll ask them. There are reasonably established methods for looking at the impact of research outcomes. When it comes to individual impacts and careers, there are quite a few career stories, case studies and in-depth work. For example, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) work on the contribution of social science to government policy is at the cutting edge of such comprehensive work. We know there is a large survey of doctoral graduates in Germany. There are also studies around salaries, but we wish to look beyond private returns to establish whether the UK economy and society benefits from investments in doctoral research. This is where we don’t yet have established methods and indicators, but if we want evidence-based decision-making, we have to continue to work on it.

We expect to publish the findings of the study by the end of 2013 and this will develop a sustainable research tool that could be used again to help fill gaps in evidence. The data will be made available to others through the UK Data Archive.

We would like to encourage graduates, and anyone who can put us in touch with the right doctoral graduates, to get in touch. Further information is available at http://www.cfe.org.uk/doctoralimpactstudy

Reinvesting for Growth

Outcomes of past research surround us everywhere. The technology that runs our cars, pain-killers and other simple treatments for our ailments or the scholarship that underpins that fascinating history documentary we watch on TV; it’s hard to imagine a world without the products of research.

Another example is the smartphone technology that many of us rely on, not just for communication but also for access to information. Smartphones represent an extraordinary convergence of research into a single device, but underpinning it all is the wireless network. And that aspect of the technology is about to go through the next revolution as we move from 3G to 4G networks, which promise to provide connection speeds on smartphones to rival the best available from wired broadband.

As well as a huge opportunity for new innovation, the 4G revolution will also provide revenue for the Government through the auction of 4G spectrum that is planned for next year. A new report from the Campaign for Science and Engineering and NESTA makes the case that this windfall is part of the return on our past investment in research. And also argues that the best use of the money is to reinvest it in research, technology and innovation; a boost to drive sustainable economic growth.

The report proposes a programme to spend the projected £4 billion of additional income. The suggestions are well designed to cover both investments that will bring benefits in the longer term, and those that will deliver on shorter time-scales  I think these proposals merit serious consideration and represent an exciting opportunity to make a step change in innovation-led growth.

From an RCUK perspective, it is especially pleasing to see such a strong emphasis on spending on research infrastructure. Innovation is driven by world-leading research which needs access to world-leading research infrastructure. Government has made significant investment in research capital over the last two years, but there are still major opportunities available that we need to seize to keep our research at the highest level. In the coming weeks we will be publishing the RCUK Capital Investment Framework which sets out these opportunities. Allocation of further funding would allow us to turn opportunities into realities, with major benefits for the economic performance of the Nation in the long-term.

RCUK Open Access Policy – Our Preference for Gold

In this blog post I want to outline the reasons why ‘Gold’ is the preferred route for Open Access for the Research Councils.

Our overall philosophy on Open Access is underpinned by four key principles, first detailed in our 2005 position statement on Access to Research Outputs.  These principles are around Accessibility, Quality, Efficiency and Cost Effectiveness, and Long-term Preservation.

The first of our four key principles is that the ideas and knowledge derived from publicly-funded research must be made available and accessible for public use, interrogation and scrutiny, as widely, rapidly and effectively as practicable.  It is this principle which is at the heart of our preference for Gold.

The scope of this principle is around ‘public use’, which covers many more potential users than just those within the research community.  Many of these users, and I am aware that there will be exceptions to this, are not familiar with how research papers are produced and distributed, and will not understand the subtle differences between pre-prints, post-prints and the publisher’s version of a paper.  Our concern is to ensure that all users have access to the highest quality version of a paper, and for us the most effective way of doing that is for a user to have access to the published version on a journal web site.  If a user wants to read a paper from Nature, the best way to ensure they are reading the definitive version is to read the version available from the Nature web site.  Gold delivers this universal access to the published version of the paper.

For us ‘use’ means much more than just being able to read research papers – it means having the ability to re-use and exploit research papers in the widest possible sense – be that text and data mining to advance new areas of research, to re-presenting collections of research papers in particular areas, to mashing together elements of research papers with other information to create new information products.  With maximal openness and accessibility, comes maximal opportunity to exploit, and thus maximal opportunity for innovation.  And from innovation comes growth, and benefit to the UK as a whole.  Gold delivers this maximal openness and opportunity for innovation through the CC-BY licence which we require where we pay an APC.

Widely’ means that access to the research outputs we fund must not be limited to those who can afford to pay for subscriptions, or for copies of articles from a journal’s web site.  Hence they should be available without cost.  Gold delivers free access for all users.

Rapidly’ means that articles should be available as soon as they are published, or with a minimum delay.  Gold delivers immediate access on publication with no embargo period.

Effectively’ means that the systems used to provide access must be straightforward for all users, and should be scalable and sustainable.  In the long-term, Gold with payment of APCs will provide a scalable and sustainable solution, to cover the costs of publishing, especially for the learned societies who are key members of the UK research community.  Gold is also straightforward for users – if you want a copy of a paper you go to a journal web site, rather than having to search a repository, and then possibly wait whilst you contact the author to request a copy.  It is also not clear to me how scalable a ‘request a copy’ or ‘Almost-OAfunction is for papers in high public demand.  An author might be happy to email copies to a few researchers, but what happens when they get 10’s or 100’s or 1000’s of requests from interested members of the public?

Basically, our preference for Gold can be summarised as we want to make the outputs of the research we fund accessible at the highest quality to the widest number of people, to do the widest range of stuff with, with the least restrictions.  We consider that, at the current time, Gold with CC-BY direct from a journal’s web site provides the route for ensuring that the papers arising from the research we fund are accessible to the widest number of users to meet this preference.

Questions about our Open Access policy?  Please email openaccess@rcuk.ac.uk.

GTR – Dealing with the Data Challenges

At the outset of the GTR project, one of the major challenges we identified was establishing the scope of the data and the semantics of terms associated with it.

A little background to the challenge

In 2011, the seven Research Councils finished consolidating 5 grants transaction processing systems into a single shared solution. This has helped to reduce some of the differences between the format of council data, but not always the meaning of values held. Whilst many of the semantic differences are purely a labelling issue, some are more deeply entrenched in the ways councils work with their respective research communities. To this end, we are taking time to unpick and agree a common set of terms under which we can publish data.

Alongside these semantic equivalence challenges come issues over whether we are permitted to publish some of the data we hold. The GtR portal will be publishing data from various Research Council systems and these systems are often a result of previous projects to migrate legacy data. The terms under which the information was originally gathered have variation on whether the data can be made public, although they generally permit the Research Councils to publish information for the furtherance of their missions. We are working to ensure that the information gathered for one purpose is suitable and fit for release and does not break any expectations of privacy or confidentiality.

The form and content of the data gathered for one purpose (e.g. to provide the basis of evidence of the impact of research) may not be suitable or indeed easily consumable for another purpose, or may be missing some linkages that would have been made if the aim was publication – e.g. we may not be able to link a publication to more than one person on a research project as we gather this as evidence of outcomes against a project. Over time, as the GtR develops, we would expect it to inform the way we gather data so that we can ensure it delivers value as both evidence of what we have funded and as a resource for those wanting to exploit it in either a public or commercial interest.

Why did we choose CERIF

CERIF was chosen as a storage mechanism to store GtR data for 2 main reasons:

  • The common challenges of storing research and related data have already been discussed and documented by a wide group of skilled and knowledgeable people. Developing our own bespoke model to deal with the same challenges seemed wasted effort
  • CERIF is highly regarded within the research community and we felt it was important to store the data in a consistent way to facilitate exploitation and information exchange with many universities, research organisations and consumers of research data

Following our decision to adopt CERIF we invested time in understanding the model and also seeking the advice of Brigitte Joerg. Brigitte has been instrumental in helping us understand the CERIF model and how to populate it with data from our staging area.

The Cost of Adoption

Adopting CERIF brings a steep learning curve and also adds time. Most of this additional time has been associated with documenting and defining the semantics of every attribute and how it relates to others. This in-depth understanding, notwithstanding the challenge of getting 7 bodies to agree, is critical to identifying where it belongs in the CERIF model. If your data is already well defined then it will put you in as strong position. If like most systems, it is not then you will need to agree a set of terms and definitions with the business for every attribute that you want to map to CERIF before proceeding.

This issue most clearly manifests itself in populating the CERIF semantic layer with your vocabularies. Only when the vocabulary data has been added can you begin loading your data sets. For example:

Project A has a current status of Authorised. To be able to represent that information against a project in CERIF you need to populate the CERIF semantic layer with 2 key pieces of data. A) What is the definition for project status B) What does the term ‘Authorised’ mean. With this semantic reference data in place you can relate project with the “Authorised” status. This has a lot of similarities with the open data RDF world, but CERIF contains its semantic information both in the table structure (the attributes of the tables) and in the contents of the semantic layer.

Another key point is understanding what to do with free text and date fields that the CERIF model hasn’t catered for. There are a couple of options how to store them, with the simplest being to extend the existing tables by adding attributes but this is definitely not supported by the CERIF task group. The more appropriate route would be to add additional tables containing the attributes. Of course if you want the additional fields to have language variations, then you face a decision of whether to adopt the same model used in CERIF and maintain some logical consistency across the model and the extension or adopt your own model. However, you choose to resolve the issue of unsupported fields, you should try and maintain clean semantics, as it is tempting to put something in that solves a problem now and live with consequences of this decision going forward.

We have made good progress on the subset of data that we hope to launch in November and have managed to gain agreement for the vocabulary (although some definitions are still being hammered out). The use of CERIF has definitely been a journey of discovery so far and we hope to keep you updated with progress and more detail on how we have mapped the data into CERIF.

Note: If an attribute is added and it could be of general interest to the community. We will notify the CERIF task group and they will consider it as an addition to the model.

RCUK Open Access Policy – When to go Green and When to go Gold

Yesterday I took part in the Imperial College Science Communication Forum event ‘discussing’ the new RCUK Policy on Access to Research Outputs with Stephen Curry (Imperial College) and Richard Van Noorden (Nature News) – though after two hours under the spotlight, for me it felt a little more like a ‘grilling’ than a discussion 😉  However, many thanks to the SciCommForum team for the invitation to present our policy in more detail and to have the opportunity to discuss issues around the interpretation and implementation of the policy.  One of the things I committed to do was to update the guidance to the policy to be very clear about the choices RCUK funded authors can make in terms of which routes they must use to make their research papers open access.  I want to use this blog post to reiterate the policy clarifications I gave at the SciCommForum event, and previously at the Open Access Publishers Association Meeting.

Our policy requires that peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access.

A journal is compliant with our policy if it provides Gold OA using the CC-BY licence, and RCUK will provide funds to institutions to cover payment of APCs.  However, if a journal is not prepared to offer a Gold CC-BY option, it can achieve compliance by offering a specific Green option which must meet the following requirements.  It must allow, at a minimum, the accepted manuscript with all changes resulting from peer-review, to be deposited in a repository without restrictions on non-commercial re-use and with a maximum embargo period of 6 months.  For a limited transition period the maximum embargo period is extended to 12 months for papers arising from research funded by the AHRC and the ESRC.  This is in recognition that journals in these areas are not yet as well placed to move to an OA model.

So what does this mean for authors?  If the journal they want to publish in only offers policy compliance through a Gold route, they must use that journal’s Gold option.  If the journal only offers compliance through the Green route, the author must ensure that a copy of the post-print is deposited in an appropriate repository – for example, UKPMC for papers arising from MRC funded research.  If the journal offers both a Gold and a Green route to compliance (and some journals already do this), it is up to the author and their institution to decide on the most appropriate route to use.  And, if a journal offers neither a Green nor a Gold compliant route, it is not eligible to take RCUK funded work, and the author must use a different, compliant, journal.

The Research Councils are not anti-Green and support a dual approach for delivering OA.  However, we do have a strong preference for Gold, and I will explain why in my next blog post.  And, where there is a choice between compliant-Green and compliant-Gold – either through a journal offering both routes to compliance, or through using different journals offering different compliance routes – it is up to authors and their institutions to work together to make the choice as to which option to use.

Questions about our Open Access policy?  Please email openaccess@rcuk.ac.uk.

An audio recording of the Imperial College discussion is available on FigShare.