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Making the case and setting the scene

1.1. Introduction

In Research, the use of Facilities (instruments, collections, data banks, laboratories, etc…) is commonplace as an indispensable support, but only in some cases these facilities are built and managed to provide service to external users (not belonging or funded by the owner institution or even coming from other countries). This is the difference between a “Facility” and an “Infrastructure”. Many Facilities (sometimes also very expensive) are built, funded and managed mainly for the specific use of their owners (institutions, universities, industry). They may have only marginal use for external researchers but their impact is relatively limited in terms of outreach and international visibility. These facilities are not in the scope of this Handbook (HB).
Also not fully in the scope of the HB are those facilities which are built and managed for service, but to a limited (local, regional, national) user’s community, and not for attracting and serving users independently from their country, institution, or funding agency. In the following we may refer to these as "local (or regional) infrastructures”.

This HB, moreover, focuses mainly on Research Infrastructures (RI)s of European (or pan-EU) interest which are built/assembled, funded, operated and managed aiming at international-level users, and have the mission to improve the competitiveness and quality of research beyond institutional, local or national boundaries, independently from their ownership. The tips and best practices which are presented in the HB are, however, applicable also to local or regional infrastructures that may wish to have an increased effectiveness and impact.
This first chapter aims at clarifying the rules of the game and best practices to be followed in the development and management of RIs.
Some of the best practices applied to RIs are counterintuitive and go against deep cultural roots, e.g. they offer “free” access to the best researchers independently of nationality, and do not apply, in dealing with the users (in first approximation), concepts like “ownership”, “return of investment” etc.
This approach is the most effective for science. In the following, it will be seen that it allows the “owners” to achieve also the highest socio-economic returns of public investments in direct and indirect ways.
The need to secure public (and sometimes private) investments to design, build and operate these RIs, requires that these “strange” rules of the game are understood by the proposers and managers of RIs to the point of correctly applying them and of explaining them to the perspective funders.

1.2. Definition of a Research Infrastructure and its pan-European interest

Background Information (BOX 1, BOX 2, BOX 3)

The definition of a RI of pan-European interest as given by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure (ESFRI), is rewritten here with some more details:

A RI is a facility for service to research which:

  • Offers cutting-edge, essential service to research, on a non-economic basis, with an outlook to the European Research Area (ERA)
  • Awards free open access to users selected through international peer-review competition at global level
  • Asks the users to publish/share their Research results in the public domain
  • Manages access for proprietary and/or training activities as a different, and, in most cases, marginal activity
  • Has, as a mission and goal, a clear pan-European added value: e.g. to attract at least 30% of the selected users coming from non-host (non-owner) countries

A facility of this kind can be single sited (a single resource at a single location), distributed (a network of distributed resources) or virtual (the service is provided electronically).

The RI lifetime can span between few years (eg. satellites) and centuries (eg. libraries). Examples of Research Infrastructures. The driving criteria to define, and eventually evaluate, the international importance of an RI are the attraction of international users and the quality of provided services (not its cost, as sometimes postulated). An additional criterion is how much the facility affects an extended scientific area. These criteria are also at the base of the membership of the European association of Research Facilities (ERF).

The ESFRI definition introduces also the basic “rules of play” which a RI should fulfil: it must be built, managed, operated and funded to serve external researchers, chosen independently from the ownership (or the capability of the users to pay for the service) and only on the basis of the quality of their proposals as judged by independent and international peer review: in the following we will call this the “Open-free-access” (not to be confused with the “Open access to data”. An RI has a pan-European outreach if it is capable, by the quality of its instruments and services, to attract a sizeable share of users from outside the “owner’s territory”.

The users, in exchange for being admitted free of charge, must share their research results in the public domain, and/or with the RI. The concept of what are (in full understanding) the research results is still being developed in Europe, while it has been embedded in official users regulations for the Department of Energy (DOE) facilities in the USA.
There the concept of results encompasses both the specific results of the research performed with the use of the facilities of the RI and the possible results of developments performed to increase the technical capabilities while working at the RI. The first ones are normally shared in the public domain while the others are, in most cases, not explicit or accounted for. The DOE regulations, and the pressure generated on public research budgets by the current crisis, are now generating the need to understand and account in a much more detailed way the second indirect type of results, and their possible economic value.

The free open access mode of operation drives a strong competition to respond to the (increasing) requirements by the users in all aspects of the technical quality, the operation and the services offered by an RI, including the quality and performance of its staff and management.

If also the scientific staff and the local users are asked to submit to the same peer review filter of quality to be allowed to use their facility, this competition drives a “pull towards excellence” on the RI staff and on the local scientific communities, which extends gradually to the regional, national scientific and technical environments.
The general result for the local stakeholders and funders is a continuous improvement of instruments, technologies and training of technical and scientific personnel, as well as in the quality of science produced. These are the effective results (or returns of investment) for the national and local funders, which justifies the free open access.

However, it should be immediately added that, in terms of describing the quality criteria, the wording of the ESFRI definition has two biases. The first reflects the fact that, in Europe, the largest number of pan-EU RIs are still of national ownership, only few of them having been originally designed and built in collaboration between different countries for the purpose of being internationally used (the EIROFORUM RIs; e.g. CERN, EMBL, etc.).
The second bias comes from the fact that these criteria apply most clearly to facilities where the user’s access is a “limited resource”, which is not always true, e.g. for data banks where web access can be (almost) unlimited. This second bias is due to the fact that the explosive growth of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) is relatively recent, and was not yet playing a strong part when the overall concept of RIs was developed. On the other hand, also in the case of ICT based RIs, there is the need of defining a quality criterion, and this is connected to a peer review filter in the uploading of data (e.g. to avoid the variable quality of a Wikipedia).

The advantages of opening national infrastructures to international use has become clearer only in the last 10-15 years, thanks to specific initiatives started in the EU Research Programs, and this is now an established method to improve the national investments and both the national and European quality of research, while increasing the capability of the EU. On the other hand, open free access is not a new development as the concept has been applied for a long time in a number of scientific domains (e.g. starting from the medieval Abbey-libraries, to modern times Astronomical observatories).

1.3. Why is good governance of RIs so important, and why in particular for Europe?

In responding to why RIs and their good governance are so important for Europe, a summary list of reasons is the following:

  • RIs are needed in all fields of science, and no single EU country can provide them all, while other large multi-state nations can: e.g.: India, US, China…, (only in few cases the effort is so big that a global approach is needed).
  • Europe must compete with these nations as a union, and this requires to integrate the resources of the individual EU States into a rational common effort.
  • Most EU countries own high quality RIs, which can contribute beyond the national borders to a common effort. If this approach is followed, it helps also to build confidence and to reach agreements on the joint development of specific RIs built and operated by pooling resources.
  • In pursuing a common overall approach the various countries can reach a much better use of scarce resources and develop a stronger integration and competitiveness in the European Research Area.

One of the main initiatives to build integration and to help the EU countries to pool their resources for new RIs has been successfully started by the EU Council who has set-up ESFRI. ESFRI has been able to build a common understanding and this, in turn, has allowed selecting, unanimously, a series of new (and/or upgraded) RIs which have been proposed to the various EU Countries, through the development of a Roadmap by ESFRI. This development has been possible thanks to the increased common understanding of the effects of opening and pooling national facilities (for example in distributed RIs) and of joining forces as it had been done in the EIROFORUM cases.

RAMIRI has been conceived in ESFRI and aims at extending this common understanding involving and training on a wider basis the future policy-makers and managers who will be the driving force in developing further the various aspects and concepts, and building consensus on how to apply them.

1.4. Research, Development and Innovation: their meaning and the RI contribution

To understand and define properly the various aspects connected to RIs, we need to start defining the concept of “Research” and its distinction (but also its strong interplay) with “Development” and “Innovation”.
The political and media discourse mixes together, under the name of “Research”, three different activities having very different goals and very different economic outcomes. These are Research (R), Development (D) and Innovation (I). They are often pursued by the same people and sometimes within the same environment, in particular in RIs, but responding to different requirements and played with different rules.
In a public research environment D and I are focused to achieve the best results of R, independently from possible economic returns, and people involved in these activities do not need to make a clear distinction between them to perform well (but may be required to distinguish them to get funded). In industry the scope is economic and therefore the difference between R and D is important and more clearly managed.

The focus of activities in public Research is….. Research, while in a private economic research environment this focus is on Development and Innovation. It is important that managers and policy makers understand these differences, to avoid (e.g. in an RI) that expectations and choices may turn wrong only for the lack of perception in distinguishing between the three aspects.

The strong other potential of Research, if well managed in its secondary effect, lies in the fact that good researchers must be good developers and (often but not always) are good innovators. The reverse is not true: good innovators are not necessarily good developers, and, even less, good researchers. In RIs the interconnection between being good researchers, good developers and good innovators is much stronger than in most other environments, and this is the specific value of well managed RIs. The specific strength of RIs, if well designed and managed at competitive level, is that they are the place where R, D and I interact most effectively, and this may give a strong base to be able to develop “economic” aspects and returns.

The competition to attract the best researchers at world level is the prime motor for the coexistence of R, D and I activities in an RI. To be attractive and competitive, it needs staff able to perform the three activities in an integrated way at top level. To support the best and quality-seeking users in their research requires also a very good in-house research, and a continuous development of new instruments and methods. Furthermore, the RI has to provide innovative overall services and management, if it wants to remain capable to compete with other emerging facilities at world level.

Also other very important results are obtained in such a competitive environment, which can be further “engines of innovation and development”. If enough junior people are involved, they can get training and education by interacting with top level researchers and technicians, and being involved in cutting-edge technological and organizational projects. If then they move to other appropriate environments, this becomes a powerful transfer of knowledge and know-how. This aspect, if correctly linked with the network of technical schools and universities, can be a prime mover in the quality of these institutions.

We have linked in the Glossary the “economic” aspects to the three definitions (Research, Development and Innovation, to underline better one of the problematic issues which affect RIs managers and policy-makers, being the RIs intrinsically “non economic” . Many stakeholders tend to expect that the “Research results” are the main economic outcome of RIs, which is not the case. We should, however, remember also that, as in the case of Research, also Development and Innovation are not necessarily driven by expected economic returns, but can be driven by the simple need to win in a non economic competition. Many of the inventions and innovations which we have witnessed in human history have been driven by other motivations, like sports and war. Aiming at being the first in answering to the human curiosity is an equally strong motivation, driving competitive Research.

In terms of large investments in “non economic” infrastructures, apart those for Sports and Defense, there are those to demonstrate the technical feasibility of activities and/or processes based on known principles and basic knowledge, but looking for new solutions and technologies. We can call these Development Infrastructures (DIs). This is the case of the ITER fusion experiment (which aims at demonstrating the possibility to generate power by nuclear fusion, on the physical principles which are known, but need to find the right way to use them, i.e. the right technology) or of the ISS, the International Space Station (which is mainly developing and demonstrating a wealth of space technologies, and where also some research is done, mainly on human physiology or as a platform for scientific observations). These DIs are connected to Research when they hit on problems which need to look for new knowledge (they can be generators of new research topics). Stretching a bit the possible examples, Formula 1 cars are DIs demonstrating new technological approaches, also they are strongly un-economic and, like RIs, needing the media attraction and sponsorships to compensate for the economic losses (but with a much higher success, being capable to involve a much larger public).

Elaborating a bit further on the relationship between Development and Research, there is often the case of “inventors” becoming “discoverers”: as, e.g., the discovery of the ionized upper-atmosphere layers by the young Marconi, who was trying to develop radio-transmissions beyond the horizon, or the discovery of a new Continent by Cristoforo Colombo, who was trying to develop a new way to reach the Indies.

There has recently been a conceptual shift in defining the interconnection between Research, Development and Innovation. A simplified view is a “linear model” whereby the three activities are interlinked, with a flow from research to innovation in creating an “Innovation Ecosystem” (Fig. 1.1). This model is not correct (but unfortunately is still a prevailing conceptual model).

Fig. 1.1 - A “linear model” description of the “Research - Innovation Ecosystem” interaction

It is by now clear that the interaction between Research Development and Innovation is a cyclical, mutual-feeding process based on bidirectional reinforcing flows. RIs are a case in which the interlink and bidirectionality from industrial innovation to new instruments (new capabilities for research) and back to development and industry (new products and innovative processes) is particularly clear (Fig. 1.2).

Fig. 1.2 - A more realistic model

In this overall context, the strong interlink between RIs, DIs, Industries and Educational Institutions is one of the major fields of action for whoever is interested in Innovation.

1.5. Shareholders and Stakeholders: expectations and communication

Having introduced the main basic definitions and rules in the overall “game of the RIs”, and assuming that they have been understood and accepted, let us go to the other side of the overall picture: how to explain these rules and definitions to the Shareholders (the ones who pay or have invested financially) and to the Stakeholders (the ones who, in the end of the day, provide the political support and the justification for the shareholders to support the financial effort which is needed).
First of all a warning: a (potentially deadly) mistake made in several cases by proposers or managers of RIs is to adapt the content of what they perceive to be the story best accepted by each stakeholder, and therefore to offer to different stakeholders different and intrinsically contradictory explanations and narratives. The most common mistake, given the expectations of the “world outside research” is to present research as an economic activity producing saleable goods (the research results) and having, after a start-up period (e.g. after having invested in the construction of an RI) a net income.
This approach often ends up in a messy situation, in which angry politicians, who were convinced that the RI was going to be a new rich source of taxation and of jobs find out that the transition to the operation phase means that the RI is only a source of costs. Even worse, there may be a careful tax office wanting to cash the VAT on these operation costs, interpreted as market turnover.

Both examples above have happened historically (not too long ago), and also if not all cases have been as bad as these, there is a diffuse mistrust or low credibility of scientists proposing new projects within policy makers, much too often there has been a large resonance (helped by the amplification of media) of some “resolutive discovery” (in Energy, Health, Food etc.) which soon fades out as being not of immediate economic or societal impact.

It is therefore a very important aspect for managers in RIs (and in Research in general) to be honest in the promises and clear in the description of the outcomes. This requires to have or acquire resources with appropriate communication skills and capabilities, and to have as many as possible of the stakeholders visiting the infrastructure and getting a direct description and understanding of how it works and of the people working with it.

The communication to the different stakeholders (and often also to the different shareholders) must address the need to speak with different languages (but with the same contents) because they are very diverse in culture (i.e. in language and in background) and have different expectations/motivations. Very often what is perceived as a community of stakeholders is very diverse within. This also applies to the scientific community where divisions across disciplinary and institutional lines can produce the most vocal antagonists to building a new RI perceived as a subtraction of resources from other better uses of money. Fig. 1.3 and the list below try to give a summary view of different expectations of possible stakeholder communities. The true picture is more complex and the composition, motivation and interest of the stakeholders may change along the lifetime of the RI.

Fig. 1.3 - Different expectations of possible stakeholder communities

What are the contents of the communication? As we have said, the overall content of the narrative should not change, but what needs to change is the language of the narrative and the focus on its various elements. One approach is to use normal life similarities, as the comparison to sports: RIs can be described as similar to Olympic Stadiums where you would not ask the entry ticket from the world champions, but would look for the improvement of your own athletes. Another selling story is the invention of the RIs in the Middle Ages (the abbey libraries), which were dedicated to very long term activities as the preservation of antique manuscripts, but needed to attract and host the scholars and technicians doing this, developed around them the capabilities in agriculture, medical assistance… and even some industries surviving until today, and producing good beer and liqueur.

Possible list of stakeholders (incomplete) and of their expectations/motivations

  • The scientific community
    • Researchers: Proposers/supporters from the design phase, present/potential users, neutrals, antagonists
    • Expectations/motivations: new research capabilities and true scientific interest, structuring and motivation of owners communities, political visibility and new funding, antagonists for disciplinary/institutional reasons and/or perceived wrong allocation of resources, conflict with the universities
  • The industrial environment
    • Industry: Providers (present/future, in different phases), potential users (direct & indirect), technology/training absorbers, neutrals, antagonists (state support best used to support industry), large vs small industries, and always: who represents the industry? (the marketing/sales, the R&D manager, the CEO, the Shareholder), also often different attitudes with Industry Associations, Chambers of Commerce
    • Expectations/motivations: RIs as a market, as collaborators/providers in R&D, as strategic allies, as competitors vs state aid or in marketing instruments, interesting but too expensive
  • The policy making environment
    • Elected Policy Makers: Institutional/governmental structure, local vs regional vs national vs European, limited vs long term outlook
    • Expectations/motivations: next election/inauguration, visibility, limits to expenses, impact on local economy-environment, increase in tax collection/local economy, national/international strategies
  • The media
    • Types of media: local, national, printed/TV/Radio, stories/economy/local news, international science magazines
    • Motivations: what is the scandal?, contradictions, political, science popularization, what is new?, what is personal? How do I fill a page during summer vacations?
  • Citizens and citizen’s organizations
    • Schools, clubs, professionals, pensioners, worker’s unions
    • Motivations: curiosity, culture, scientific tourism, future of science/health/environment seeking employment /training, (unions: seeking maximum long term employment)
  • RI staff and their families
    • Scientists, technicians, administrators, students, long and short term employees
    • Motivations: scientific curiosity/publications/career, proper and predictable working conditions, administrative/legal correctness. Long term employment (the potential for conflicts is ever present).

1.6. RAMIRI Training Slides

last update March 29, 2013, at 08:10 PM
by Fabio Mazzolini