Life Cycle of a Research Infrastructure
This handbook refers in various chapters to parts of the life cycle of a RI. This chapter outlines and defines the successive phases of the RI life cycle as a further reference. It will also give some information on policy-making approaches dealing with these different phases, for a better definition of projects and improved use of scarce public resources.
RIs, both their instruments and their organization, have limited lifetimes. They will be established and built, and then will provide services to users, but eventually get worn-out, outdated or not any more capable to be useful at the needed competitive level. The life-cycle of a RI can typically be divided into six consecutive phases:
Fig. 2.1 - RI life-cycle phases
The first phases can also be further defined and divided in terms of “Scientific and technical maturity” as in the following table, which was developed inside ESFRI while preparing the launch of the Roadmap:
Tab. 2.1 - RI life-cycle phases (ESFRI)
In the following we will, however, use the general list introduced above and comment on some aspects which help to place the process in a more general frame. As in most other aspects of life, also within RIs there is a (natural) “selection process” defining the fittest to succeed, but not always the fittest is the best, in terms of scientific and socioeconomic impact, it will never be sufficiently emphasized the need to have, in all steps, the use of “external independent, international, peer review”.
This need has been formally structured and applied in some countries at government level. The most detailed example is in the UK, where most state agencies are required to apply a “Gateway Process” both in the decision process of starting a new project and in of keeping it alive or after conclusion.
The process from the original idea up to start of construction takes time, and issues to be addressed are not only scientific and technical. It should not be underestimated how much attention and iteration between different stakeholders is required to develop a solid business plan with acceptable legal/institutional and financial solutions, to reach a satisfactory identification and selection of the infrastructure site(s), and of course to build a positive interaction with all stakeholders who interact with the process with their interests.
Every plan to develop a research infrastructure starts with the vision and/or needs of few researchers and/or technicians. They want to open new scientific areas requiring experiments, measurements or observations that are not yet available and cannot be developed with existing facilities nor with domestic solutions in a research group or institute. Other drivers for considering a new research infrastructure can be emerging new technologies, allowing, e.g. for higher resolution in measurements or faster data generation and processing.
The development of the various phases and the transition between them can be very sharp (e.g. for the conception and construction of a “single site” RI from a “green field”) or more gradual, starting from existing facilities collaborating loosely and gradually integrating into a Distributed RI, but in all cases it is important that these transitions are accompanied by external and independent scientific evaluation to help drive the choices in the best and effective direction.
In many cases the most important ingredient for the successful start of a new RI is the involvement of one or few visionary and leading individuals who are capable to define the type and scientific scope of the new RI in a sufficient detail and clarity, and with enough energy and credibility, to get sufficient support from the scientific communities, which, in turn, allows to gain sufficient visibility to convince funding agencies and win initial resources to further build the case.
Very often, in this first phase the situation is far from clear in terms of technical execution and financial detail. Costs could be underestimated, while the possible involvement of funders and also of researchers could be wildly overestimated, etc. But this is a very fertile period and the discussions activated by the proposal allow the scientific case to be refined and it and its proposed technical approach to be compared with other options which may be radically different and sometimes more effective.
In this phase there may also be different “sociological phenomena” taking place: there may a “bandwagon effect” of large parts of a research community jumping-in and supporting the idea, but there may also be the all-out opposition by other researchers due to a (typical) academic reflex: “any increased funding of other groups is to the detriment of mine”. Amazingly, researchers (even from the fields potentially interested in the RI) often are regarding such plans as a competition to their projects and are afraid that they will negatively affect their project funding. The opposite is quite true. Research Infrastructures open up new and advanced scientific opportunities and history shows that funding agencies want to invest more in research benefitting from “their” infrastructures.
One of the qualities required from the proposers is to be capable to avoid opposition while aggregating support, to explain to academic competitors that the increase in capability and visibility is of advantage to the whole research environment.
Another potentially negative process can happen in this phase: the visionary and “selling” capability of the proposers can be “too successful” and may attract early political sponsorship and funding support to a still immature project. This may happen in local and regional environments, and, if it goes too far, may cause a longer term political and financial backlash for the research being accused to waste public money in the construction of a “white elephant” of little or no real impact on scientific progress, nor generating socioeconomic returns (for obvious reasons, we abstain from listing real cases, but they do exist and are rather frequent, mainly for “local facilities”.
The early introduction of a “peer review” evaluation of the highest quality is the “cure” which should be applied by both the proposers, the perspective funders, and required by the scientific communities as soon as possible.
The transition from the “incubation” to the “conceptual design” phase is normally happening naturally due to the need to respond to questions and criticism coming from the interested scientific communities and the perspective funders, and normally its completion should be defined by the delivery of a complete document containing the most valid options and a reasonable approximation of costs (within less than 100% uncertainty).
While the incubation could be developing solely (or mainly) within the scientific environment, in this further phase there will be elements of “preparation” (i.e. technology development projects) and of “siting” (with the possible involvement of local and national communities and policy-makers). As shown in the Table 2.1 above, this phase is characterized by a better approximation of costing and technical details, but will still be incomplete information, not yet giving a real and sound financial outlook, reliable detailed impact on the interested potential users, and may leave some leeway for different technical choices.
If there is the appropriate funding, there may be the transition from the conceptual to a deeper technical feasibility and design study, which can go through few steps increasing in detail and definition. This phase typically requires resources (funding and people) around 10% of those needed for construction. It should be capable to give reliable data on costs, timing and specifications, and may include, if needed, technological projects to demonstrate the feasibility of some advanced technical requirements. This phase must also increase and consolidate the involvement of the scientific communities and the interest and commitment of funders. During this phase the definition of siting issues (if needed) as well as of legal and institutional aspects should be reached, to allow for the transition to the construction phase.
For a Distributed RI based on existing Facilities, this phase could be rather dedicated to designing the way in which the partners contribute to a true integrated service to users, and to define which additional instruments, human resources and/or upgrades, coordinating centre and related expenditure, are needed to face the increased scope of the overall RI.
The final outcome of this phase should be a technical document capable to give a sound base to the construction/assembly of the RI, explaining in detail the requests to cover funding needs and defining the major risks and corrective measures.
Finally, the initial proposers, or their successors, may succeed in getting to the point of construction, after overcoming all (or most) scientific and non-scientific hurdles, and securing a reasonable time perspective for financial support.
But this is not always true, and it may happen that there is a “vacuum”. Starting the construction of a research infrastructure assumes that funding is in place, that a governance structure is in place to endorse priorities and budget allocations and that a strong management can direct the developments within budget and time.
This requires several decisions prior to the actual construction, which should, in principle, have been developed in parallel to the technical study, but may have been delayed for various reasons. It is wise to have a clear picture of all such decisions or at least of the steps they may require, to understand both which of the authorities finally will decide and the time lines for each decision. If more than one country is involved, an additional burden is that the decision processes are not synchronized and may influence each other.
It is crucial that, in this critical phase, there is already a well functioning governing body of the infrastructure “project” (representing national authorities and other stakeholders) and an executive management to guide these processes, and to keep together the main stakeholders and the driving momentum of the project.
Assuming that all is well and as soon as the construction is started, the management is, then, responsible for the performance (cost, time and specifications control) in construction. Other chapters in this handbook are dealing in more detail with managerial requirements, cost control and Finance, Procurement and Human Resources. One of the most important aspects is RI management. This must ensure the capability to complete the construction and start the commissioning phase getting the right specifications within planned time and costs. If this is achieved, the transition to operation is a very relieving moment!.
Once the construction has finished, the facilities and services of the Research Infrastructure will become operational. This primarily implies that the facilities are tested and brought up to full performance (commissioning) and that users are informed about the capabilities and specifications, while the first calls are published to apply, specifying the access rules/selection and the support services they can get by accessing the RI. Single sited RIs depending on large instrumentation typically experience a clear separation between construction and operation.
With the new virtual RIs and distributed RIs, such a separation is less obvious and can be gradual or there could even be a continuous overlap between construction (upgrading/updating) and operation. Virtual infrastructures (either generic or discipline specific) can bring some Internet facilities into operation, while extensions are still in development. And the components of distributed infrastructures are not necessarily interdependent, so that operations may start with a facility at a specific site, and then involve other sites and a growing number and diversity of facilities and services.
An operational Research Infrastructure does not only mean a working instrument. It needs engineering staff to monitor its operation, scientific staff to guide and support visiting users, if required moreover, there should be housing and other facilities and logistical support for users and visitors. This is based on a clear staffing policy with supporting personnel, an appropriate communications and publicity strategy, and user application and selection processes.
Often it happens that RIs which are proposed, designed and developed with a view on some scientific fields, will have users from not anticipated disciplines requiring access, which may end up being the a dominant user community (e.g. protein imaging in a synchrotron). Another example is the ESRF Foundation Phase Report ("Red Book", 1987), which predicted only few of the future user communities. The management must be aware and capable to respond to changing interests and requirements by users' interests as well as be capable to follow relevant emerging scientific and technical developments. The role of scientific advisory boards and foresight exercises is important in this regard.
A RI losing its competitive edge does not always have to close down. It can be cost-effective and scientifically sound to consider a major upgrade, and in some cases to build totally new facilities while decommissioning old equipment, thus reusing the local civil engineering infrastructure (buildings, power plants and other standard facilities). This process is in a way similar to establishing a new RI. It depends on the vision and innovative attitude of leading people, on their skills to convince funding agencies to re-invest, and on the capability of the management to convert and retrain the technical and research staff.
It should be noted that virtual RIs, and also some biomedical RIs are used to the permanent upgrades/updates of their facilities and instruments since the life cycle of their hardware and software is extremely short (3-5 years) while also new applications and new methods are constantly implemented. The management of such evolving infrastructures should be adapted to this permanent upgrading and have a strict release planning allowing to control the process.
In several cases, the RI must be shut down at the end of its useful life-cycle, and this is the Decommissioning phase, which can be very complex: e.g. the decommissioning of a large satellite, needs to plan for enough fuel at the end of life to safely de-orbit an allow it falling into an ocean and not on inhabited land (this involves also a complex international warning system), or the case of a nuclear research reactor, where the cost of decommissioning includes disposing of the radioactive waste, dismantling complex systems after a cool down time which may last decades, etc.. Some international RIs require by statute that a part of the contributions is set-aside to cover the decommissioning expenses (e.g. ESRF).
In most cases, the scientists who first propose an RI do not think very much about its end-of life, but planning this aspect is increasingly required by funding agencies, and in some countries the full life-time-costs must be well defined, before a new initiative is approved. The decommissioning is, therefore, a stage of the life of the RI which should always be analysed, at least in principle.
The planning a decommissioning phase is increasingly required also for not so complex facilities, by general environmental requirements, in several cases requiring to bring back the site to a pristine, natural condition. In all cases this requires to plan for a decommissioning fund or financial guarantee.
One aspect which can be very difficult to handle in the decommissioning phase is the human resources and the perceived impacts on employment or on academic positions within the local communities. In many cases the reactions to closing a RI can be unexpectedly irrational.
For the difference in types, organizational aspects and impacts, the decommissioning phase is difficult to approach with a fit-all recipe, but the above examples indicate that, during the initial design phase, this question should be addressed.
'''The Roadmap of proposed new Research Infrastructures as developed by the ESFRI, resulted in the decision by the European Commission to fund the so-called Preparatory Phase (PP) of the identified ESFRI priorities. Successful applicants received a FP7 grant to bring the infrastructure design to further maturity. The emphasis in most of these PPs has been on legal plans, financial sustainability, user involvement, and achieving sufficient national commitments to start the actual construction. Several initiatives did benefit from these grants and could reach the construction phase or come close to it. Other RIs (mainly single sited ones) have used a larger proportion of the funding for improving the definition of technical design and to develop some critical technologies.
However, establishing RIs requires national financial commitments by national authorities, and these have more interest in solid business plans rather than scientific maturity or enthusiasm. The main concern for national authorities is that any new such long-term commitment decreases the flexibility of the available budgets, and it is not easy (even in normal times) to go to the finance ministers asking for a larger research budget. This has become much more difficult in the last years, given the financial crisis, the decreased income from taxation and the need to decrease state debts. Despite the success of the ESFRI preparatory phase projects in bringing infrastructures to a level of further maturity, these activities were not capable to increase the appetite for financial commitments by national authorities. In this situation some infrastructure initiatives have entered a “vacuum phase” after the end of the funded preparatory project, unable, for lack of commitment to set up appropriate governance and management without even the limited PP funding. If we compare this situation with the projects which have been successful in starting, we can see that most of these were already supported by longer term commitments by either states or state funded institutions.
Developing a RI is a major project. Large-scale international RIs are complex and costly facilities. Their development has to address the construction of advanced instruments and often distributed capabilities, such as sensor networks. Managing these developments implies supervising a major project comprising of many sub projects. The management also has to anticipate on the future operations with respect to data management and interoperability, the service organization for users, and the organizational structure. Major upgrades of facilities in the operational phase can be managed as a separate project, and the same is true for a decommissioning project.
The role of the management is different in the successive phases in the life cycle of a RI, and one should be aware of who is finally in charge to take key decisions and who is paying the project. This can be a consortium board of cooperating institutes or a governing body of countries in the construction phase. Section 2.1.7 is warning that the change from one to another phase is never clearly defined in time and governance. Project management has to anticipate phase changes and be prepared to structure any interim project structures prior to phase transition. This shows that project management is not only delivering project results, but also managing a process that must consider how to secure sustainability after a specific project lifetime.
There are many books dealing with managing organisations and projects. These are often following new hypes with strong emphasis on a specific management approach. This paragraph provides a general introduction on various views. Readers are recommended to get familiar with a few of these in order to better understand and adapt personal managerial behaviour. There is no single management solution. Each organization and project requires its own management approach depending on the actual context of project challenges.
The planning and design of project management will address a number of concrete issues such as:
- design specifications and define the internal or outsourced activities
- elaborate the project planning in time and budget
- identify the expected deliverables and describe the related work breakdown with task assignments
- estimate resource requirements for each task and match these with budget and time
- organise the risk planning
- select a project team, the suppliers and management
- get approval for starting the project
After this design phase, the project execution will require the allocation and coordination of resources and people, and monitoring, documentation, and reviewing of processes and deliverables.
There are in the literature a number of management methods that are applicable for a specific project context and target. The following examples show categories of management methods suitable for a few project problems.
Prince simple approach
The Prince method is well known to bring a project with clearly defined outcomes, budgets and time lines to a result, for example to build a house or railway track. This allows for detailed specifications of planning and design, and to manage project execution. Monitoring and controlling of progress provides feedback to any required adapted planning, but eventually to delivery and project result. Below (Fig. 2.2) is a simplified diagram of such a project workflow. A more complicated project may be composed of several subprojects with separate work flows interrelated with the others. There are various software packages offering to support workflows from project initiation to closing with tools to manage time, budgets, subcontractors etc.
Fig. 2.2 - Simplified diagram of project workflow
Critical chain project management
When project management has to consider limited resources and/or time as a key parameter, the challenge is to reduce uncertainties. It is sometimes possible to accept adaption, simplification or even deletion of anticipated deliverables while the overall achievable project result will still result in an operational result. The project management should in this context permanently in the project execution the priorities in the crucial chain towards operational results.
Event chain management
Some projects have to run with high probabilities of external disruptions and risks. These may have a larger impact on the success of the project than its internal progress. The challenge is to manage on mitigation of (potential) negative risks rather than the project process itself.
When the final projects results cannot fully be specified at the beginning of a project, for example because appropriate technologies are changing very fast, it is difficult to design a completely pre-planned process. This would imply a project management with a strong vision in order to move forward with a number of small project tasks that are conceived and executed in an adaptive manner. Project staff should be able to cope with adaptation while the constraints of time, budgets and delivery still apply.
The lesson from these different management methods is that the design and implementation of actual project management has to consider what the critical problem to address is. Is the problem to deliver results according to specifications within budget or time? Or sorting out who is doing what in distributed construction? Or how to manage different expectations and contradictory views? Project managers have to aware of the critical issues and decide on which factors the actual management has to act and perform. And of course to communicate to stakeholders and decision makers in order to promote transparency and timely endorsement.
Challenges in project management
It is key for the project management to communicate with all stakeholders, from project staff to decision makers and to external communities about what is planned, how is the progress and what are results. More specifically project managers have to clarify how they manage the challenges for each of these stakeholders with respect to:
- product development and delivery
- the coordination of distributed (in-kind and tendered) contributions
- performance of delivery and the associated risks
- the expectations of multiple stakeholders
- the implications for project organization and management
- and finally the accountability of the project as a whole and of the project manager.
All these challenges are not only targeted at delivering project results, but more important that these are sustainable. Each project is a transition between an actual operational reality to another new one. The project must be managed to the new situation that has to operate within a new reality of equipment, users, budgets and personnel. As such, the project manager has to be aware of the anticipated new context and move the project organization to an operational effective infrastructure.
Finally, it is very much the personal appreciation and management style of the project leader that will drive the project in such a way that it will succeed in implementing or transforming the operations of a research infrastructure.