Enzo Brienza, sales manager, InterSystems, discusses why higher education institutions need to consider collaboration with other organisations to generate value from research data
Higher education institutions across the UK are often at the forefront of global research, with many undertaking significant efforts in the development of the UK vaccination programme against COVID-19. Approximately three-quarters of all publicly-funded research and development (R&D) takes place in UK universities. Last year the Government announced plans to increase public R&D investment to £22 billion per year by 2024-25, showing the importance of R&D to the UK economy, particularly following eligibility for European funding has changed following Brexit.
However, despite the significant role universities can play in R&D, restricted budgets suggest they are facing increased pressure to do more with less and the value of their research is under constant review from government bodies to ensure it supports efforts to drive innovation and boost the economy. As higher education institutions look for a solution to these issues, collaboration will be essential to maximise the value of their research data. As universities have historically found it difficult to share and integrate data, they must also overcome this hurdle to be able to fully capitalise on the opportunities research collaboration presents.
Why collaboration is vital to generate added value
Collaborating with other institutions globally can open up a world of opportunities for higher education institutions. Working with universities overseas can offer students and staff new experiences, a more diverse curriculum, and a chance to develop relationships on an international level. It also presents an opportunity for universities and their students to make a significant contribution to society, with some institutions playing pivotal roles in cancer research and curing human diseases. On a financial level, partnering with overseas universities and hosting their students can help to generate additional revenue in the form of grants, for example.
Another option when it comes to collaboration on research is to work with enterprises. For some businesses, outsourcing R&D to universities can make good financial sense as they are able to deliver on projects in a timely and efficient manner, but at a lower cost, that would be possible internally. Universities that capitalise on the opportunities of working on research with commercial entities may be able to work on a wider variety of R&D projects and could invest the extra revenue generated into internal initiatives and enhancing the student experience.
It is also possible that by having a more flexible approach to research and collaboration with an innovative approach, the universities sector and courses could become more attractive to students and businesses.
Adapting to data sharing
Traditionally, higher education institutions have had a siloed IT infrastructure, based largely on legacy systems, which can make sharing data, even between departments within the same institution, a challenge. Therefore, as collaboration on research hinges on exchanging data with external parties, data integration and interoperability should become priorities for universities looking to maximise the value of their research data and their potential to be involved in such initiatives.
Working with technology partners to implement a modern data architecture, without “shifting and lifting“ their existing technology investments, can help universities in this regard. This approach will enable higher education institutions to more seamlessly and securely share data between systems and will also give them faster access to their research data. All of which is important to capitalise on the opportunities presented by being able to collaborate with external parties on R&D.
Other sectors have seen great success with adapting their systems to integrate and share data, with healthcare institutions paving the way in this area. With significant parallels between the education and healthcare sectors, universities could look to healthcare for guidance to ensure their setup is more conducive to collaborating with other parties.
Within both sectors, compliance with data standards is critical, since a key requirement is for machines to talk to machines, systems and applications. For healthcare systems, this can be facilitated using FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) the newest of the main NHS standards for data interoperability. The aim is to concentrate on a build-out that does not require the data itself to move between systems, and for the data to be capable of outliving any system using it.
In the university sector, data standards are also important not only because of the constant transfer of data between departments internally but also because they can enable the sharing of huge amounts of research data with partners and other institutions.
For those working within IT in higher education, operating with a large number of different applications and systems and an ever-growing volume of data is likely to be a significant challenge. Without effective integration, processes will remain clunky and inefficient, and secure data sharing may be difficult, which could be hindering their ability to fully embrace opportunities to collaborate more widely. As such, data integration and interoperability are of critical importance.
The larger impact of these initiatives
Using research as the driver to improve their ability to share and integrate data both internally and externally, and taking learnings from the healthcare sector to achieve the needed interoperability, will likely pay dividends for higher education institutions. Not only will it open them up to greater opportunities in terms of being able to collaborate with third parties internationally to provide a richer offering to students and generate more value from R&D, but it will also stand them in good stead to provide the increasingly digital experiences students desire.