Research Technology

Professor Roy Ruddle: Research Technology

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, and the REF outcomes affect universities’ reputations and about £2 billion per year of research funding. LIDA was established in 2014, so in this report I reflect on the ways in which LIDA’s research technology has underpinned the University’s data analytics research in the REF2021 period (1/8/13 – 31/7/20). 

Research technology comprises hardware, software and wetware. In terms of hardware, LIDA provides the University’s only ISO27001-accredited IT platform (the Integrated Research Campus; IRC), which is mandated by some data providers we work with, and without which some 57 research projects could not have taken place. Included within those are eight projects where researchers use the IRC within LIDA’s three physical Safe Rooms to conduct research with identifiable sensitive personal data, data with high commercial/research sensitivity, or other high-risk data. 

Software includes both computer applications and the training that researchers need to use it effectively, on the IRC and the University’s IT platforms for other, less-sensitive data. Of course, most of the applications have been developed by third parties (some commercial; others open source). LIDA’s main contribution lies in running specialist short-courses (from half day to a full-week) in data science programming (R; Python), geographic information systems (GIS), statistics and data visualization. The 80 courses run during the REF period were attended by 1600 people, including 700 PhD students, 420 researchers/academics, and 210 employees of external private/public sector organisations. 

Wetware is arguably the most important aspect of research technology, and means people with the specialist expertise and knowledge necessary to make best use of the hardware and software. Here University IT (platform architectural assurance, design, development, testing, operation and training), LIDA’s four-person Data Analytics Team (data stewarding, management, analytics, research software engineering and information governance) and the almost 300 academics/researchers/PhD students who make up LIDA academic community (core subject-matter expertise; knowledge of state-of-the-art analytical methods) all make important contributions. 

For 2021 we have two main priorities. First, to complete development of LIDA’s new cloud-based platform for research with sensitive data. That platform will provide: (a) a step-change in our capability in terms of the range of software that researchers can use, and the scale and complexity of the data they can analyse and models they can run, (b) far greater capacity for new projects, and (c) allow a much greater proportion of research costs to be recovered. Second, is knowledge sharing across LIDA’s research community about workflows, methods and tools to bring even greater rigour and significance to our leading-edge research. 

Professor Roy Ruddle, LIDA Deputy Director for Research Technology.

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