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Infrastructure Series: Funding Research Infrastructure


This eighth entry into the year-long FORCE11 Blogs series on scholarly infrastructure is an interview with Kay Thaney.

Funding Research Infrastructure

FORCE11 Blogs: Infrastructure Series This series started off well downstream of scholarly publishing, with digital preservation. This month, as we near the end of 2020, we turn to a very early stage of research communication—funding and its related infrastructures. Here, Josh Brown, Co-founder, Research and Strategy at MoreBrains Consulting interviews Kay Thaney, Executive Director of Invest in Open (IOI) who describes a community-centered approach to open technology. Maybe even more than money or technology, collaboration once again emerges as key to improving the research landscape.

Interview with Kay Thaney

Interview by Josh Brown

What does ‘infrastructure’ mean to you/Invest in Open, in the context of research funding?

Infrastructure has historically come to reference systems and services that without their existence, the advancement of society would be significantly hampered.

When we talk about open infrastructure, we are speaking to the network of open tools, services, and systems that research and scholarship rely on.

How do you describe what you do/how the funding of research works to people unfamiliar with it?

Invest in Open - IOI Our work is anchored in helping others invest in open technology. We firmly believe that the way we have historically sustained key pieces of tooling and infrastructure for research is insufficient, both financially and in terms of staffing, development support, and ongoing maintenance.

The funding landscape for this sector relies on a few key sources of capital — both social and financial. Grants from philanthropic and government funders support pieces of the landscape, traditionally the first few years of ramp up and development. Institutions also support key pieces of infrastructure through their own development, in-kind staffing for project maintenance and governance, and through membership-based models (traditionally varying between $5000 and $20,000 per institution).

For all of the groups currently dedicating part or all of their budgets to open technology in higher ed and research, it is difficult to estimate how much in total is being invested and where those dollars are going.

We aim through our work to help shed light on where capital is flowing, where there are concentrations and gaps, and how much things like maintenance of a system cost over a period of time so that we can have a better sense of where funding can and should be allocated to more effectively support the research ecosystem on the whole.

What is the one thing you wish ‘Silicon Valley’ would do or do differently to better support research funding?

I wish more groups in industry modelled reciprocity and ways of giving back (financially as well as in staff time) to open source projects that their work — and research on the whole — depend on.

We’ve seen this just this week with the announcement of the Anaconda Dividend , where a portion of their revenue will be dedicated open source initiatives and projects that advance data science. We’ve also seen in the Jupyter community dedicated staff members in industry who are paid to work on and develop open source projects as key members of those communities (where the company has relied on that tool or service).

Now, imagine if commercial vendors, service providers, publishers, and industry were to follow suit and provide staff-time as well as a portion of their revenue generated back to fund ongoing maintenance, development, and community engagement. The difference could be significant.

We’re also seeing a lot of energy around open source and institutions currently with the emergence of more Open Source Program Offices (OSPOs for short), which is bringing industry dollars, in many cases, to fund dedicated offices and centres at institutions dedicated to open source. What’s missing from that in large part are the voices from within libraries and research who are heavily investing in and managing big open infrastructure efforts already at the institution, and their development and maintenance needs are largely being unmet, despite the eagerness to have students work on open source development. I’d love to see more active engagement to coordinate and tie together the various interests and work of the institution to support their current investment and communities more effectively.

What is the one thing you wish the open research community better understood about the challenges of funding research infrastructure?

To be blunt, that more money is not going to magically solve the problems we’re facing. Sure, more financial support is always front of mind (it is for me, too!), but in many cases, the issue isn’t necessarily about doling out *more* money for the network of tools and services we have right now, it’s about reallocating and shifting budgets away from solely propping up legacy models and ways of thinking from the print era to meet the current need for open, trustworthy, reliable infrastructure.

If we’re just looking to sustain the past, we’re in trouble — and in my opinion, going to continue to spin our wheels. We still don’t have a clear sense of how much funding is being dedicated to open research software and services from some of the top philanthropies or government agencies. It’s a challenge to understand the investment from institutions, where staff time and support is often wrapped into “overhead” costs, and services and funding come from multiple departments and cost centers across campus.

Beyond that, there’s also the fact that the current funding model has led to a perceived sense of scarcity, pushing open projects to compete rather than collaborate, to build new features instead of maintaining their work and deepening their level of service for their communities. We talk about consolidation as just a bepress or SSRN or Mendeley issue, as a fear that commercial entities will continue to buy up pieces of infrastructure, both for- and not-for-profit. That fear is legitimate for a number of reasons, but there’s also the necessity in talking about contingency plans and healthy consolidation of services to really walk the walk in building for resilience and sustainability over the long term, and that might mean less funding for a single project to benefit all of research.

What other areas of infrastructure do you work most closely with/are most dependent on (& how)?

An additional dimension to our work involves looking at the staffing and human infrastructure powering open technology development, maintenance, governance and stewardship. That volunteer labor and community engagement is often an invisible cost we gloss over in our estimations and recommendations, while also being a core pillar in this work.

Explain in some detail the issue you think is the most vexing/interesting/consequential/etc.

One of the biggest challenges we’re seeing in our work to explore collective funding models and approaches for sustainability are the questions of what gets supported and who gets to decide.

Balancing the need for foundational platform support while also not spreading resources too thin or crowding out new, higher risk, innovation and startup efforts is hard. It’s easy to say what’s not enough when it comes to funding and sustainability. Collectively choosing what to support as a common, shared, and sustained infrastructure comes with making decisions on what to deprecate. In our current research effort, the Future of Open Scholarship project, we spoke with over 90 institutional leaders, supporting societies and organizations, and while there’s broad alignment on the need for more efficient and different models to resource the underlying technology and services scholarship depends on, we continually come up against the issue of who’s priorities come first.

It’s a sticking point that often leads to inaction, of individualism leading to more local development, home-team loyalty for technology, versus a shared stack that may be able to be more broadly supported and made available at a lower cost.

Put in another way, if there were a way to sustain through institutional, philanthropic and/or government subsidy one open repository solution, which one would it be — and who would cover the transition and migration costs for other institutions to move from their competing or complementary solutions to the one put forward as “core”?

In a perfect world, what would a researcher’s experience of reporting their activities and outcomes to you be like?

In an ideal world, this information would be automatically pulled into something like an ORCID or researcher profile, and be made available openly for the researcher and their institution — not sold back to the institution by a commercial provider. As a not-for-profit organization designed to serve decision makers in research, I’m excited to see efforts such as the Academic Observatory out of the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative and the work of Our Research in essentially building open, accessible, and values aligned research intelligence services for institutions and consortia. It’s about time that we become less dependent on commercial bodies to tell us what we should already know.

What are your favorite blogs, conferences, Twitter accounts, etc. to keep with on the wider funding community?

I’m a big fan of reaching outside of usual conversation circles to draw inspiration and models from other fields. That’s largely done through reading a variety of information sources, continuously asking who else is doing this, and seeking viewpoints that differ from my own.

For example, I look to groups like GiveWell for their transparent process and service to the community in making recommendations based on cost-effectiveness and affordability. I continuously pull from the best of human-centered design and participatory action research to study how best to work with and for communities of decision makers on solutions that best advance their needs but also can be applied in practice. And I’m continuously looking for pools of funding beyond our usual suspects that can be aligned and reallocated towards shared infrastructure needs, such as across consortia, societies, and national frameworks.

My hope is that IOI can become over time more of a clearinghouse to make information about funding, costs, investment strategies for open more readily available, accessible, and approachable than it is today. There’s a lot that we don’t know, and I’m excited to find creative ways to start bridging those gaps in our collective understanding.

Favorite little-known fact about or unsung hero of research funding?

Hmm, this is a tough one!

What question do you wish we asked but didn’t and why?

I wished you’d asked what we think a path forward looks like (spoiler: stay tuned for more on this in the coming weeks as we share more following our Future of Open Scholarship project …)

More information: Kaitlin Thaney and Invest in Open

Kay Thaney Photo Invest in Open Infrastructure is an initiative dedicated to improving funding and resourcing for open technologies and systems supporting research and scholarship. We do this by shedding light on challenges, conducting research, and working with decision makers to enact change.

Kaitlin Thaney is the inaugural Executive Director of Invest in Open Infrastructure, a non-profit initiative dedicated to improving the funding and resourcing for open technology research relies on. Her career has been centered around open infrastructure organizations; helping them think strategically about program design, participatory engagement, and sustainability.

Previously she served as the Endowment Director for the Wikimedia Foundation, where she led development of a fund to sustain the future of Wikipedia and free knowledge. Prior to joining Wikimedia, Thaney directed the program portfolio for the Mozilla Foundation, following her time building the Mozilla Science Lab, a program to serve the open research community. She was on the founding team for Digital Science, where she helped launch and advise programs to serve researchers worldwide, building on her time at Creative Commons, where she crafted legal, technical, and social infrastructure for sharing data on the web.


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