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How Science Foundation Ireland is maximizing its performance through analytics

5 janvier 2022

Par Libby Plummer

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Elsevier’s data is helping us invest more strategically, says the Head of Strategy at Science Foundation Ireland

National research funding organizations collect a wide range of data on their activities. However, it is not easy for a national research funder to access broader national and global level information on trends and opportunities. Elsevier’s much wider datasets and access can support national research funders to think strategically and plan accordingly.

One such national funding body, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)S’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, is partnering with Elsevier to identify opportunities where Ireland could gain a competitive advantage. For example, as part of this partnership, Elsevier’s support is facilitating a potential program that aims to target future national needs and focus on areas of science with momentum.

SFI – a government agency under the aegis of Ireland’s Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and ScienceS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre – currently funds 16 SFI Research CentresS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre. Comprising networks of research institutes, collaborations and industry partners, each of these Research Centres focuses on a different area of scientific research, including the future of agriculture, AI and advanced manufacturing.

Looking to the future of the SFI Research Centres program, SFI is increasingly turning to new data sources to understand which growing areas of research Ireland has the potential to become world leaders in. SFI aims to identify areas that, if invested in, could bring competitive advantage to Ireland in future through the formation of new emerging “proto-centres.”In the same way international peer review is vital for allocating funds to specific projects, data analytics has a critical role to play in setting the broader framework under which these awards will ultimately fall.

Data and analytics provide crucial insights

SFI has partnered with Elsevier for a number of years, and this latest project began 2 years ago. The ongoing analysis uses data from abstract and citation database Scopus and research performance analytics tool SciVal. This information is being used to inform decisions on which areas of research will benefit most from strategic funding and in turn benefit the local economy.

As Dr Peter CliffordS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, Head of Strategy at SFI, explained:

We're deliberately trying to find the correct sectors of research for these proto-centres. This means having a certain amount of excellent research capacity within the country. We also want these sectors to be important to the Irish economy in the next 5 to 10 years.

Portrait photo of Peter Clifford

Peter Clifford, PhD

We want the proto-centres to be in emerging areas of research; there’s no value in us starting a new centre in an area which is already heavily invested in globally. We're only a small country, so we can't compete with the scale of research in countries like the United States, China or Germany. But what we can do is leap first into new emerging areas and establish ourselves as global leaders in these sectors. We have already used this approach successfully with our current Research Centres.

We couldn't have done this analysis without the Elsevier data. This has allowed us to identify which areas of science have the most momentum behind them.

Portrait of Andrew Plume

Andrew Plume, PhD

Elsevier’s unique Scopus and SciVal data is just one of the components SFI is using to think strategically. Using this data, SFI can look at several factors, including citations and measures of momentum.

"SFI was looking for an objective third-party voice, or a ‘sanity check’ on this particular project,” said Dr Andrew Plume, Elsevier’s Senior Director of Research Evaluation and Chair of the International Center for the Study of Research (ICSR) Advisory Board. Andrew is one of those responsible for delving into the data based on SFI’s questions. The ICSR is one of several Elsevier departments that has collaborated on the analytical work for SFI’s proto-centres project.

The need for hard evidence – for funders and the research community

The ability to back up strategic decisions with evidence is crucial for funding bodies like SFI. “Throughout our collaboration, SFI wanted to ensure that they had a firm, evidence-based rationale to show why they had made certain decisions,” Andrew explained. “It was very much about building confidence within the local research community, as well as showing the international research community that Ireland is basing its research decisions on clear evidence.”

Taking a data analytics-based approach to inform funding strategies is clearly beneficial for SFI, but what does it mean for researchers?

It is hoped that this method will give researchers in Ireland the confidence to know that strategic decisions have been based on clear data. “Additionally, it gives groups of researchers who are currently outside of the Research Centres system the opportunity to scale up to compete with those already in the system,” Peter explained.

In this project, SFI is looking outside of the Research Centres to see where there is critical mass within the wider research community in areas where Ireland can play a leading research role. Where appropriate, researchers can be brought together to scale up their activities to become the Research Centres of the future.  This would help address concerns that were raised during Consultation process in 2019 around SFI’s new strategy Shaping Our Future, where some members of the Irish research community felt that those who were already working within SFI’s Research Centre system had a significant advantage over those who were not.

While the data from Elsevier provides a good basis for SFI to get an overall view of the quality of research that’s already going on in Ireland, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. “We're deliberately using both quantitative and qualitative analysis,” Peter explained:

Quantitative data comes with caveats, so we’re now in the qualitative phase. We’re effectively checking the results of the quantitative work with local experts. Data can never tell you the full story. You need to have the expert qualitative sense check as part of the process.

While the local community and other data sources played a key role, we couldn’t have done this exercise without Elsevier’s participation. They were extremely supportive, and their data is very comprehensive.

A fruitful and rewarding collaboration

Elsevier colleagues said they were impressed with SFI’s holistic approach when looking at the data. Andrew Plume noted:

They were taking a really contextual view of all of the questions they were asking. They weren't simply looking inwards to understand what was going on in their own backyard. They were asking much broader questions about how Ireland and Irish research fits into the global research infrastructure.

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Jorgos Achtsivassilis

Jorgos AchtsivassilisS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, Head of Customer Discovery & Innovation at Elsevier, described the proto-centre project as “a best-case collaboration”:

SFI is an example of how a national or government funder can engage with publishers or commercial firms in a very productive and efficient way to help them develop the national funding and research strategy.

While Jorgos was Elsevier’s main point of contact with SFI for this project, he stressed that there are multiple working relationships at various levels, which is a key part of the project’s success. Dr Nick Fowler, Chief Academic Officer at Elsevier, noted:

This has been a rewarding partnership because we are working on high priority problems that have international relevance, and both SFI and Elsevier are committed to delivering results.

Portrait photo of Nick Fowler

Nick Fowler

Nick, who works with research leaders including university heads, funders and government research departments to build effective partnerships, added:

We aim to have a good understanding of what funders are trying to achieve. This project illustrates how we seek to support the strategic goals of funding bodies like SFI.

Elsevier data is also helping SFI on other projects, such as assessing possible collaborations with Northern Ireland. Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, there are potentially more opportunities for working together in a way that will enhance the strengths of both regions.