Identifying barriers to and enablers of successful projects

Online access to data, computational tools, and resources can be invaluable to researchers, whether it’s offered in a format called a science gateway, portal, or hub. Nevertheless, funding for the ongoing development and maintenance of gateways is far from guaranteed. This prompted the question, "What makes one science gateway more successful than another?" 

The goal for this project was to understand why some projects change the fundamental ways that a community conducts its research while other projects do not. The study consisted of a series of cross-disciplinary focus groups designed to identify the social and technical enablers of and barriers to successful projects. 

Start date: 9/1/2009
End date: 8/31/2011

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More and more research begins in the digital realm. Protein structures are created electronically, networked sensor data tracks the path of a hurricane, and computer simulations model the formation of the universe. This increasing amount of digital information and the ease of sharing this information and collaborating are changing the face of science and provide many opportunities to address the most challenging problems facing scientists and engineers today.  

The advanced cyberinfrastructure (CI) that supports research and discovery grows ever more powerful each day, yet these resources are not as accessible as desktop computing and the Internet. Frequently, use is mediated through science gateways or portals that facilitate the process of operating and understanding these powerful tools. Science gateways are defined as community-developed sets of tools, applications and data that is integrated via a portal or a suite of applications. Access to advanced CI tools through portals or gateways can increase the productivity of researchers, however these tools must have longevity to change the conduct of science in fundamental ways. 

To make research and development investments where they will have the most impact, it is critical to understand why some science and engineering gateway or portal projects change the way that science is conducted in a given community. This project identified some initial reflections on the goals of uncovering some of these characteristics of success and generated practical insights that drew on the strength of multidisciplinary perspectives. The study identified five key tensions that are challenges to gateway sustainability:

  • Funding: The evolving nature of gateways and difficulty in funding more operational or maintenance stages can lead to complications in aligning funding to development timelines. 
  • Project goals: Conflicts can arise between developers and end users of gateways when both expect to promote research interests, suggesting that it may benefit gateway programs to be split into components with their own success criteria.
  • Tools: Focus group participants debated the value and cost effectiveness of using professional software developers as opposed to open-source tools, or if pursuing other alternatives would be the most beneficial in developing and sustaining a gateway.
  • Community engagement: Gateways need to be focused on usability and reliability, and avoid alienating users by recognizing the importance of relevant and accessible content.
  • Rewards and recognition: Long-term gateway research does not fit the typical templates for evaluation, thus metrics must be identified to measure success in gateways, a factor that could help support longer-term funding.

This study represented a first step in identifying the pathways to the sustainability of science and engineering gateways. We found five key areas of concern: funding, project goals, tools, community engagement, and rewards and recognition. Participants offered many generative ideas that could help alleviate some of the issues associated with the five key tensions identified by researchers.

Results from an ensuing focus group and accompanying data used to identify disciplinary areas ripe for science gateway will hopefully provide additional resources and guidance to the National Science Foundation and the science and engineering gateways the organization supports.

Nancy Wilkins-Diehr at University San Diego was the principal investigator of the main grant associated with this project. For more information, reports, and a video about the project, please visit the project’s website here

Grants

Fundamental cyberinfrastructure for productive science and engineering: Identification of barriers to and enablers of successful projects, National Science Foundation: $97,497

 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…"