Show me the money – the path to a sustainable Research Data Facility

Like many institutions in the UK, Cambridge University has responded to research funders’ requirements for data management and  sharing with a concerted effort to support our research community in good data management and sharing practice through our Research Data Facility. We have written a few times on this blog and presented to describe our services. This blog is a description of the process we have undertaken to support these services in the long term.

Funders expect  that researchers make the data underpinning their research available and provide a link to this data in the paper itself. The EPSRC started checking compliance with their data sharing requirement on 1 May 2015. When we first created the Research Data Facility we spoke to many researchers across the institution and two things became very clear. One was that there was considerable confusion about what actually counts as data, and the second was that sharing data on publication is not something that can be easily done as an afterthought if the data was not properly managed in the first place.

We have approached these issues separately. To try and determine what is actually required from funders beyond the written policies we have invited representatives from our funders to come to discussions and forums with our researchers to work out the details. So far we have hosted Ben Ryan from the EPSRC, Michael Ball from the BBSRC and most recently David Carr and Jamie Enoch from the Wellcome Trust and CRUK respectively.

Dealing with the need for awareness of research data management has been more complex. To raise awareness of good practice in data management and sharing we embarked on an intense advocacy programme and in the past 15 months have organised 71 information sessions about data sharing (speaking with over 1,700 researchers). But we also needed to ensure the research community was managing its data from the beginning of the research process. To assist this we have developed workshops on various aspects of data management (hosting 32 workshops in the past year), a comprehensive website, a service to support researchers with their development of their research data management plans and a data management consultancy service.

So far, so good. We have had a huge response to our work, and while we encourage researchers to use the data repository that best suits their material, we do offer our institutional repository Apollo as an option. We are as of today, hosting 499 datasets in the repository. The message is clearly getting through.

Sustainability

The word sustainability (particularly in the scholarly communication world) is code for ‘money’. And money has become quite a sticking point in the area of data management. The way Cambridge started the Research Data Facility was by employing a single person, Dr Marta Teperek for one year, supported by the remnants of the RCUK Transition Fund. It became quickly obvious that we needed more staff to manage the workload and now the Facility employs half an Events and Outreach Coordinator and half a Repository Manager plus a Research Data Adviser who looks after the bulk of the uploading of data sets into the repository.

Clearly there was a need to work out the longer term support for staffing the Facility – a service for which there are no signs of demand slowing. Early last year we started scouting around for options.  In April 2013 the RCUK released some guidance that said it was permissible to recover costs from grants through direct charges or overheads – but noted institutions could not charge twice. This guidance also mentioned that it was permissible for institutions to recover costs of RDM Facilities as other Small Research Facilities, “provided that such facilities are transparently charged to all projects that use them”.

Transparency

On the basis of that advice we established a Research Data Facility as a Small Research Facility according to the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) methodology. Our proposal was that Facility’s costs will be recovered from grants as directly allocated costs. We chose this option rather than overheads because of the advantage of transparency to the funder of our activities. By charging grants this way it meant a bigger advocacy and education role for the Facility. But the advantage is that it would make researchers aware that they need to consider research data management seriously, that this involves both time and money, and that it is an integral part of a grant proposal.

Dr Danny Kingsley has argued before (for example in a paper ‘Paying for publication: issues and challenges for research support services‘) that by centralising payments for article processing charges, the researchers remain ignorant of the true economics of the open access system in the way that they are generally unaware of the amounts spent on subscriptions. If we charged the costs of the Facility into overheads, it becomes yet another hidden cost and another service that ‘magically’ happens behind the scenes from the researcher’s point of view.

In terms of the actual numbers, direct costs of the Research Data Facility included salaries for 3.2 FTEs (a Research Data Facility Manager, Research Data Adviser, 0.5 Outreach and Engagement Coordinator, 0.5 Repository Manager, 0.2 Senior Management time), hardware and hardware maintenance costs, software licences, costs of organising events as well as the costs of staff training and conference attendance. The total direct annual cost of our Facility was less than £200,000. These are the people cost of the Facility and are not to be confused with the repository costs (for which we do charge directly).

Determining how much to charge

Throughout this process we have explored many options for trying to assess a way of graduating the costing in relation to what support might be required. Ideally, we would want to ensure that the Facility costs can be accurately measured based on what the applicant indicated in their data management plan. However, not all funders require data management plans. Additionally, while data management plans provide some indication of the quantity of data (storage) to be generated, they do not allow a direct estimate of the amount of data management assistance required during the lifetime of the grant. Because we could not assess the level of support required for a particular research project from a data management plan, we looked at an alternative charging strategy.

We investigated charging according to the number of people on a team, given that the training component of the Facility is measurable by attendees to workshops. However, after investigation we were unable to easily extract that type of information about grants and this also created a problem for charging for collaborative grants. We then looked at charging a small flat charge on every grant requiring the assistance of the Facility and at charging proportionally to the size (percentage of value) of the grant. Since we did not have any compelling evidence that bigger grants require more Facility assistance, we proposed a model of flat charging on all grants, which require Facility assistance. This model was also the most cost-effective from an administrative point of view.

As an indicator of the amount of work involved in the development of the Business Case, and the level of work and input that we have received relating to it, the document is now up to version 18 – each version representing a recalculation of the costings.

Collaborative process

A proposal such as we were suggesting – that we charge the costs of the Facility as a direct charge against grants – is reasonably radical. It was important that we ensure the charges would be seen as fair and reasonable by the research community and the funders. To that end we have spent the best part of a year in conversation with both communities.

Within the University we had useful feedback from the Open Access Project Board (OAPB) when we first discussed the option in July last year. We are also grateful to the members of our community who subsequently met with us in one on one meetings to discuss the merits of the Facility and the options for supporting it. At the November 2015 OAPB meeting, we presented a mature Business Case. We have also had to clear the Business Case through meetings of the Resource Management Committee (RMC).

Clearly we needed to ensure that our funders were prepared to support our proposal. Once we were in a position to share a Business Case with the funders we started a series of meetings and conversations with them.

The Wellcome Trust was immediate in its response – they would not allow direct charging to grants as they consider this to be an overhead cost, which they do not pay. We met with Cancer Research UK (CRUK) in January 2016 and there was a positive response about our transparent approach to costing and the comprehensiveness of services that the Facility provides to researchers at Cambridge. These issues are now being discussed with senior management at CRUK and discussions with CRUK are still ongoing at the time of writing this report (May 2016). [Update 24 May: CRUK agreed to consider research data management costs as direct costs on grant applications on a case by case basis, if justified appropriately in the context of the proposed research].

We encourage open dialogue with the RCUK funders about data management. In May 2015 we invited Ben Ryan to come to the University to talk about the EPSRC expectations on data management and how Cambridge meets these requirements. In August 2015 Michael Ball from the BBSRC came to talk to our community. We had an indication from the RCUK that our proposal was reasonable in principle. Once we were in a position to show our Business Case to the RCUK we invited Mark Thorley to discuss the issue and he has been in discussion with the individual councils for their input to give us a final answer.

Administrative issues

Timing in a decision like this is challenging because of the large number of systems within the institution that would be affected if a change were to occur. In anticipation of a positive response we started the process of ensuring our management and financial systems were prepared and able to manage the costing into grants – to ensure that if a green light were given we would be prepared.  To that end we have held many discussions with the Research Office on the practicalities of building the costing into our systems to make sure the charge is easy to add in our grant costing tool. We also had numerous discussions on how to embed these procedures in their workflows for validating whether the Facility services are needed and what to do if researchers forget to add them. The development has now been done.

A second consideration is the necessity to ensure all of the administrative staff involved in managing research grants (at Cambridge this is a  group of over 100 people) are aware of the change and how to manage both the change to the grant management system and also manage the questions from their research community. Simultaneously we were also involved in numerous discussions with our invaluable TRAC team at the Finance Division at the University who helped us validate all the Facility costs (to ensure that none of the costs are charged twice) and establishing costs centres and workflows for recovering money from grants.

Meanwhile we have had to keep our Facility staff on temporary contracts until we are in a position to advertise the roles. There is a huge opportunity cost in training people up in this area.

Conclusion

As it happened, the RCUK has come back to us to say that we can charge this cost to grants but as an overhead rather than direct cost. Having this decision means we can advertise the positions and secure our staffing situation. But we won’t be needing the administrative amendments to the system, nor the advocacy programme.

It has been a long process given we began preparing the Business Case in March 2015. The consultation throughout the University and the engagement of our community (both research and funder) has given us an opportunity to discuss the issues of research data management more widely. It is a shame – from our perspective – that we will not be able to be transparent about the costs of managing data effectively.

The funders and the University are all working towards a shared goal – we are wanting a culture change towards more open research, including the sharing of research data. To achieve this we need a more aware and engaged research community on these matters.  There is much advocacy to do.

Published 8 May 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley and Dr Marta Teperek
Creative Commons License

One thought on “Show me the money – the path to a sustainable Research Data Facility

  1. Given the RCUK drives to try and reduce indirect costs, and the fact that they have a mechanism for allowing charging through facilities, which you clearly tried to use, it seems strange to me that they did now allow you to include what clearly seems to be facility as a direct cost. I would be interested to know their rationale for this. Indeed if you were able to charge as a direct cost then you could imagine a future where you could charge others for the service… A shared facility, perhaps these are no longer flavour of the month?

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