CSEE/CIEE Submission on the New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization

To whom it may concern,

The Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE) is a professional society with strong membership (~800 members) representing ecologists and evolutionary biologists across Canada. The Canadian Institute for Ecology and Evolution (CIEE) is Canada’s national synthesis centre for ecology and evolution. This is a joint submission; CSEE and CIEE have a long history of cooperation and many CSEE members have been very active within CIEE.

We are unable to offer a detailed assessment of the NDRIO plan. The call for submission came to us with less than three weeks notice – little time for a consultative process even in the absence of a global pandemic. Our members are overwhelmed with the demands of teaching and research adaptation to Covid-19 and simply cannot be called upon for in-depth review at this time. However, we are pleased to offer some advice that is more at the level of principles. The NDRIO will be, and its component activities have been and will continue to be, important to the research ecosystem in Canada. There has been considerable success in their administration, but there is room for reflection and improvement.

We would consider these points to be among the important principles that should guide NDRIO and the digital/​computing services available to researchers in Canada:

  • Straightforward access with low administrative overhead. We have been pleased with the ease of accessing computing resources via Compute Canada; little time is wasted on completing and submitting applications and reports. We hope NDRIO processes will be designed with specific attention to minimizing administrative load for users.
  • Support for smaller institutions. Canada has some very large universities and other research institutions, but also many medium and small ones that are home to outstanding researchers doing world-class research. Access to digital/​computational resources should be easy for researchers across institutions regardless of size.
  • Support for first-time and inexperienced researchers. NDRIO should ensure the availability of training and technical support for inexperienced users of digital infrastructure. The deployment of resources to training is an investment in HQP, which is a tangible output as important as published research results.
  • Support for basic research while avoiding the temptation to dedicate resources to boutique” industrial and entrepreneurial programs. In Canada, there appears to be endless political pressure favouring applied”, translational”, or entrepreneurial” research over basic science. While there are clear intellectual rewards to, and economic benefits from, applied work, it should not be favoured over the basic, curiosity-driven research that underpins scientific progress in the longer term. NDRIO should not prioritize one type of research over another and should resist calls for special programs for applied work unless they are balanced by investment in similar programs for basic research.
  • Constant attention to considerations of equity, diversity, and inclusion within NDIRO’s mandate and operation. NDRIO’s governance, operation, and all other policies should be examined through an EDI lens to ensure equitable access to resources by all researchers. This includes attention to implicit biases, systemic biases, and to developing systems for ensuring access for researchers who have been disadvantaged in the past.
  • New infrastructure designed to meet two competing needs of researchers. Different projects require different data management approaches. For some, data must be easily made open, accessible and shared, and for other projects, data must be handled in secure ways, particularly end-to-end encryption and storage on Canadian servers. As an example, we note that there is a particular gap in teaching platforms that enable participation of students at multiple universities across Canada, yet conform to federal and provincial standards for securing personal information. Although each university has designed its own FIPPA-compliant teaching platforms, these are firewalled against access by students outside of the home university, creating a substantial hurdle for national training programs run by the CIEE.

We hope that none of these principles will surprise you. We would be pleased to hear that all are already being enshrined as core values of NDRIO.

Sincerely,

Stephen Heard
President, CSEE

Diane Srivastava
Director, CIEE