Making Campus Connections: Facilitating Research Computing and Data Support at NC State University

February 17, 2023

Moira Downey, MSIS
NC State University Libraries

The technological infrastructure required to conduct efficient, secure, and productive research is increasingly complex, making it difficult for researchers to find, evaluate, and select research computing and data (RCD) resources to support their investigation. At the same time, access to these resources is increasingly critical to securing research funding and supporting the research mission of the university. Many institutions have begun to develop related services in an ad hoc fashion, resulting in decentralized ecosystems that can be difficult to navigate.  As recent research and recommendations suggest, there is a growing need for coordination among university units to help researchers understand their options, reduce duplication of effort, and better integrate support for the research lifecycle (Ruediger et al., 2021; Ali et al., 2022; Whitehead et al., 2021).

North Carolina State University (NC State) is a public, R1 institution with strong curricula in STEM, Agricultural Sciences, Design, and Textiles. NC State faculty and staff conduct leading-edge research in biomedical engineering, materials science, food safety, translational medicine and more, garnering $384 million in sponsored research awards from a broad range of funders for fiscal year 2021. Given the scope of its research portfolio, access to cyberinfrastructure (CI) and computational and data support is of growing interest to an array of interested parties on campus.

Building the RFS

Recognition of this emerging concern began building at NC State as early as 2017, prompting, among other efforts, an investment in secure computing and a redesign of the existing campus IT Governance structure (Armour, n.d.). The Libraries and the Office of Information Technology collaborated in 2018 to establish the role of Research Data and Infrastructure Librarian (the first such to be shared between units). Conceived as a link between the Libraries, with expertise in research data management, and campus IT staff, the position was intended to coordinate with the new University Research Storage service to help investigators access and provision storage for their research data. It quickly became evident that storage was only one piece of a much larger picture. A series of informal campus conversations in 2019 among the Libraries, OIT and the Office of Research and Innovation (ORI) confirmed the need to develop an institutional strategy for providing RCD support, and conversations quickly coalesced into a more formal effort. At the request of the Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and CIO, Senior Vice Provost and Director of Libraries, and Vice Chancellor for Research, a planning team convened in 2020 to conduct a gap analysis of RCD support. The team surveyed existing services within the Consulting and Analytics Cores, University Libraries and OIT and conducted structured interviews with providers to learn more about the scope, service model, costs, communication strategies, and governance of the identified services. In combination with additional data from recent campus-wide needs assessment surveys, interviews with NC State researchers, and a benchmarking exercise using the Campus Research Computing Consortium’s (CaRCC) RCD Capabilities Model, these conversations identified a number of gaps. A top priority to emerge was a lack of clarity about available services, the scope of each service, and how to efficiently request and receive assistance. The planning group recommended the creation of a campus-wide Research Facilitation Service (RFS) to address this immediate need.

Early in 2021, a Research Facilitation Service Design Task Force was charged with designing and implementing the high-level vision advanced by the planning team. The Task Force recommended a “prototype” approach to deploying the service, identifying the College of Sciences (COS) as a suitable pilot partner due to its size, broad array of research needs, interdisciplinary position, and existing relationships with key COS personnel, namely the Director of IT and the Associate Dean of Research. The group also endorsed the formation of an advisory body to provide a cross-campus perspective on sustainability and growth plans for the service. Concurrent with the work of the Task Force, the Research Data and Infrastructure Librarian was promoted into the role of RFS Director and three new FTE were funded to carry out the work of the nascent service: a Research Facilitator and Research Integrations Consultant to be situated in the Libraries, and a Research Solutions Consultant in OIT.

Communication is vital

Establishing and reinforcing existing communication channels has been integral to the RFS service model from the outset. The RFS and COS pilot began at the start of the 2021 fall semester with a series of introductory meetings with the COS research office, administrators, and local IT. These sessions served to educate members of COS about the purpose and goals of the emerging RFS; to explore the various types of research being conducted within COS and discuss what RCD infrastructure might be needed to support that research; to document current COS organization, staff, and communication channels, along with any unmet needs or challenges; and to ensure that COS stakeholders understood the goals of the service pilot and could commit to its success.

As the COS pilot commenced, the RFS team also spent several months engaging RCD-supporting groups across campus, from the High Performance Computing team to staff affiliated with the new Data Science Academy (DSA). The two major aims of these semi-structured discussions were to introduce the RFS to campus colleagues while learning about the scope of the services each group provides and pain points experienced in delivering those services. Notes from these sessions seeded a knowledge base the RFS hopes to expand as collaboration with these units continues.

Challenges and lessons learned

Throughout the pilot, the RFS engaged with researchers outside COS as capacity has allowed, facilitating requests from 7 out of 10 colleges, including 17 departments, 1 core facility, and 2 centers, on issues as straightforward as receiving several terabytes of data from an external collaborator, to more complicated questions about modernizing existing research workflows and infrastructure. Several requests have underscored gaps in existing campus services, notably around data storage and support for software development. RFS staff have annotated and cataloged these gaps and are building documentation to support advocacy efforts going forward. While the service has made progress, there have also been a few challenges. The ability to meet researcher needs is occasionally constrained by available resources on campus, particularly with regard to staffing. Especially for researchers working in disciplines where RFS staff lack domain expertise, there is a learning curve in identifying appropriate parties on campus with whom to consult. One early conversation with a faculty member working on a grant to underwrite an investigation into STEM education revealed the need to consider including members of NC State’s Digital Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) team in RFS consultations–a discovery that ultimately led to a fruitful partnership with DELTA. Finally, working through the operational details of a matrix-model team and learning to partner with units distributed throughout campus (e.g., sharing help tickets, establishing communication preferences and harmonizing customer service practices) has been both iterative and time-consuming.

RFS staff are now developing a plan to extend services beyond COS to the College of Natural Resources (CNR), which will be shaped in part by some key takeaways from the pilot and the challenges highlighted above. Foremost among these lessons is that partnerships are essential to the success of the service. In an environment where resources may be limited, one way to advance the conversation around difficult issues and build campus momentum is to cultivate partnerships with parties who are working in related areas. Engaging other units on campus and cataloging existing resources can also uncover champions for the service among faculty and staff; for the RFS, developing a close collaboration with the director of the Genomic Sciences Laboratory, a core facility on campus, has been one such success. Another important lesson is that there are numerous interests and goals among parties who may collaborate via the RFS: researchers want to quickly get the answers and resources they need to conduct their research; IT staff want to help alleviate researcher pain points while also keeping institutional infrastructure secure and compliant; and university administrators want to help secure funding while staying abreast of current and emerging trends in research computing. The RFS is well positioned to listen and synthesize the needs of each group, find areas of overlap, and advocate for resources, but the ability to do so is inextricably tied to the ability to build trust and relationships with campus partners. Any effort to instill this trust must be sensitive to the varying levels of bandwidth and potentially competing priorities of many parties.

Looking ahead

A major goal of the RFS is to integrate the work of data service and research cyberinfrastructure (CI) providers and connect those groups when necessary. These connections are becoming especially critical as the research data landscape rapidly changes (Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2022; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.). It’s an opportune time to foster connections between these groups and to highlight researchers’ needs and perspectives to campus partners providing support, designing systems and making policies that impact the research enterprise. The role the RFS has to play in this work has the potential to be substantial, and we look forward to expanding our presence at NC State.


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