GLANCES OF THE LANDSCAPE: Many environmental research infrastructures struggle with showing impact

Our blog series Glances of the landscape offers sneak peeks of the global research infrastructure landscape and the research process of the RISCAPE project. Sneak peeks are provided by the researchers of the RISCAPE project. It is time to take a look at the environmental research infrastructure landscape with Emmanuel Salmon.

Picture: Rawpixel / Unsplash

“In a way, I am lucky that I am in charge of mapping the environmental research infrastructure landscape in RISCAPE. In this field, there is a so-called ENVRI cluster, a community of environmental research infrastructures that have for long worked together. That was an easy starting point for our research”, says Emmanuel Salmon, a work package leader in the RISCAPE project.

The work started already in 2017. A couple of times a year, the ENVRI community organises ‘ENVRI weeks’ that gather the whole community together for a week to discuss, work and share ideas. Salmon participated in two of them.

“During the weeks, I met with heads of research infrastructures and interviewed them. The aim was to find out who are their partners outside of Europe, who are their counterparts and similar organizations they work or would like to work with. This is how I managed to gather a list of all, or at least many, possible interesting organisations outside of Europe.”

After this phase, Salmon had a list of 101 organisations in his hands. It was clear not all of them would fit to be a part of the analysis. Eventually Salmon ended up with about 50 infrastructures that met the RI definition set at the beginning of the RISCAPE project.

“I have now interviewed almost all these organisations in depth. It has been nice to notice that  people are happy to be interviewed, they are usually eager to talk about their organisation.”

The landscape is diverse

Already at this point of the study, it is evident that some countries have better abilities to run research infrastructures than others. This usually has to do with money.

“In Australia, they have a national roadmap for research infrastructures, which helps to drive the evolution of the landscape and make long-term plans. On the contrary, a Brazilian interviewee told me they are constantly struggling with funding and they can never be sure that they will still exist in five years. Japan is also interesting because they are quite sustained but organized differently. The research infrastructures there are all usually embedded in agencies that are very much government controlled”, says Salmon.

There are environmental research infrastructures nearly all over the world. Still, there are places that Salmon describes being ‘significantly underrepresented’.  

“In South America, outside of Brazil, I did not find any infrastructure that would have matched our conditions. So is the case in the Middle- and Far East. It seems that Russia is completely absent from the landscape. Although there are certainly interesting organizations there, they did not show up in discussions with the European RIs so we did not investigate the area. Continent-wise Africa is challenging, even though there are some developed research infrastructures in South Africa”, says Salmon.

Quite a lot of the environmental infrastructures studied in RISCAPE are distributed infrastructures that collect data which they then provide for researchers and other users. Usually, these RIs hope to provide information to support policy-making.

“Then there are of course infrastructures that maintain or make available instrumentation. Or infrastructures that operate more like businesses, like in the United States, for example.”

The challenge of impact

During the interviews, one theme especially caught Salmon’s eye: Almost every organisation is struggling with how to measure impact.

“What is universal, is that everywhere the funders, governments and other stakeholders are asking the research infrastructures to show their impact. This becomes tricky when the vast majority of RIs in the environmental science domain basically produce data. It is very difficult to show how the data can be translated into impact”, Salmon explains.

The ways for measuring impact varied across RIs. Some follow publications, some count the downloads of the data and some have carried out impact assessments. Salmon thinks sharing of best practices regarding the measurement of impact would be beneficial for most research infrastructures.

“This could perhaps be a topic in the RISCAPE final report. But this, of course, depends on whether there are similar or supporting findings in other domains, too”.

All in all, Salmon would like to see research infrastructures cooperate more than they do now.

“It surprised me how little these different RIs cooperate although they are tackling the same challenges everywhere. They do know each other but it seems that the regional barriers are still quite high.”  

Salmon thinks that the lack of cooperation rarely has to do with competition but more with practical questions.

“People probably have enough to do with their own things. Or at some point, different infrastructures have adopted different data policies, for example, and before cooperating you should be able to harmonize the data. And this is a huge work. Although it would benefit the whole planet.”

Emmanuel Salmon is the International Cooperation Officer and the Interim Head of Unit, Strategy and International Cooperation of ICOS ERIC.

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