The Future of the Research Enterprise: Summary of the CNI Report

The Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) released in August a report from one of their Executive Roundtable discussions entitled Beyond the Pandemic: The Future of the Research Enterprise in Academic Year 2021-22 and Beyond.  Participants in the June 2021 Roundtable included “senior library administrators, directors of research computing and information technology, and chief research officers”. (Note: CNI Executive Roundtables grant anonymity to institutional participants who contribute their insights. This policy is maintained in reports emerging from the Roundtables.)  The 16-page text focuses on discussions of the research enterprise at the institutional level, specifically focusing on how the pandemic may have altered expectations of research practices, laboratory spaces, staffing and other resources.

Not surprisingly given the current unevenness of state vaccination rates, the report indicates that “...Institutions are being increasingly overwhelmed by uncertainties and operational concerns related to the 2021-22 academic year”.

What follows are brief quotes from findings included in the report with the understanding that those whose interests are deeply vested in higher education and the research enterprise will want to review the full text. 

Research Activity

  • High-performance computing centers and regional networks have seen and facilitated more collaboration across groups of researchers at multiple institutions.
  • There is clearly a trend towards common, shared standardized computational research infrastructure extending across the laboratory-based research enterprise, with the presumption that this will be more resilient (and also more secure) than locally supported facilities developed and managed by individual research groups.
  • Researchers are interested in identifying available data sets relevant to their research projects and, with data repositories continuing to experience increased usage rates, this trend appears to be holding.
  • The process of preparing researchers involves the transfer of a vast amount of informal and tacit knowledge at all levels; the importance of this process has not been recognized sufficiently and these mechanisms have broken down significantly during the pandemic. 

Information Resources

  • Services and practices that have been in place during physical library closures and that are now being re-assessed are sources of friction.
  • There is an emerging crisis around libraries and born-digital (and exclusively digital) commercial content to support both research and instruction.
  • Organizations are grappling with how to prioritize collection digitization and how those decisions should be made. 
  • Density within enclosed spaces -- collaboration spaces, computer labs, experimental labs, performance areas, large classrooms, special collections, reading rooms, etc., -- remains a major question for future planning and current practices vary widely...Where new library building or renovation planning is underway, great uncertainty remains about what collections will look like and how to prepare accordingly.
  • Internally, cooperation across various institutional units (the research office, the library, central IT, academic computing, etc.) has strengthened. 

The report concludes that the research enterprise has proven itself to be adaptable but, while institutions have demonstrated instructional resilience during the pandemic, there are significant questions as to how successfully they have demonstrated research resilience. The report concludes with half a dozen high-level questions about research resilience and how it may develop in the coming years.