Jisc response to Demos report, Research 4.0: Research in the Age of Automation

Author: nathalie.carter@jisc.ac.uk
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Liam Earney

“Jisc welcomes the Demos report, Research 4.0: Research in the Age of Automation.

With the convergence of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), it is critical that we support the UK’s research sector to be fully equipped to make the most of the opportunities an ever-evolving technological landscape offers.

As the UK’s digital research body, Jisc is committed to enabling the UK to be a scientific superpower, supporting the sector to grow, to collaborate globally and to innovate by levelling up existing digital infrastructures.

Jisc will be considering the recommendations in this report that are relevant to our role. We aim to continue to demonstrate the value of the UK’s research sector now, encouraging excellence and integrity, while working with the sector towards achieving the government’s target to deliver 2.4% UK GDP investment for R&D.1

We are already seeing the government make bold moves that will further enable the use of innovation and AI across society, particularly with the recent publication of the National Data Strategy, and Jisc is keen to play a part in enabling the stategy’s aims, as it evolves

The potential of an increased use of AI in the research sector cannot be underestimated. The government estimates AI’s contribution to the UK could be as large as 5% of GDP by 2030. This report delves into the potential for the research sector to make even more of the opportunities AI creates for research, highlighting the potential future barriers to the sector and possible solutions that will ensure the UK continues be an innovative world leader in research.

We are particularly interested in a selection of recommendations from the Demos report and below we set out how we can build on them. We look forward to progressing these in discussion and collaboration with stakeholders, funders, and our members.

To inform our own ideas for supporting the future of research, Jisc has run five virtual focus groups with organisations including the Royal SocietyBritish Academy and the University of Sheffield, to bring together research communities, helping to shape our research strategy, based on our members and customers’ feedback. The focus groups were oriented towards R4.0 as only one strand of our research strategy.”
Liam Earney, executive director, digital resources, Jisc.

Demos recommendations

Post-16 digital skills

Demos report recommendation

The current post-16 curriculum should be reviewed to ensure all pupils receive a grounding in basic digital, quantitative, and ethical skills necessary to ensure the effective and appropriate utilisation of AI.

This recommendation stems from the interviews Demos conducted, highlighting the suggestion that humanities and sometimes social science undergraduate and graduate students can lack the necessary digital and quantitative skills to fully utilise AI technologies in research. This can be tracked back to the post-16 curriculum, where skills in STEM are not always covered in non-STEM subject curricula.

As we continue to see rapid developments in the use of AI technologies, Demos’s report suggests that ensuring all pupils have a knowledge of the skills needed to ensure successful and suitable use of AI in future study, helping to reduce any potential disparity in skills across different research disciplines.

Jisc response

Helen Clare

“With the current proliferation of data and it increasingly being used by AI technologies in ways that have significant impact on our lives, it’s important for everyone to understand how these technologies work and how they affect us. From shopping and finance to health and education, we need to be able make informed decisions about our own data and understand how decisions are being made about us. Understanding AI technologies, including their limitations and biases, is vital to build trust and confidence in their use.

When it comes to working with AI tools, data skills are at the core, from ensuring data is captured well enough to be analysed by the tools, to ‘cleaning’ the data when it isn’t. Jisc’s work on skills and training in the European Open Science Cloud ensures we are at the forefront of identifying and supporting these fundamental data skills.

A grounding in these skills from the post-16 level will benefit everyone and Jisc is well-placed to support this development, through sector wide working on previous contributions to digital skills frameworks and curricula, such as the recent digital standards developed as part of the Welsh Digital 2030 framework.  Working with others in the sector, we could help identify skills and knowledge appropriate for different levels of education, including supporting institutions in improving their own support for early- and mid-career researchers.  Jisc’s digital experience insights and digital capability services are ideal for identifying needs and helping members take steps towards meeting those needs.”

Helen Clare, senior e-infrastructure strategy manager (skills)

Ethics of AI in research

Demos report recommendation 

Universities should ensure undergraduate and postgraduate courses in AI embed a ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ approach in the curricula to anticipate the negative impacts of AI and designing methods to avoid or mitigate them.

This recommendation is the conclusion of some concerns raised in the interviews Demos conducted where interviewees highlighted that not all technical researchers are trained in appreciating the ethical implications of using new AI techniques in research.

Demos’s recommendation is that universities have a role in mitigating any potential risks. They should ensure appropriate and thorough training for researchers in how to understand and mitigate these ethical risks. In turn, the believe this will continue to uphold the integrity of UK research.

Jisc response

Victoria Moody

“Jisc facilitates a research strategy forum comprised of pro-vice chancellors for research from UK universities. The forum has the role of advising on Jisc’s strategic direction in the support of research, including for postgraduate researchers.

We already know that researchers are clear in their understanding of the importance of maintaining responsible, trustworthy, reproducible research that is secure and transparent. With members being a key group that we derive strategic direction from, understanding the potential concerns – raised by some researchers during Demos interviews – that researchers are not always supported to be completely aware of the ethical risks associated with their research is therefore key. 

Jisc is well-positioned to continue to enhance support for responsible research and innovation in key areas of active research and research management. We note the need to embed ethics and integrity in technical applications as they evolve in autonomy across the research ecosystem. Our focus is on exploring the potential for reproducible and linked standards in automated research practice.

We further note the potential of such standards in scaling approaches to, for example, research reproducibility and reuse, promoting ethics and integrity. Persistent identifiers (PIDs) — for people researchers, their organisations, their outputs and other research objects such as data, analysis code and the use of labs and equipment, are integral to responsible research and innovation.

Supporting researchers and research managers with mechanisms to facilitate credit and recognition for their contribution is key. Jisc is working to establish a national UK PID consortium, building on the success of the existing UK ORCID consortium, which we have led since 2015.

We are building on work to date that addresses the ethics of AI approaches in education and considering what guidance we can provide universities to support them in responsible research and innovation in automated research practice”
Dr Victoria Moody, research strategy lead


Demos report recommendation

A UK-wide audit of research computing and data infrastructure provision is conducted to consider how access might be levelled up.

Jisc response

Jeremy Sharp

“The Demos report highlights the disparity in access to critical digital research infrastructure services that is needed for carrying out cutting edge research across institutions, regions, and disciplines.

Interviews conducted by Demos confirmed that the known increase in demand for compute, data and connectivity services is resulting in a heightened need for more data storage capacity and fast networks that can, for example, move large datasets quickly. 

Jisc has fed extensively into UKRI’s Research Infrastructure Roadmap 2019 (pdf), in-turn informed by four whitepapers and a previous UK-wide infrastructure audit. Through Jisc’s management and development of the Janet Network, we understand the importance of maintaining and investing in infrastructure in the UK’s ability to act as a scientific superpower.

Solutions for reducing the disparity of access to digital infrastructure and continuing to support development of Authentication, Authorisation and Accounting Infrastructure (AAAI) that could eventually enable a single set of credentials to log in to any digital research infrastructure resource, are of significant interest to Jisc.

The growing role of AAAI as a vital component of the UK’s future e-infrastructure is a result of fast-paced developments over the last few years in the research process where AI could play a stronger role in research processes. Ensuring there is commonality of access and infrastructure support across all research disciplines and UK regions, with parity of access to high-speed connectivity, security and data storage, will ensure the UK research sector can fulfil its potential in delivering innovative, world leading research. 

We know the UK is already maximising the capability of Janet – the super-fast, high-powered e-infrastructure at its disposal. The UK’s participation in globally significant projects such as the Large Hadron Collider and the Square Kilometer Array simply would not happen without it. 

And that is why today, more than ever, resilient and efficient research infrastructure is of fundamental importance to the future of the UK’s research capability and confidence in using AI technologies, maintaining the UK’s ranking as fifth in the Global Innovation Index 2019.    

Already, headway has been made through the UKRI’s infrastructure roadmap to which Jisc has contributed, in part via our leadership of the enabling capability working group, that I chair. This group feeds into the digital research and infrastructure governance group, alongside the other working groups, that focus on networks, AAAI, data centres, security and other issues that affect the capacity of existing infrastructures to support research.  

The work of these groups is vital to ensuring that the UK has a robust, secure and high-performing research e-infrastructure that enables the UK to continue to take part in global research collaborations and support the requirements of researchers and universities. Such infrastructure is crucial in supporting the undertaking of globally leading research, needing underpinning by continued capital and recurrent investment.

Jisc is part of the Global Research and Education Network (GREN) of national and supranational research and education networks. A member of the GREN CEO Forum security working group, Jisc is working on global security requirements for NRENs. Jisc is also a member of GÉ​ANT, the pan-European infrastructure connecting European research and education networks together and globally. By participating in international policy groups.

Jisc helps the sector exploit technology in support of research. We will continue to feed into the ongoing roadmap work, as we have previously with the white papers produced last year, that focused on key areas for development to ensure the UK can continue to produce cutting edge, innovative research via supported infrastructure.   

With the onset of open science and big data placing even more demands on existing infrastructure, it’s important that ongoing capital and recurrent investment in critical national digital infrastructure  is made to support the levelling-up of economic opportunity across the nations and regions of the UK. This will also support innovation using advanced technologies as outlined in this report which really will take the sector from surviving to thriving in the next decade.”
Jeremy Sharp, Janet chief technology officer

Ways to get involved

For Jisc, this report is a further step in us enabling conversations with our members, funders and policy makers about how we can collectively support the research sector toward digital transformation.

We are setting up a digital research community group, which will consider topics such as how advanced technologies, including artificial Intelligence, will change how research is carried.

We would also encourage anyone who is interested to sign up to our free course exploring AI in ethics, run by Andrew Cormack, Jisc’s chief regulatory officer.

Find out more and download the Demos report, Research 4.0: Research in the Age of Automation.


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Jisc response to Demos report, Research 4.0: Research in the Age of Automation
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