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Nectar Virtual Labs investment has huge economic and research impact: new report


1 November 2017

Nectar Virtual Laboratories (VLs), which provide digital interfaces, tools and data to online research communities, are generating a return on investment of up to 138 times their cost, according to a new report by Victoria University academics.   

Estimating the value and impact of Nectar Virtual Laboratories, written by the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies for the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources project (Nectar), studied three Nectar-supported VLs across different disciplines.

Five methods of value measurement were used, including the impact the VLs have on research and how much users would be willing to pay for the service if it did not already exist.

The return on investment varies depending on the metric and the associated method of calculation, however the report has found that return on investment (ROI) is at least double the investment for every measure of each of the VLs studied, indicating the services have a significant economic and user impact. By one measure the value of the VL was over 100 times the cost of investment.

The three VLs covered by the study are:

The five value measures used

  1. Efficiency impacts: the efficiency gains to VL users such as the value of time savings (productivity) and the avoidance of costs
  2. Willingness to pay: what users would be willing to pay for the VL if it did not already exist
  3. Willingness to accept: what users would be willing to accept in order to forgo the VL
  4. Additional research impact: the value to economic growth due to the VLs
  5. Returns to additional research: the value of the additional research made possible due to the VLs

By the Willingness to accept method of calculating value, the three VLs recorded annual benefit to cost ratios ranging from 4.6:1 to 35.6:1.

Similarly, the Additional research impact method demonstrated an annual benefit to cost ratio ranging from 2.4:1 to 21.8:1.

The calculations are based on an estimated investment of $4.4 to $7 million from the launch of the VLs up to 2020.

VLs enabling innovation and collaboration

Virtual Laboratories, also known as Science Gateways, can increase innovation, industry translation and research impacts by increasing collaboration and efficiency. By logging into an online VL interface, researchers can access both data and cutting edge tools from their own computer’s web browser, instantly collaborating with colleagues around the world.

Feedback from users captured in the report highlights the high value of VLs by researchers.

Dr Keith Schulze, Image Analyst at Monash Micro Imaging, Monash University, said:

“The tools for automated handling and storage of data provided by Characterisation Virtual Laboratory [CVL] are a key enabler for researchers to derive the most benefit from these large datasets, i.e. they spend less time struggling with data transfers and more time extracting interesting information from their data.”

“Moreover, CVL and Nectar provide a crucial platform on which tools to analyse and visualise this data can be developed and deployed.”

Working towards the Australian Research Data Cloud

The incorporation of technological advances in research infrastructure has long been a key focus of the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), a program that drives research excellence and collaboration between 35,000 researchers, government and industry to deliver practical outcomes.

The 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap recognises that through these investments and other national, state and institutional investments over the past decade, Australia has built an internationally competitive eResearch system. Like other NCRIS investments, VLs are supported not only by NCRIS, but by co-investment from multiple stakeholders.

The Roadmap recommends the creation of an Australian Research Data Cloud to deliver a more integrated, coherent and reliable system to meet the needs of data-intensive, cross-disciplinary and global collaborative research.

Nectar works in partnership with two other projects that make Australia’s research data assets more valuable for researchers, research institutions and the nation: the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) and Research Data Services project (RDS).

The VLs studied for the report

Biodiversity and Climate Change Virtual Laboratory (BCCVL)

The Biodiversity and Climate Change Virtual Laboratory (BCCVL) is a “one stop modelling shop” that simplifies the process of biodiversity-climate change modelling by offering advanced analysis, modelling and visualisations. Users can access this functionality directly from their desktop with the added flexibility of running models using their own data sets, or by accessing information already within the BCCVL system.

Characterisation Virtual Laboratory (CVL)

The Characterisation Virtual Laboratory (CVL) integrates some of Australia’s imaging equipment with specialised High Performance Computing capabilities, and data collection nodes, providing scientists with a common environment for analysis and collaboration. Within imaging sites, the CVL has established the automatic capture and storage of imaging data to the cloud. This enables users to access their imaging data through the CVL website and perform analysis using the software tools provided by CVL.

Genomics Virtual Laboratory (GVL)

The Genomics Virtual Laboratory (GVL) provides a cloud-based suite of genomics analysis tools for life science research and training. Biologists without computer science training can go straight to a user-friendly platform which hosts a suite of tested bioinformatics tools and pipelines for fast and consistent data analysis. Adopted both locally and overseas, the GVL has already been recognised as a quality platform to help address the shortage of bioinformatics expertise around the world and manage the complex, multiple-layered data analysis tasks confronting life scientists today.

Humanities Networked Infrastructure (HuNI)

The researchers also began an exploratory study of Humanities Networked Infrastructure (HuNI) without calculating its return on investment. HuNI combines data from 32 of Australia’s most significant cultural datasets into a large humanities and creative arts database. These datasets comprise more than 17 million authoritative records relating to the people, organisations, objects and events that make up Australia's rich cultural heritage. HuNI also enables researchers to work with and share this large-scale aggregation of cultural information.