Interview Heike Neuroth
Heike Neuroth, TextGrid coordinator at the SUB Göttingen, on the sustainability of virtual research environments and the limits of historically grown funding infrastructures.
What can you tell us about sustainability of virtual research environments?
Neuroth: This is a huge issue for TextGrid, as it basically is for any virtual research environment. And up to now, there are hardly any approaches. I think it is rather evident that neither researchers nor universities should pay to use a service. But because Grid-based virtual research environments specifically provide for the mutual usage of allotted resources, there is also, amongst others, a problem related to the federal government and the federal states: if, for example, resources that are available in a computing centre outside of Lower Saxony are funded by the ministry of that federal state, we in Lower Saxony cannot readily access these resources, and hence cannot collaborate on the respective resources with local scientists. We are only allowed to use those resources, hardware, and software, that have been mutually procured in the framework of the Grid Special investments (EUR 25,000,000 approx.). But those will expire by the end of 2012. From then on, we actually are not allowed to access the resources of other federal states, because their usage will be limited to local researchers. This means that we are heading towards a conflict: federal state acquisitions only for researchers from the respective federal state versus growing cooperation or collaboration across federal states and internationally, on a European level and also on a larger international level.
Do the funding structures that have developed through history need to be revised?
Neuroth: That would be good, as, given their current design, they no longer match the era of growing networking and collaboration. Humanists are increasingly collaborating supra-regionally, sharing research data and using tools mutually, therefore at least certain parts of the funding capital should be acquired nationally. Yet, because of the discussion of federalism, the federal government currently maintains a sense of restraint towards such investments, emphasizing that the funding of universities and their infrastructure is the federal states’ responsibility. Hence, in Germany, the sustainability of virtual research environments – comprising scientific networks from various federal states – is meeting both structural and political limits.
Is there a need for new juridical concepts?
Neuroth: I would say there is a need for structural political concepts, certainly considering the general juridical framework.
Is this problem limited to the humanities?
Neuroth: Actually, it occurs wherever data is collected, processed, or stored trans-regionally. Solutions on an organisational level hitherto only exist for some computationally intensive disciplines like astro- or particle physics and climate research. Humanities are facing another problem which, to my knowledge, natural scientists do not have, as they have been well-organised and coordinated for decades and can therefore act in a much more assertive manner: the humanities are very heterogeneous, both as regards the disciplines’ cultures and their resource requirements, formats, and the design of research data. One idea of TextGrid was to establish a large national network with the funds of the federal government and states, covering all humanistic disciplines. This would allow for a precise tracking of the resources or services – e.g. metadata, annotation tool, lemmatizer – a particular network is using. The network could then divide funding from the federal government and states, and transfer some of the services accessed or needed by the experts into a so-called business model.
You are talking about this model as a past model? Is it off the table?
Neuroth: Not completely, but it would require several years of preparation. We would have liked to have explored on a conceptual level within TextGrid whether this would be possible in principle. We wanted to know what amount of money we actually were talking about, and whether funding by the federal government and states was feasible. However, the BMBF signalled that, for formal reasons, this was not an option for TextGrid. Instead, will now focus on TextGrid and, for example, pursue the following questions: How many research groups will now actively use TextGrid? How much does it cost to maintain routine operability? What are the costs of maintenance, or the ingest of necessary updates, respectively? And what are the costs of a further development of TextGrid, given the particular demands of a research group?
Does your computing centre have the capacity for TextGrid data?
Neuroth: The GWDG (Gesellschaft für wissenschaftliche Datenverarbeitung mbH Göttingen) has a very large storage area. But, for example, consider the data at the Institut für Deutsche Sprache, located in Mannheim / Baden-Württemberg. Let’s assume they wouldn’t build up their own data centre, but requested it here in Göttingen. They would have to pay for it, whereas the GWDG is free of charge for use by Göttingen researchers. And we aren’t just talking about storage capacities here, but also about computing capacities.
Which solutions are being discussed?
Neuroth: Within WissGrid, we have tried to establish solutions by stating that part of the funding should not go to the computing centres directly, who would be holding resources without anyone knowing when and by whom these will then be accessed. Instead, we have suggested that the funding be transferred to the virtual research environments, which, as brokers between scientists or research groups on the one hand and the computing centres on the other hand, have the most accurate overview of which resources are needed, and who could then search for the best offer – actually a current practice on the free market. Thus they can choose the computing centre offering the best conditions in that specific case. The question of sustainability doesn’t affect only TextGrid. In the past, other services in the humanities have been developed, and are, like TextGrid services, in danger of getting lost in space by the end of the project period. At the same time, more and more centres like the Göttingen Centre for Digital Humanities (GCDH) are being established, and are located rather close to the experts’ demands. Principally, we need a register listing all services in Germany and which researchers, research groups, or research disciplines intend to use them. What do these services cost in terms of operation, maintenance, but eventually also as regards further development, for example for regular software updates? As far as I know, there currently is no single virtual research environment in Germany that has implemented feasible concepts that could serve as a guideline for us.
If funding expires, TextGrid will come to an end as early as 2012. Where, in that case, will data and services developed by TextGrid be located?
Neuroth: They would be spatially distributed. Some services are the responsibility of specific universities, like Wurzburg or Darmstadt. The repository will be situated in Göttingen, with the SUB (State and University Library) in charge of it. Yet I don’t think we actually will be getting to a point where, in May 2012, everything will be switched off. Many research projects have already invested in TextGrid. This is what I am worried about most: basically, we only are at the beginning right now! A research community is forming; the interest in TextGrid is immense. Research networks are about to start working with TextGrid, and it gives us headaches not knowing how to offer them a stable and reliable service after 2012, without political support and sponsors. Hence we are working hard to develop concepts, and I do hope we all mutually will have concrete ideas by early 2012.
In case there won’t be trans-regional funding, could you restrict the project to Lower Saxony?
Neuroth: TextGrid, from the outset on, was based on cooperation and related to various federal states; hence I would hardly consider such a scenario a success. We cannot motivate and support scientists to study in a globally networked environment, to cooperate and collaborate, and then withdraw into provincial politics. Sorry for putting this rather drastically. Yet I don’t think it is the individual researcher who should solve the problem of sustainability, but we all have to collaborate on this, first and foremost politicians, sponsors, infrastructural institutions, and science.
Are you behind schedule?
Neuroth: Actually, we are ahead of schedule. We have just, as part of our Digital Humanities ceremony, released version 1.0 of TextGrid that was initially planned for May 2012. The 1.0 version doesn’t yet contain everything that was scheduled for May. But we decided to move this item up in the agenda, as urged by research groups, who wanted to finally work with TextGrid. We certainly underestimated the problem of sustainability. Also as regards WissGrid – where sustainability is a major focus – we couldn’t proceed as fast as we thought and intended. In fact, we cannot solve this alone. We need sponsors in the federal government and states, as well as policy makers.
Interview by Esther Lauer.