Iowa State-led research group secures $300,000 NSF grant to improve the reusability of publicly funded research data

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Sarah Nusser, professor of statistics, is leading a research team that was awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the accessibility and reusability of research data. Nusser is the principal investigator for the project, which is a collaboration between Iowa State University and scientists at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute. Nusser is also a visiting professor at the Biocomplexity Institute.

The team’s work addresses a long-standing challenge that cuts across all scientific disciplines—from anthropology to zoology—how to develop and implement research practices that allow scientists to share their data with colleagues, researchers at other institutions and the public at large.

“This effort will shed light on the ways researchers create datasets that can be utilized by other scientists in novel contexts,” said Martin Halbert, NSF science advisor for public access. “By examining the practices which foster the reusability of data, this project will advance the understanding of research methodologies and issues applicable to many broad areas of science.”

The benefits of data sharing
Making data shareable—and ultimately more reusable—cultivates an open-door mindset in the research community. Such practices can strengthen the rigor of studies or spark new and exciting interdisciplinary collaborations. Repurposing data amplifies the reach of important conclusions, findings and breakthroughs that would otherwise remain confined to one scientist, lab or research group.

“The advantages of sharing and reusing data are far-reaching,” Nusser said. “Our goal is to help the entire research ecosystem understand exactly what researchers need to share their data in a way that maximizes its impact—and we hope to improve and increase these practices.”

The team’s work will also help researchers fulfill a federal mandate issued by the Office of Science and Technology during the Obama administration. This 2013 policy was also supported by the Trump administration and requires data from research funded by federal agencies to be shared—as a standard part of research practices—unless it contains confidential, proprietary or national security information.

“The rationale is that publicly funded research products should be publicly available,” Nusser said. “Our research is about building a road map that shows institutions how to support their researchers in these data-sharing efforts.”

Making it happen
The team’s research, which is funded through 2022, involves a three-pronged approach to promoting and improving data reusability.

First, they are conducting interviews with researchers from a wide variety of fields and career stages. Next, insights gleaned from the interviews will be used to develop a framework for identifying data-sharing best practices. Finally, the team will propose a path for implementing those practices throughout the research life-cycle.

A virtual workshop, slated for June, will bring together data producers, data users and other stakeholders to discuss, critique and refine the framework.

“We hope to identify additional areas that need to be explored as we continue promoting open science and access to data; and we’ll also learn what has generated success for researchers and where the trouble spots have been,” Nusser said. “Our goal is to publish a reference of sorts, and I hope it’s used as a tool for making infrastructure more supportive for researchers.”

Data sharing varies greatly across disciplines
Nusser’s team will pay attention to a range of scholarly fields which vary in the maturity of their data-sharing practices.

Although researchers in some fields, such as high-energy physics and genomics, have routinely shared data for decades using consortiums and repositories, the majority of scholarly disciplines have far less experience with sharing data. Researchers in many of these fields are beginning to share data, but their disciplines may not have laid the foundational groundwork that is needed to build and support these practices.

“We are committed to helping all scientists and scholars engage in open-science practices and showing them how they can share high-quality information that withstands public scrutiny,” Nusser said.

Co-Principal Investigators Gizem Korkmaz, research professor, and Alyssa Mikytuck, postdoctoral associate, both from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, recently interviewed researchers who work with data from economics, epidemiology, biology, engineering, linguistics, environmental science, sociology, astronomy and agronomy. Insights from these interviews will further inform their research.

Korkmaz also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how data reusability is critical to the advancement of science.

“COVID-19 research has shown us that high-quality and reproducible data can make major impacts,” Korkmaz said. “Researchers outside of public health have used COVID-19 analytics, and this sharing of data has accelerated the time-to-market of vaccines as well as other research breakthroughs.”

Team of experts
Nusser’s team brings together a strategic blend of expertise and knowledge to this NSF-funded research.

“This project team has regularly contributed to the national discussion of public access to research data,” Halbert said. “Their latest efforts will continue to benefit the scientific community and the public as a whole.”

With nearly three decades of academic and executive experience, Nusser is a nationally recognized expert on survey statistics and methodology. Her research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several federal statistics agencies. Nusser served in strategic, high-level roles at Iowa State, including vice president of research and director of the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology. She was recently named a senior research fellow with the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Korkmaz is an associate professor at the Social and Decision Analytics Division of the Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia. She is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on social and economic networks, involving mathematical and computational modeling and empirical analysis.

Mikytuck, a postdoctoral fellow in the Social and Decision Analytics Division at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, brings to the project expertise in psychology and public policy as well as qualitative research methods.

“We’re in a pretty big evolution in how we conduct scholarship at this point,” Nusser said. “Our team looks forward to putting fresh eyes on the critical issues of research transparency and data reusability.”