The Virtualization of Research Collaboration

Virtualization is the creation of a virtual (rather than an actual) version of something.

The term ‘virtualization’ originated in the computing world and has come to represent the creation of a virtual device or resource, such as a server, network, operating system or storage device to enhance the computer’s overall output or efficiency.  For example, in storage virtualization you are pooling the physical storage capacity from multiple network devices into a single virtual storage device that is managed from a central console.

Ever hear the expression, ‘Two heads are better than one’?  Well, what if you can have the knowledge and expertise of two heads but have the administrative overhead and oversight of just one head?  In that case, surely one big head would be better than two small heads.   Twice the value, half the size…  This is virtualization in a nutshell.

With a universal goal of centralizing tasks while improving scalability and productivity, virtualization of resources seems to be an ongoing trend in the world.  Just as IT infrastructures are virtualized to capitalize on the handing off of resources between multiple applications and VPNs allow us to interact with secure systems without leaving our homes, the natural transition of virtualization is to move to the other less technical realms of the real world.  Point in fact, the National Science Foundation is now expounding upon what we’ve learned about virtualization in the computing world and is tailoring its diverse methodologies to pilot the virtualization of research institutes.

On October 5th, 2011, the United States NSF announced its Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) initiative.  This initiative aims to establish virtual institutions stretching across distinct campuses and countries, which unites physically distant institutions into one ‘virtual institution’ with many centralized objectives and tasks.  NSF is currently supporting three pilot virtual institutions which will serve as the cornerstone of the SAVI initiative, showcasing both bi-lateral and multilateral projects across three distinct fields: wireless communications, mathematics and statistics, and physics of living systems.

SAVI-funded projects will receive $50,000 to $400,000 per year for up to five years targeted at maintaining/supporting the collaborative efforts between multiple physical institutions. The funds are not available as standalone opportunities, but rather as supplements to existing projects or aspects of future proposals to open grant opportunities sponsored by NSF Directorates and Offices. The primary objective of this initiative is to stimulate collaborative projects between STEM researchers and educators from multiple countries. The end goal is to establish long-standing international research partnerships that sustain themselves long after NSF SAVI funding has ended.

NSF will only support the US-based partner, requiring that members of the proposed projects from outside of the US obtain funding from their own corresponding NSF-equivalent agency for their own research and activities.

We expect that additional details and information will be forthcoming from NSF and more information should continue to flow onto the Program Information page.  Appropriate contacts at the various directorates and offices can also be found on the SAVI website as well as summaries of the three pilot projects selected by NSF.

SAVI is truly a unique and innovative approach to encouraging collaborative efforts as it is not a standard competition or stand-alone opportunity.  A traditional downside of many large scope opportunities that require multilateral collaboration is that there is often not enough time to construct the international team and finalize the associated proposal before the deadline.  With SAVI funding provided as a supplement or add-on to an existing opportunity, the collaborating organizations theoretically will have already planned out their proposed work and/or prepared partnerships in advance.

Overall, this virtualization program will encourage institutions to share expertise, equipment, facilities, and data.  As national budgets continue to boil over, this is a prime example of a funding agency wisely promoting a mechanism to establish a collaborative environment, where multiple institutions can leverage their combined knowledge and expertise to more effectively and efficiently produce valuable science.

With virtualization, ‘One head is better than two…’

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