For decades, National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) have played a critical role in empowering research and education communities, by providing advanced ICT services for an affordable cost, and staying ahead of the commercial interests in anticipating next-generation services. In addition, these networks are empowering researchers across the globe to connect, communicate and collaborate, which has served as the foundation for many large-scale innovations. A prominent example would be the vast undertaking by researchers worldwide developed treatments and vaccines against COVID-19 in record time. Given the variety of roles played by these entities, it is vital to ensure the development and sustainability of NRENs.
Recently, a study was carried out jointly by LEARN from Sri Lanka and BdREN from Bangladesh to identify the needs of NRENs in the APAC region. Titled the NREN Needs Assessment (NNA), it was conducted by the Trans-Eurasian Information Network Cooperation Center (TEIN*CC) – the governing body of the [email protected] project. It was centered around exploring options to bridge the digital divide that exists between Asian NRENs and secure their long-term sustainability.
Resolving this digital divide required the development of a rigorous model that’d aid the evaluation to disburse funds effectively to drive the synergistic growth of NRENs across Asia. After many months of research, LEARN and BdREN have successfully created such a model, with additional insights and recommendations, thereby providing a framework to ensure the needs of different NRENs are met to empower academics and researchers regionally.
Sharing his views and highlighting the promise of the NNA report, the Executive Officer of [email protected], Louis Hyunho Choi, said, “We can enhance the effectiveness of the [email protected] by promoting customized and tailored activities based on NNA. It has produced meaningful and great results for [email protected] communities. This report is the result of our valuable efforts. I think that it would be great to use if this helps positive collaboration with R&E network communities and organizations. I’m confident that this NNA result will ensure the R&E Networks’ sustainability, and It will increase mutual cooperation between [email protected] communities.”
Understanding the challenges faced
Since the inception of the [email protected] project, there have been several submissions for funding, which has resulted in many positive outcomes. However, a digital divide was observed as some NRENs didn’t receive enough opportunities for growth as they weren’t among the winning submissions. With the co-prosperity of Asian NRENs being the ultimate goal of the [email protected] project, there was a clear need to conduct a baseline study to assess their needs. Hence, driven by the need to create a productive ecosystem for academics in Asia, TEIN*CC decided to develop a proposal to resolve this critical issue.
The aim of this research was to resolve the digital divide by creating a framework that can identify the needs of an NREN and offer a means to effectively allocate resources to meet them. The development of such a novel NNA framework provided several benefits. First, it would provide a means for several budding NRENs to grow in the short term. In the long-term, it will have a significant impact on the allocation of resources that’ll empower these networks to enjoy synergistic growth across the region.
The proposed solution by the NNA team
The collaborative efforts of the NNA team saw a framework developed to eliminate the digital divide by fine-tuning the process for allocating funds and other resources to meet the needs of NRENs. It was made possible by gathering information from individuals within the Asian NREN ecosystem.
The NREN Needs Assessment by the project team took on a novel approach for a proposal to ensure the effective utilization of funds in meeting the needs of NRENs. It sought to tackle the problem of the digital divide by developing a financing framework that would act as the ‘brain’ to create strategies that bring about positive change for an NREN. The framework analyzed various variables to bring about such outcomes, namely the NREN Maturity Level and a Needs Impact.
Both of the above-listed primary variables are novel factors. The Maturity Level will consider the scale of development an NREN lies in, thereby identifying its potential for growth. Whereas, the Need Impact will gauge how vital a specific need is within the Asian NREN ecosystem overall and how far-reaching the impact of implementing a solution for a specific need will be. Identifying these two factors was aided by implementing a Maturity Model (MM) and a Need Analysis Model (NAM), respectively, that considers multiple facets of all participating NRENs.
Finally, by taking these variables into account, it’s now possible to identify the specific maturity level of an NREN with a score out of 10. Paired with the Needs Impact, it’s now possible for TEIN*CC to determine where collective progress can be made in the region. Thereby, opening the road to bridge the digital divide between academic communities while recognizing the individual impact of each activity on a specific NREN. These efforts have resulted in the NREN Maturity Calculator, which is now accessible online.
The state of NRENs in Asia and the role of policymakers
Diving into the proposal by the NNA team, one can see the status of these academic networks in Asia. Out of the 14 NRENs studied, the maximum Maturity Index score was 7.6/10, with an average score of 5.2/10. Those that scored below average were NRENs in developing nations, with the exceptions of EdremNET from Mongolia and VinaREN from Vietnam. Whereas, excluding BdREN and DrukREN from Bhutan, those that scored above average were from Asian nations with strong economies.
Similarly, the Needs Impact Matrix has identified strengths and weaknesses across the region. The most pressing needs faced by most NRENs were CDN Services, Video Collaboration Systems, and Subscriptions to Research Articles and Licensed Applications. But a universal need shared by all NRENs, even those at higher maturity levels, is the necessity of increased support by policymakers and regulatory bodies to ensure sustained growth. Unanimously, all of the networks identified TEIN*CC as the key facilitator for such awareness programmes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the effects of such recognition from policymakers. NRENs that received such recognition were able to support their members in researching ways to combat the virus. Regrettably, networks that lacked such recognition could not offer similar support due to a lack of resources. Therefore, it’s of paramount importance that NRENs receive support from policymakers to ensure their sustained long-term growth, which offers valuable benefits to society.
The road ahead to empower academics across Asia
In closing, Principal Investigator of the NNA Project, Prof. Roshan Ragel stated, “Having identified the regional NRENs’ strengths, weaknesses, and needs, the NREN Needs Assessment report lays out a series of recommendations to bridge the digital divide in academia. Its primary recommendation is that the [email protected] project switch to a targeted funding scheme for its programmes to address the specific needs of NRENs.” In addition, the report encourages upcoming funding programmes to prioritize supporting those networks with lower maturity scores to bridge the gap.
Moving forward, the report also highlights the importance of cooperation between regional NRENs. The collaborative effort between LEARN and BdREN highlights how such collaborative efforts are critical to bridging the digital divide and ensuring the sustained growth of academic communities across the region.