Experts Talk Closing the Digital Research Skills Gap

Read the recap of the second ARDC Leadership forum, where a panel of experts discussed the digital research skills gap in Australia and how we might narrow it.
Vector art of half a dozen paper airplanes; an orange band at the bottom

A panel of experts weighed in on uplifting digital research skills in Australia to meet the ever-changing and increasing demand in academia and beyond at the latest ARDC Leadership forum.

Held online on 14 September 2022, the forum was the second of the ARDC Leadership Series events. The series aims to provide decision makers in academia, government, and industry with the opportunity to work through some of the biggest data challenges facing Australian researchers. We looked at sharing sensitive and identifiable human data at the first event.

Joined by a panel of 5 experts and facilitated by Dr Sue Barrell AO FTSE, member of the ARDC Board, this forum focused on the digital research skills gap – specifically where it impacts most, the roadblocks, and actions to aid in narrowing the gap. The panel included:

  • Ann Backhaus, Education and Training Manager, Pawsey Supercomputing Centre
  • A/Prof Linda Beaumont, Chair of the EcoCommons Scientific Advisory Committee, Macquarie University
  • Prof Paul Bonnington, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Infrastructure), The University of Queensland (formerly Director, Monash eResearch Centre, Monash University)
  • Bernadette Kelly, Director, National Research Infrastructure Policy, Australian Government Department of Education
  • Dr Simone Richter, Director, Science Digital Transformation, CSIRO.
The photos of the panel members. From left to right: Doctor Sue Barrell A O F T S E, Ann Backhaus, Associate Professor Linda Beaumont, Professor Paul Bonnington, Bernadette Kelly, and Doctor Simone Richter

Impacts of the Gap and Why We’re Striving to Narrow It

Rosie Hicks, CEO of the ARDC, said in her opening remarks that the need for digital skills in the workforce is as much an issue for the research sector as it is for industry. Whether it be a researcher – who sources, uses, and communicates data every day – or an enabler of research tools and technology, they need various digital skills to do their job and do it responsibly. Even executives, who may not be involved in research hands-on, need digital skills to determine the right course for a project.

But with several recent trends, academia, industry and society at large are demanding greater digital research abilities than are currently available. The rise of AI, the explosion of data, the call for open science, the equally zealous cry for data protection – they require a different mix of technical expertise and such other competencies as the ability to collaborate, awareness of the complexity of multi-institutional programs, and understanding of privacy. The shift towards multidisciplinary research and the need to communicate science, which has grown with the pandemic and the climate emergency, also call for a revamped digital research skill set.

RMIT University is now predicting that 87% of jobs will require digital skills. If the gap isn’t addressed by 2028, an estimated $11.5 trillion of cumulative GDP growth will be at risk in G20 countries. In A/Prof Beaumont’s words, it’s our social and moral responsibility to address the gap.

Why the Gap Isn’t Narrowing

While the gap’s been recognised, Prof Bonnington noted several challenges when it comes to closing it. For one thing, the very nature of the gap changes as new research techniques, tools, and technology emerge. And universities, the ‘big ships’ that are key to providing the skills needed, require time to adjust their course. Even when the training’s been delivered and the skills established, the career paths for trained research professionals aren’t always clear.

A diagram showing a cycle with 3 elements flowing clockwise around the words “Research Compute and Data Intensity”. Clockwise from the top, the 3 elements are: Research Techniques, e g Methods, Workflows, Experiments, Theory; Research Tools, e g Algorithms, Devices, Software; Research Technologies, e g Systems, Platforms, Infrastructure
With new research techniques come new tools enabled by people like software developers to implement them. These tools need new technologies enabled by IT professionals to be accommodated, and these technologies lead researchers to devise further new techniques. As we move from one phase of this cycle to another, different skills gaps occur. For instance, new AI techniques are emerging as GPUs become pervasive. Skills gaps arise when different members of the research community find themselves needing to embrace these techniques and the resulting new tools and technologies. Image courtesy of Prof Paul Bonnington

How We Might Narrow the Gap

With these challenges in mind, the panel explored what we can do to narrow the gap. In terms of training: 

  • STEM should be normalised in pre-tertiary education as Ms Backhaus pointed out. This will involve getting teachers comfortable with it and making data part of the discussion in every classroom and subject. It should also be inclusive to diminish gender gaps and other inequities.

  • Work-integrated learning (WIL) should be encouraged, possibly through paid internships and scholarships. It should come as early as possible, authentically reflect the needs and the complexities of the real world, and accommodate different learning styles.

  • Peer learning and inverse mentoring, where more junior members of the sector can coach the more senior ones on all things digital, will be helpful as Dr Richter suggested.

  • Post-qualification micro-credentials can help refresh skills. Learning directly from area leaders will help professionals stay abreast of the times.

To build and maintain momentum in digital research skills uplift across the sector, there needs to be recognition and reward for those who choose alternate career pathways that lead to the development of their digital expertise. Attracting and retaining these digitally skilled academics and professionals is vital to growing a dynamic, relevant and sustainable research workforce.

Narrowing the skills gap is a collective responsibility. As Ms Kelly put it, we need an ecosystem where collaborations happen within and across academia, industry and government. A common set of best practices and a consistent language will also help us frame the issues and communicate them to decision makers.

“Together we can scale; alone we could only reach a few,” said Ms Backhaus.

The ARDC’s Role

As Mrs Hicks noted in her remarks, the ARDC is working with partners not just to navigate the skills issues but also to build a skills base that ensures researchers are ahead of the pack.

“Taking a national approach, we’re delivering several initiatives, including a digital research skills framework clarifying roles and responsibilities, training infrastructure – namely, the Digital Research Skills Australasia training portal, also known as DReSA – and co-development of training materials and resources that are shareable and FAIR.”

As Prof Bonnington pointed out, the ARDC will also be crucial for bridging organisations and forging the partnerships needed to fully address the skills gap.

The Next Steps

You can watch the forum in full here:

Questions asked during the forum that were not answered live have been answered by the panellists. Read their answers.

This forum was the second of a series of panel discussions being held in 2022. The next one will look at research-industry translation on 26 October in Melbourne/Naarm and online. Register now >

Join our next Leadership forum. Register now >

The ARDC is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support national digital research infrastructure for Australian researchers.