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Director's update


May 2018

Welcome to our autumn newsletter. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the FAIR Research Data: Responsibilities and Partnerships Forum in Canberra which was organised by the aligned NCRIS projects of ANDS, RDS and Nectar. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the responsibilities carried by each of us in the supply chain from data generator to data user. In the case of TERN, our research Infrastructure encompasses our hardware, data and people, all of which are a source of direct and indirect innovation as we generate high-quality reference data and new technologies in support of the scientific endeavour. In TERN, the long-term data and data streams from which measures of environmental changes are made possible have long been considered to be TERN’s major asset and legacy. But from the perspective of users outside of our project, TERN’s value is seen not so much in the data, but the science research it enables. Without such research, TERN’s data would be just that – data. With scientific research collaboration, TERN’s legacy is the information which flows from the data. This is a critical distinction which guides TERN’s responsibilities in investing its NCRIS grant in activities which improve the way in which it serves the science community, providing open access data, provenance of the data and adoption wherever ethically possible of the FAIR principles.  

TERN does not know the information content of the data it holds until someone asks a research question, and then there is the satisfaction of seeing the data sets become valuable. And with our endeavours to improve user access, it is hoped that this will happen over and over again as more questions are asked of the same data by researchers from many disciplines. Our story this month on the health benefits of playing with dirt is an example of information flowing from research at the boundaries of environment and health. When it was collected, who would have anticipated this research use of soil mapping and cation exchange capacity records?

The story about Ashlea Doolette’s use of not only TERN’s soil and vegetation data but also samples of native plants collected from around the nation is yet another example of environmental data being applied for the benefit of another sector, this time agriculture. Indeed, well-curated data and samples can be of benefit long after they are collected. The lesson to TERN and other data-driven research infrastructure is that it is our role to expose our data, allowing it to be scrutinised, to have different questions posed and then to become information, which ultimately will have an impact in adding value to the nation.

But in this era of data informing decision-making about emergent properties of complex environmental systems, impact is not restricted to Australia. Data from TERN Australia is being accessed from around the globe, as shown in our story on an experiment to measure vegetation decomposition in different ecosystems using a tea bag index methodology. Global experiments generally require big data, an approach that once again places large responsibilities on the data collector and data custodian to ensure the data is fit to be aggregated, searched, cross-referenced, and mined to generate new information and understandings about the changing environment. With exponential growth in environmental data collection, the curation and dissemination of high-quality datasets and metadata are paramount. This is especially key in order for observational data to be used and trusted in Earth and environmental systems modelling so that evidence-based decisions and predictions can be made. And as the April forum in Canberra concluded, the FAIR principles which guide data producers and publishers will increase the likelihood of data becoming information. We hope you enjoy TERN’s stories this month.

Dr Beryl Morris



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