Lessons On Sustaining Scientific Projects Over The Long-Term

Sustiaining long-term scientific collaboratories can be challenging. Read below to see how you can ensure your research efforts remain useful for years to come.


Creating Longevity for Scientific Projects

Scientific researchers often discuss the long-term sustainability of projects that initially receive grant funding. If orphaned, projects can become obsolete in the fast-paced scientific research environment, yet often sustaining them requires a considerable expense of time, money, and more often than not, both.

We sat down with our team and discussed these topics, drawing from the 14 years and counting that NITRC has served the neuroimaging community.

Q. Concerning longevity, are all projects the same?

No. At NITRC, we host many projects: software tools, data, data repositories, community interest groups, etc. These different types of projects have different perspectives on considering project longevity. Here we will review high-level considerations for longevity for software and data projects separately. Software longevity requires active development and support to keep up with the advances in underlying computational infrastructure (hardware and operating system evolution) and to sustain user support and bug tracking. Data longevity requires the persistence of the requisite data storage space. If best practices and standards of data sharing are followed, users’ long-term support can be fairly self-sustaining. If best practices and standards of data sharing are not followed, continued support for facilitating data use would be required, or else the utility of the data will diminish over time as the data becomes unintelligible to users without assistance.

Q. Can you share some of the keys to ensure a scientific project has a foundation for longevity?

Several factors can play a role in promoting the longevity of a project. Some include integration with other initiatives and leveraging cost efficiency options when possible (e.g., bulk cloud computing discounts via NIH STRIDES Initiative). One of the most important factors to encourage longevity is to follow ‘best practices for project management. Nine Best Practices for Research Software Registries and Repositories: A Concise Guide provides valuable direction. This is an output from a Task Force of the FORCE11 Software Citation Implementation Working Group. In it, the authors suggest nine best practices for scientific projects incorporating repositories. They include the following, though the source provides much more detailed content:

  1. Provide guidance for users

  2. Provide guidance to software contributors

  3. Establish an authorship policy

  4. Share your metadata schema

  5. Stipulate conditions of use

  6. State a privacy policy

  7. Provide a retention policy

  8. Disclose your end-of-life policy

The active maintenance of a scientific project requires sustainable funding year-over-year. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) often requires grantees and contractors to propose a sustainability plan for projects that provide infrastructure. Most specific funding is time-limited, and its scope can change; scientific projects that provide infrastructure should have diversification in their set of funding avenues. Sustainability can be as simple as having more than one NIH Institute or Center or other government entity supporting it, like Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) or the National Science Foundation (NSF), being tapped to fund various portions of the program. Longer-term and sustainable funding can also come from licensing, usage, and other fee-based service models.

Q. What happens when funding eventually runs out?

All good things do, unfortunately, come to an end. ‘End of Life’ and ‘sunsetting’ options should be anticipated and planned to facilitate users' ordered transition to seek alternate solutions. In most cases, good and valuable ‘products’ are replaced by even better ‘products’. The community then advances in the technology, capabilities, and knowledge provided by the past.

Q. Can you recommend some other resources?

For further reading, consider the following:

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