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SGX3 Blueprint Factories: Constructing the Future

By: Marlon Pierce and Nancy Maron

Are scientific research and technological innovations getting less disruptive? Possibly, according to a recent, controversial paper [1], which concurs with previous research [2,3]. Whatever the case, this finding resonates with many scientists [4]. While disruptive research is not necessarily better than consolidating research, it can point research communities in new and productive directions. Lack of disruption can mean devoting more and more effort to research areas with diminishing returns.

Stepping Back to Move Forward

One antidote for this situation is for scientific communities to come together to identify grand challenge problems, stepping back from immediate concerns to reflect and collectively determine potential leaps forward and new collaborations. The success of this approach for the field of cyberinfrastructure can be seen, for example, in the NSF Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure (ACCI) reports [5, 6], which provided over a decade of guidance for NSF cyberinfrastructure strategy, and the more recent OAC Vision documents [7]. These efforts, led by or informed by organized community input, helped unify the broader cyberinfrastructure community around common goals and helped funding agencies like the NSF to identify priorities for future investments. Cybertraining programs, consistent programs for funding high performance computing acquisitions, software programs like CSSI and CDS&E, and campus bridging programs can all be traced at least partially back to these vision-building and community-surveying activities. 

These major blue-ribbon panels and task forces can be a powerful way to make progress in setting strategic agendas for the research community, but they also take a great deal of time and effort. The SGX3 team wondered, “How can we get workshop-like results while streamlining the process and providing expert guidance?” The SGX3 Blueprint Factory is our answer. Among our inspirations were the NSF I-Corps program [8], the community focus sessions that laid the foundation for the Science Gateways Community Institute (SGCI)  [9,10], and our own experience using the Entrepreneurial Operating System [11]. 

Each Blueprint Factory will be a structured twelve- to eighteen-month effort designed to bring together members of a specific cyberinfrastructure research community to undertake a guided activity to identify and explore grand –  even existential – challenges in their field. Each project will be encouraged to aim high, posing questions like, “What breakthrough scientific research do we have the potential to enable, and what do we need to do to enable it?” “Will our cyberinfrastructure still be relevant in ten years?” “How should scientists interact with our cyberinfrastructure?” and “How can we serve a larger, more diverse scientific user base?”

Each Blueprint Factory is conducted by a team of three to five cyberinfrastructure experts from the SGX3 team and several domain experts from the Blueprint Factory target community. The Factory starts with an internal Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) analysis. This is followed by an I-Corps-style interview process in which the Blueprint Factory team conducts interviews with dozens of members of their user community to obtain an initial, broad picture of the challenges and opportunities identified by the community. Collecting and analyzing these interviews serves as the starting point for deeper exploration and refinement of common themes through focus groups, which will help pull dozens of individual points of view into a more coherent picture. 

The Blueprint Factory team then gets to work synthesizing and analyzing the material it has collected to create its report and initial recommendations. These are shared with the community through conference activities such as papers and panel sessions. The final report will be published on the SGX3 Blueprint Factories website [12], with a persistent copy deposited in Zenodo, and the SGX3 Center of Excellence leadership team will help promote the findings and recommendations to the NSF. Blueprint Factories may also result in the identification of immediate opportunities to pursue, such as existing solicitations. 
The SGX3 Center of Excellence plans to initiate at least four Blueprint Factory projects in its first two years. Three of the four will address the cyberinfrastructure needs of specific scientific research communities such as materials science. The fourth is taking on a topic that is relevant to researchers and developers across all disciplines: Sustainability.

The Sustainability Blueprint Factory 

Even the longest-running, seemingly stable Science Gateways face challenges to their ongoing survival for several reasons, including inadequate financial strategies, loss of key personnel, the need to constantly maintain and refresh technical infrastructure, irregular funding cycles, and the fundamental gaps in staff capacity that occur when a team transitions a grant-funded research project to a reliable, ongoing service offering for users who rely upon it. These challenges have been well documented [13]. Until now, SGX3 (and previously, SGCI) has primarily focused on addressing these challenges by supporting the success of individual gateway projects and their leaders [14].

The Sustainability Blueprint Factory, led by Nancy Maron, founder of BlueSky to BluePrint [15], plans to broaden the lens on this issue, by asking not just what the challenges are but, what exactly, would define a successful outcome. And at what level - funder? academic institution? federal policy? - must they be addressed to have real impact? 

This Blueprint Factory will:

  • Empanel a small group of internal and external experts to define the scope of this BluePrint Factory with an eye to representing a diversity of institution types and stakeholders. 
  • Organize a Grand Challenges/Grand Solutions Project. By organizing and undertaking series of convenings of university stakeholders in different roles (presidents, deans, vice presidents for research, heads of information technologies) at a range of types of higher institutions (such as research-intensive universities, minority-serving institutions, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges), the Grand Challenges/Grand Solutions Project will outline grand sustainability challenges and prioritize which ones might be addressable over next five to ten years.
  • Develop practical guidance for leaders of science gateways. Through focus groups and a short survey, we will encourage input on the types of tools and guidance they most need to continue to grow their projects’ impact in the near term. 

A final white paper will report on findings and outline an agenda for addressing ongoing  challenges. A set of practical tools and guidance, which may include briefing papers and  a  “health check” for gateway providers, will be available through the SGX3 Blueprint Factory website.

Next Steps

SGX3 has planned four initial cohorts for the Blueprint Factory activity. You can track their progress at the Blueprint Factory website [12]. We will open up an application process for the fourth Factory in mid-2024, and anticipate one new Factory beginning each year through 2026. 

Further Reading

  1. Park, M., Leahey, E. and Funk, R.J., 2023. Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature, 613(7942), pp.138-144.
  2. Chu, J.S. and Evans, J.A., 2021. Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(41), p.e2021636118.
  3. Bloom, N., Jones, C.I., Van Reenen, J. and Webb, M., 2020. Are ideas getting harder to find?. American Economic Review, 110(4), pp.1104-1144.
  4. “Is science really getting less disruptive — and does it matter if it is?”, Nature 614, 7-8 (2023). doi: 
  5. ACCI - Task Forces: 
  6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Future Directions for NSF Advanced Computing Infrastructure to Support U.S. Science and Engineering in 2017-2020. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  7. “Transforming Science Through Cyberinfrastructure: NSF’s Blueprint for a National Cyberinfrastructure Ecosystem for Science and Engineering in the 21st Century”, 
  8. NSF's Innovation Corps (I-Corps™): 
  9. Wilkins-Diehr, N. and Lawrence, K.A., 2010, November. Opening science gateways to future success: The challenges of gateway sustainability. In 2010 Gateway Computing Environments Workshop (GCE) (pp. 1-10). IEEE.
  10. Lawrence, K.A. and Wilkins-Diehr, N., 2012, July. Roadmaps, not blueprints: paving the way to science gateway success. In Proceedings of the 1st Conference of the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment: Bridging from the eXtreme to the Campus and Beyond (pp. 1-8).
  11. Wickman, G., 2012. Traction: Get a grip on your business. BenBella Books, Inc..
  12. SGX3 Blueprint Factories: 
  13. See Sustaining Digital Resources: An On-the-Ground View of Projects Today. Further reading on sustainability strategies for PIs, academic institutions and funders is available at 
  14. Among efforts to coach scientific researchers in business strategy tactics is SGX3 ‘s Focus Week: This week-long intensive was developed in 2017 as part of the NSF-funded Science Gateways Community Institute, and continues to be led by instructors Nancy Maron and Juliana Casavan.