Major US project to fix disparities in university access to protected data
Researchers in Virginia have been tasked with upgrading the computing power of universities statewide to broaden their access to protected data, amid rising concerns that expanding federal security regulations would stand in the way of important research.
With a US$2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise will look into equipping universities with a shared high-performance computer system for hosting research using data that come attached with stringent legal protections.
Forming a collaborative called the Virginia Assuring Controls Compliance of Research Data or ACCORD, they will lead a team involving 11 universities to do what no state in the country has done so far: address growing disparities in university access to protected data for research.
The problem they hope to solve is one of national scale: researchers at the lesser-endowed institutions across the country cannot gain access to important federal data because their university simply doesn’t have the computing infrastructure to meet legal requirements for data protection.
This is to the detriment of research and academic growth, and stands in the way of the potential breakthrough that could have resulted from the endeavour.
An increasingly complex regulatory landscape only compounds the problem. The federal government is becoming more protective of data requested by non-governmental bodies, the result of growing concerns over recent cases of data breaches, security hacks and data misuse.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, for example, mandates protections for patients’ health information when used in medical research, a media release on the ACCORD project pointed out.
Another example is the Federal Information Security Management Act, which was enacted to protect government information. The legislation now covers every federally funded researcher and institution.
These regulations and more mean researchers must prove they are able to control and secure the data they require, failing which access would not be granted.
The ACCORD team includes The College of William & Mary, George Mason University, James Madison University, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, Radford University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.
UVA Vice-President for Information Technology Ronald R. Hutchins and UVA-Wise CIO and Associate Provost for Information Services Scott Bevins are leading the initiative.
“The partnership between UVA and UVA-Wise speaks to the power of diversity and inclusion for creating the most effective outcomes in research,” Hutchins said.
“If we bring in smaller schools with different ideas and backgrounds, it will help us in creating diversity. When we can include smaller schools, we can also provide access to the infrastructure necessary for handling large data sets.
“If ACCORD brings even two or three new researchers to a school because of data access, they can grow their research program, expanding research for the entire state.”
He added that ACCORD’s objectives also falls in line with UVA’s mission to broaden statewide research by bringing in research partners.
“When protected data is involved, partnerships become complicated, particularly from a legal perspective. Our work will create a primer on how to bring in partners with protected data.”
ACCORD is part of the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program and is the first initiative of its kind in the US.