The EaPConnect Project team meeting, held in Yerevan on October 3-4, 2023, and hosted by ASNET-AM, the Armenian NREN, brought together partners from across the Eastern Partnership (EaP) region. Attendees included representatives from GRENA (Georgia), RENAM (Moldova), members of the EaPConnect technical committee and project team. The hybrid format allowed participation and contributions by project beneficiaries such as URAN (Ukraine), given the ongoing Russian invasion conflict, and project partners such as PSNC (Poland). The meeting also marked the first participation of Zenon Mousmoulas from GRNET (Greece) who joined the project team earlier this year, Zenon shared insights on the Greek NREN’s significant contributions to sustainability.

Irina Matthews, Project Manager of EaPConnect, opened the event: “This meeting will give us the opportunity to explore aspects that contribute to the sustainability of NRENs. Sustainability is a paramount concern, particularly as EaP beneficiary partners transition into full-fledged members of GÉANT when the project concludes in July 2025.” The central questions addressed were: How can NRENs be made sustainable? What drivers for change need to be identified?

Irina went on to emphasise the importance of creating a forward-looking perspective, aligning national strategies with broader EU initiatives, and understanding the impact of Open Science on research and education communities, while also considering the role NRENs play in supporting these transformations.

Balance and engagement: the keys to NREN sustainability

NRENs operate within a multifaceted landscape influenced by primary and secondary stakeholders, governmental policies, and external factors such as natural disasters and geopolitical unrest. Achieving sustainability for NRENs requires a careful balance. This equilibrium includes bridging the gap between user-driven and NREN-driven services, aligning with major decision-makers, asserting NREN autonomy, and harmonising demand-driven and proactive approaches. The challenge lies in innovating within the constraints of limited resources.

The solution to this intricate balancing act involves collaboration with fellow NRENs, research and education institutions, and national e-infrastructures. Engaging with stakeholders is critical to understanding their needs and pain points, enabling the provision of high-quality services that not only eliminate existing issues but also deliver added value, ultimately exceeding users’ expectations. To differentiate from local commercial providers, many EaP NRENs recognise the importance of being closer to users and communities, offering services tailored to their diverse needs.

Claudio Allocchio, member of the project technical committee, from GARR (Italy), expressed: “Engaging in dialogue with users and comprehending their specific requirements constitutes a crucial phase in achieving sustainability. It necessitates a genuine grasp of the user’s needs. This also entails cooperation with commercial entities, as Quality of Service holds utmost significance. Users turn to NRENs for their Quality of Service.”

Hendrik Ike from GÉANT discussed the complex landscape of European funding and its impact on NRENs. He explored the factors influencing the EU in recent years and introduced the concept of GÉANT’s “Big 5” (GN5 Project, EOSC, EuroHPC, Quantum and International) a strategic framework aimed at organising the intricate funding environment.

Open Science and NRENs

Richard Dennis
Richard Dennis

Richard Dennis from the University of Copenhagen delved into the crucial role NRENs play in supporting research and education communities in embracing Open Science. His presentation highlighted the “connecting the dots” approach for data management in Open Science and how NRENs can aid institutions in implementing FAIR principles for data use. The presentation also introduced the DeiC (Danish NREN) model as a potential blueprint for the future, illustrating how NRENs can accelerate knowledge transfer, facilitate collaborative research and optimise resources.

Adapting to change

The second day of the EaPConnect Project meeting commenced with Chris Atherton from GÉANT, who introduced a design methodology-based approach for managing research engagement. This approach follows the stages of “Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation” and employs the double diamond approach “Discover, Define, Design, Deliver” to ensure that research is both “right” and “well-executed.”

HEAnet journey: a blueprint for sustainability

The history of the Irish NREN, HEAnet, was presented as a dynamic journey marked by constant change. Key factors allowing HEAnet to remain responsive to change include its five pillars strategy, regular engagement with clients and stakeholders (including the government), and the organisation’s trusted reputation. HEAnet’s success has been attributed to expanding its core business and maintaining autonomy, enabling effective governance and competency development.

Several valuable lessons emerged from HEAnet’s journey, including the importance of establishing good relationships with funding bodies, aligning with government strategies, measuring and demonstrating value for money, starting small and growing the user base over time, and emphasising awareness and added value.

The journey of HEAnet served as a valuable blueprint, offering insights and lessons that can guide NRENs as they navigate an ever-changing landscape, ultimately ensuring a sustainable future for research and education networks.

Embracing the human element

Group photo and temple
Human element in action – Meeting participants at Garni Temple, Armenia

The meeting was marked by extensive participation, high levels of engagement and successful hybrid event execution. The informal and social moments facilitated by the warm hospitality of the hosts from ASNET-AM, underscored the significance of in-person interactions in our events.