Since 2016 NWO-I has been working on the implementation of the FAIR datamanagement policy at the NWO Institutes. Led by Miriam Roelofs, from the department Strategic Support at the NWO-I office, the workgroup Data management set up the NWO-I DCC in 2021. This workgroup does not only share the expertise within NWO-I, but also in a national network or use it as input for policy development. FAIR data, as part of Open Science, is a drastic system change that not only asks for time and effort but also for investments of the researchers. Key is that these efforts from the researchers are being recognized and appreciated.
How did you end up in this position?
‘I was a researcher in biology and wanted to become active in the academic world in a different manner. During my research, I worked with many large datasets and also developed software for analyses. For example, three years ago, I was busy with meta-analyses of data that had already been published. While doing so, I experienced how data are stored and which information fellow researchers provide. I also have experience with data being lost. While I was doing my PhD, my faculty moved to a different building. Large quantities of paper card catalogues were thrown away. At the time nobody wanted to digitise the data, and so everything was lost. That got me thinking about how people store data and how “open” that is. I became increasingly enthusiastic about the idea that data should be available to everybody. And then I came across this position.’
What is FAIR data management?
Within the DCC, we use the term “FAIR” data management. FAIR means that data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable (usable without limitations) and Reusable for other researchers and interested parties. And, in particular, that is it functional: that the data must be easily findable and that researchers understand what the data was produced for, what it was used for and how they can reuse and combine it. In the case of software, it means maintaining the software well and ensuring continual updates. Also, it is wise to make use of certified databases. The advantage of these is that the data can be stored for a long period of time. Returning to the word “fair”; we use this term within the DCC in the literal sense of the word too.’
How is the NWO-I Digital Competence Center (DCC) organised?
The NWO-I Digital Competence Center (DCC) organises and coordinates expertise in the area of FAIR data and software management for all NWO Institutes. At the DCC, there are one or more data stewards and research engineers from each NWO Institute, specialists who can advise the researchers on location and support them with respect to data and software management. These people have a lot of expertise in this area due to their involvement in Open Science projects. The expertise centres DANS and SURF are not officially part of the DCC, but are involved in it due to their expertise. I have been appointed as coordinator to manage and guide the entire DCC organisation. NWO-I DCC is part of the national DCC implementation network that all universities, institutes, Colleges of Higher Education and university medical centres in the Netherlands belong to. Together we exchange best practices and develop knowledge. Some universities already started a competence centre for fair datamanagement five years ago. As NWO-I, we have the advantage that we can connect with these experiences and examples. Among all of the parties involved, there is a lot of enthusiasm to work together, and I can tell that there is a lot of goodwill too.’
What is your task as coordinator data stewardship for NWO-I?
‘I have been appointed to coordinate the DCC. I make contact with universities and other knowledge institutions that are involved in this, and I monitor what is happening nationally and try to make connections between the institutes. As a coordinator, I bring together the stakeholders of all institutes and try to connect these with each other. We have frequent mail contact and meet several times per year. What we definitely want to achieve with the DCC is that NWO-I researchers will work via the FAIR principles and make their data, software and code suitable for reuse. The DCC provides advice about how they can best tackle that. We do that by informing, helping, advising and supporting them. In doing so, we try to remove the practical problems and also the worries that it will cost a lot of extra work. My task is to convince the researchers that fair data management is important for science and take away thresholds.’
Are there differences between disciplines and institutes?
‘How data is collected differs per institute. For example, many institutes work together with other research institutions and do not manage all of the data themselves. One such example is Nikhef. They work intensively with CERN in Geneva, the European organisation that conducts fundamental research into elementary particles. It is a textbook example of where large quantities of data are stored in a good manner and where a lot is invested in this as well. At the institutes ASTRON, NIOZ and SRON data are also collected and exchanged in larger international networks. Of course, there is quite a bit of variation in the type of data per discipline. NSCR, for instance, works with highly sensitive data and so they work in a very different manner from researchers at the national research institute for mathematics and computer science (CWI). However, FAIR data involves more than just merely making the data available online. It is particularly important that the data are findable and easy to use, and so good metadata needs to be attached: a good description of what the data is and what you can do with it. That is mainly where the major challenge lies: can progress be made in this regard? Fortunately, making data available is already standard practice at most institutes.’
About Reinder Radersma
Reinder (41) started at NWO-I in September 2021 as Coordinator Data Stewardship NWO-I. The DCC is housed at CWI in Amsterdam, which is where he works. Reinder studied Forestry and Nature Management and later specialised in evolutionary biology. He subsequently gained his PhD from the University of Groningen and then did research at the universities of Oxford (UK), Lund (Sweden) and Wageningen. In his spare time, he enjoys jogging and canoeing. He has a foldable canoe that he can take along to any nature area. Reinder lives with his partner in the centre of Utrecht in an old house, which they are renovating.
‘Open Access publishing is not necessarily fair, you also need to make the data and software available.’
CWI researcher Stefan Manegold is closely involved in DCC
Stefan Manegold is Group Leader Database Architectures at CWI and does research into the technical management and storage of data. His group builds its own Open Source data processing systems and consequently make their research results (especially algorithms and data structures) available for “everybody” in a “user-ready” manner. When asked about the scientific fields they build systems for, he gives a clear example: ‘We build the engine, and it does not matter which car you put this engine in.’ He not only collaborates with many different disciplines, but there is also a link with industry. For example, the start-ups MonetDB Solutions and DuckDB Labs have emerged from his research group. The project DCC can also make good use of Stefan’s knowledge in the field of data management.
‘A good 13 years ago, our community was already examining the reproducibility of research results, and that is where the current Artifact Review and Badging policy of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) emerged from, to make it possible to render data and software freely available. But each scientific community is different. Astronomy is one discipline, which is already miles ahead. If a proposal is submitted for a telescope, for instance, then the budget already needs to allow for the infrastructure (hardware, software, and hours) for storing, processing, analysing and sharing the data collected. And within CWI, Open Data storage is not even a point of discussion anymore because we do it already and have made considerable investments in it. We are pleased to share this knowledge and experience with other NWO Institutes which have not yet begun this process.
It would be fantastic if NWO-I were to register baseline measurements to examine where we currently stand with regard to FAIR data management. In another 18 months’ time, this would allow us to show the progress we have made and how well the incentive funding from NWO has been used for this project. And, of course, that structural funding needs to be made available to train researchers, provide advice, establish procedures and create awareness. I think it is very important that researchers should be made aware of FAIR data and software publication, that recognition comes for this and that in the longer term, it is rewarded too. In that regard, these elements match with Open Access publishing. Because Open Access publishing in itself is not necessarily fair, you also need to make your data and software available. And yes, it is definitely an investment in terms of time and money and not everybody immediately sees the added value of this. It is therefore particularly important that people know how to render data and software usable. And even if everybody can access your data, your job is still not finished because your fellow researchers also need to understand what your data contains and, in particular, how they must use it!’
How was the NWO-I DCC realised?
In 2018, the Minister for Education, Culture and Science asked NWO to advise about the growing digitalisation in science and the resources needed with respect to digital infrastructure and expertise so that this digitalisation could also contribute to the Open Science ambitions as described in the National Plan Open Science (NPOS). In 2019, an Implementation plan investments digital research infrastructure was launched. The establishment of local Digital Competence Centers at universities, research institutions and university medical centres is a part of that plan. The purpose of local DCCs is to facilitate the management, storage analysis, sharing and so forth of scientific data so that research groups can satisfy the Open Science/FAIR principles. NWO has made incentive funding available for the establishment and strengthening of local DCCs and to support the transition to Open Science. This provides the resources needed to strengthen the capacity of data stewards and research software engineers (with respect to FAIR data management, they fulfil a similar role to data stewards, but they concern themselves with the software) at knowledge institutions so that this knowledge and expertise is made findable and easily accessible for researchers. As the Coordinator Data Stewardship, Reinder is directly accountable to Lieke Schultze, manager of the Information and Documentation Department of CWI. The director of each institute is responsible for the drawing up, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the data management policy.
University workgroup (BUW) researchers and FAIR data management
If you are a researcher in one of the university workgroups (BUW), then you should follow the guidelines of the university where you work. Each university in the Netherlands has its own Digital Competence Center. Contact your local DCC for more information.
Text: Melissa Vianen
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, November 2021