‘Take research data management seriously and organize discipline specific support’

'The technologies and the volume of data we can generate – that’s really changing in the field of molecular life sciences.'

12/06/2018 | 11:33 AM

“I hired the right person at the right time”, says Prof. Bas Teusink , Scientific Director of the Amsterdam Institute for Molecules, Medicines and Systems (AIMMS). Bas Teusink Uitsnede His institute was founded in 2010 on the back of major breakthroughs in the fields of molecular, cellular and systems biology. Recently, rapid changes in the pace of data acquisition and data volume in this field asked for the hiring of a dedicated Research Data Manager.

Why has data management become so important in your field?
“At AIMMS our focus is on molecular life sciences – the study of molecules in living systems, of how molecules affect living systems, and of the molecular mechanisms of how drugs work, how toxic compounds work, and how cells work. For biologists, the generation of data is getting less and less labor-intensive, and the interpretation of the data is getting more and more complicated.

Does this mean that researchers need to acquire new skills?
“Yes, bioinformatics, data analysis, and data science are becoming more and more prominent in biology and also in chemistry. It would be a good idea for any bachelor programme in the life sciences to include proper data management, data science, and a little bit of programming and maybe bioinformatics in the curriculum. We’re developing such courses for the bachelor students of the Faculty (of Science).”

Why did you think a dedicated research data manager was needed?
“People in the life sciences community have been talking a lot about the importance of Research Data Management (RDM). When you think about biobanks and other types of big data collections, it is obvious that you have to sort out your data management, but what about a PhD student doing simple experiments in the lab using Excel to process data? How do we help them? As a Principal Investigator, I have no idea how to instruct my students in RDM. I’m not an expert. So I needed support. I needed somebody who actually has the time to look up what tools are available and who can translate general policies and general infrastructure into daily practical solutions that fit our local needs. There’s a huge gap between policy and implementation for people doing the daily work. We need discipline specific support and we need hands-on help.”

What skills did you look for in a data manager?
“I wanted somebody who understands our field of work, who understands the data management side of things, and who also understands the technologies.”

Was it difficult to find the right person for the job?
“I happened to have Brett Olivier in my group and I could convince management that research data support was worth the investment. Brett is a biochemist with a strong theoretical background, but he also knows how to do experiments, so he can talk with everybody. He has also moved into programming and writing scientific software. Having this technical background means he can talk with people in IT. So he is the perfect guy.”

How is this position financed?
“We have found a pragmatic way of financing Brett’s position. And that is by project money.  When we write a project proposal, if the funders find data management important, we budget a certain amount for data management, say 20K. If we get 5 projects, then we can afford a data manager just from project money. So far I’ve been able to fund Brett almost completely from my own projects.”

Is this funding model sustainable?
“I think it shouldn’t be difficult to finance somebody with this model for the long term. The university or the institute will have to take the risk, of course. If the money doesn't come in, if the projects are not funded, then somebody has to pay the salary of the data manager. What is interesting with this model is that the chance of getting your project funded increases, because research data management is being taken more and more seriously by the funding agencies.”

What is Brett doing in concrete terms?
“He writes the Data Management Plans (DMPs) for project proposals and supports their implementation. He has been actively involved in the piloting and implementation of a new data management platform with AIMMS researchers. Brett has developed encoding standards for computational models of biological systems. Because of that, he knows how important it is to annotate data using appropriate ontologies and thereby making them more FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable). Many scientists don’t know what an ontology is, let alone use it. Brett will address this and related RDM issues by providing advice on what the current best standards, tools and practices are in the field.”
“Well implemented data strategies can contribute to the quality and efficiency of a research project.”
Brett Olivier  AIMMS Research Data Manager, Brett Olivier, about his work.

What is the biggest challenge for you?

“I think the biggest challenge is to change people’s (negative) perception of RDM. It is often seen as ‘ yet another administrative task that costs money’. In fact, well implemented data strategies can contribute to both the quality and efficiency of a research project.”

What kind of help researchers ask you most?
“At the moment …The formulation of RDM plans (particularly with regard to storage and metadata) and help with the archiving of data for pre-submission publication.”

The University Library’s Research Data Services
The UL’s Research Data Services department supports researchers and students during the entire data lifecycle, from their initial research plan up to the archiving of the results. We offer information, advice, training and practical support .

This article is written by Maria (Marques de Barros) Cruz , VU Community Manager Research Data Management, 15 November 2018