IT and research in a closer embrace
Researchers can no longer manage without IT in their daily practice. Even the simplest of research projects will likely require the storage of digital data, and as the amount of data continues to increase, technology becomes our only means to adequately harvest it, store it, process it and analyze it. That is why the Research IT Programme was set up in 2016 to improve research support through the development of tools and services. Menno Rasch, programme manager, looks back on the accomplishments of the Research IT programme and outlines the vision for the upcoming follow-up programme called ‘FAIR Research IT’.
What is it what you do exactly as programme manager Research IT?
“Very briefly: it is my responsibility to provide scientists with the IT they need to perform research. But I am usually not the one who is 'being responsible'. We have many experts at ITS, in the library and in other places at the university. Each provides their own expertise, be they: research engineers, data managers or IT specialists. My responsibility is to make sure that what they [our experts] have to offer “arrives” at the right place -at the researcher’s doorstep.
There is quite a lot of knowledge and expertise within Utrecht University, but in the past this knowledge was not organized in such a way that researchers could actually use it. Together with others I worked on making that knowledge and software available, so that it can be found and used by researchers.”
Can you give us an example?
“A very practical example is Overleaf. It is a software package that helps you write technical documents. In Word it is difficult to work with formulas. Overleaf tackles this problem. The package is very popular among researchers, so much so that many have even purchased the licence out of their own pockets. After all, they need the package. But when they want to claim the expenses the financial department denies the claim because it is not wise for Utrecht University to purchase individual licenses for each researcher.”
“So when I see that a large group uses this package I arrange for it to become a Utrecht University wide licence. We have one now, making it an existing service which we now offer to researchers. If you, as a researcher, need Overleaf, you request access to the licence and immediately start working with Overleaf. In this way, researchers save lots of time and money, because you only need to send one email. This is a small, simple example of the type of work we do to support researchers.”
Complex research questions
“Sometimes it is more complicated. There are cases in which researchers need a very complex infrastructure to run their research project. They start a large project with thousands of respondents and their own way of collecting data. That data must be analyzed and then shared with other scientists from other universities, also foreign universities. The data must be stored in a correct and secure way, because it is sometimes privacy-sensitive data. These complex projects need a good infrastructure. This is not about a single server or a single licence, but about a whole chain of solutions which are required and which must fit in with one another. We try to help the researchers with these questions to the best of our ability.”
“We do not always succeed in solving all their problems. However, we can supply certain components or we can help in bringing together these components and have them fit in with one another. In the case of data storage, I contact a colleague from the IT department. A specialist who knows a lot about data storage. He is the one who discusses the question with the researcher and takes care of the data storage. And we bring the researcher into contact with a data manager. He either gives his thoughts on the matter or he structurally contributes to the research project. Nowadays research can be so complex that you need a whole team to perform good research. That means that data managers, IT professionals or research engineers can be part of the team. You need many different kinds of expertise to arrive at pioneering research. This is what we call "team science". Research IT is based on that idea. You need each other.”
The distinction between researcher and support staff becomes blurred. A great opportunity!
And how do you find the right persons for such a team? How do you know who has the right skills?
“I find out which people are where and what they do. The interesting thing is: the divide between a scientist and someone who supports the research is no longer there. The university is traditionally organized in such a way that you have the scientists on the one hand and the support staff on the other hand. The ones supporting the research must understand what science entails, otherwise they can’t do their jobs well. This is less the case if we talk about storage for instance, but if you are a data manager, you really must know what the researcher is doing, otherwise you don’t understand what he needs.”
Data managers are often researchers themselves or used to be, am I right?
“Yes, absolutely. That is a very interesting development. Support staff are more and more often PhDs. And that means that the distinction between researchers and support staff is becoming blurred. And the other way around: some researchers have acquired a certain expertise in IT and data which they teach to other researchers. The researcher will never see it like that, but it does happen. For instance, they have found a way of analyzing data which other researchers need as well: so they start giving workshops. Or they make the software they have built available to others and they answer questions about that software. The distinction between researchers and support staff is becoming blurred. A really great opportunity, because it makes the expertise of researchers available for other researchers and because the supporting staff adds real "value" to the research.”
"Innovative ideas are always welcome!"
The Research IT programme funds and supports innovative ideas from researchers. “New ideas from researchers are always welcome!” emphasizes Menno Rasch. He answers right away to the question: 'Could you give a good example of a project you have funded?'.
“ASReview by Rens van der Schoot immediately comes to mind. It is his idea, so all credit goes to him and his team, but we may give ourselves a small share of the credit as well, because we funded it and because we selected the idea out of many applications. His idea was to apply machine learning to finding relevant articles for scientists. An example: a scientist needs an article which focuses on the question: “What are the side effects of the corona vaccine for people with high blood pressure?’ The search machines may yield thousands of hits. You should read all these articles to find out if the article is about the vaccine and if it is about people with high blood pressure. Besides, you want to know: is it a recent article? Is it a reliable article? Did five people participate in the research or five hundred? It is a time-consuming business to tick all these boxes.
Rens van der Schoot created software that outsources this process to a machine that you can train. How does it work? First you tell the machine: of all the articles, these are the good ones. In the beginning you help the software to make the right selection and next the software takes over. It checks thousands of articles, comes up with new ones and for each article you tell the machine: “Yes, this is the kind of article I want" or: "No, now you are on the wrong track, these articles are not relevant." So you teach the machine to come up with increasingly better articles. It is a huge success, because it saves the researcher heaps of time. And during this corona crisis time is of the essence. As a researcher, ASReview also accelerates your research.”
Do you have a good idea and need funding to realize your concept? Please contact Frank Heere, department manager Research and Data Management Services.
FAIR Research IT Programme
In September 2016 the Programme Research IT started. After five years the programme will be continued under the name FAIR Research IT. The new vision document has now been approved by the Executive Board.
“This programme is the start of a new stage. We are able to improve how we help researchers but the key lies in making existing solutions reusable. Sometimes researchers have already developed a solution. But after completing their research, they "throw" the solution away while other researchers could’ve used it. Within their own department or faculty researchers usually know each other. Also colleagues from other universities are no strangers to them, so they may know at an earlier stage that there may be an answer to their question, within their circle. Outside these circles however, contacts are fewer. In the new programme the focus is on connecting researchers who, normally speaking, have more difficulty finding each other. In the programme we are going to investigate how elegant solutions which are thought of within disciplines, can be reused for completely different disciplines as well. That aspect of reusability fits in perfectly with the FAIR principle which stand for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. This is an example of R: Reusable. Furthermore you want solutions to be Accessible, free of charge and you want them to be Interoperable. In other words: can it be applied in your discipline, even though it is invented in another one? A good solution is ‘FAIR’ and that goes beyond only FAIR data. Each time you must ask the question: "Could other researchers benefit from it?" Besides, it is sustainable, because you don’t waste time in developing solutions that are already there. Hopefully it is also a solution for the scaling-up. Our dream is to offer each researcher an IT professional, but we cannot live up to that ideal. There are simply too many researchers and research projects.”
Menno Rasch will not lead the new programme. As of 1 July he is appointed Director of Digital Infrastructure at the KNAW. It is not yet known who will be the programme director for the new FAIR Research IT.