Building a network of collaborators
When a problem is too big you need to work together to solve it. There are many areas of research that are transforming because of advances in technology that create more data than it has ever seen and new ways to look at it. Changing costs, technical challenges and resource shortage just adds to the problem. So working together would seem a sensible way to solve it. So where do you start? When it comes to collaborating between multiple organisations from different fields and geographical representations it is not obvious how everything is going to work.
This article looks at the recently formed (and still evolving) Australian Bioscience eInfrastructure Committee, which is a network of collaborating organisations in the areas of national bioscience research eInfrastructure. It was conceived out of the need for both governance and strategy at the national level, rising above matters concerning day to day delivery of Biosciences projects. While this group is still developing, it may still be of interest to others who are in a similar situation to see how we got started.
Bioscience & Bioinformatics research in Australia
Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field of science that demands a high degree of investment in technology and expertise to interpret biological data. It requires specialised equipment in web labs, significant compute & storage facilities and advanced algorithms. Bioinformatics has become an important part in gaining biological insights that impact research in agriculture, human health and the environment.
Through NCRIS, Australia has a number of investments that enable world-class research in this field. Bioplatforms Australia provides researchers with biomolecular “Omics” capabilities: Genomics, Proteomics, Metabolomics and Bioinformatics at facilities across the country. The NeCTAR Research Cloud is accessible by all Australian researchers and has delivered over 30,000 cores of infrastructure using OpenStack, providing the compute required for these bioinformatic problems. Software systems, including the Genomics Virtual Laboratory (GVL), bring together tools and workflows that allows researchers to focus more on the science than the IT.
The Changing Field
Bioscience and Bioinformatics is undergoing a transformation. Advances in sequencing and other molecular sensing instruments, combined with dramatic lowering of costs, means there are rapid changes to data acquisition in this field. “Big data” problems, pushing into petabytes to exabytes, in turn create technical and cost challenges. Is it really cost effective with current technology to replicate these giant datasets across countries and continents? How do we share and publish this data? How do we keep up with costs of maintenance whilst providing scalable compute resources?
Internationally we see new strategies being developed. These challenges are pushing researchers towards cloud solutions from both private and commercial providers. This architectural change impacts the software platforms, data services, and skills needed to work with the data. But there are so many factors that this cannot be easily translated to Australia without due consideration. There is a need for a cohesive national strategy.
At the same time there has been a number of activities funded by ANDS, Nectar and RDS that look at addressing different aspects of bioscience data problems in Australia. Aspects that look at the research output, data & storage, tool chains and more. Since these projects were national and collaborative by design, this has led to building healthy relationships and a network of collaborators across the country. It helps when the same group of people work on related projects! For the most part, these projects have been able to build on top of common platforms and each other to create a better outcome. What could be better though, is to review these outcomes at a national strategic level rather than just individual aspects of the problem.
Forming the Committee
Perhaps it was the timing or simply the need for an answer but there was an eagerness to discuss the issue. Spanning two meetings in late 2016 collaborators from around the country gathered to float the idea of this committee, amongst other topics. Video conferencing enabled a much wider participation.
The discussion included the need to consolidate project governance in this area, the need for strategic planning that aligns with national funding sources, the need for studying national and international changes in the field and the need for structure and processes. Whilst opinions differed on how these topics were addressed, the decision to form a single strategically focussed committee that did address them was received unanimously.
Organisations present at the meetings became members of the committee including AGRF, ANDS, Bioplatforms Australia, EMBL-ABR, Intersect, Melbourne Bioinformatics, Monash University, NCI, Nectar, QCIF, RDS, University of Melbourne, VicNode (in alphabetical order).
Writing it down
“The Australian Biosciences eInfrastructure Committee is a network of collaborating organisations with the broad objective of informing and enabling a nationally coordinated Bioscience eInfrastructure, to improve the functionality and accessibility of Australia’s eInfrastructure to the biosciences research community.”
Bioscience eInfrastructure Committee Charter
After agreeing to work together, the next step was to write down what it all means. This took shape in the form of a Charter that describes what the committee is setup to do. The document, although still in draft mode, has had several collaborative rounds of changes, comments and reviews with a hefty amount of input from most members. This has been a valuable to process expand and allow contributions from all the members.
Key areas this process have been discussed and include:
- Identifying Core values of the committee including: Inclusiveness, Transparency & Open Communications, Collaborativeness, Partnership focus.
- Identifying Roles and Responsibilities of the committee including: Developing strategy, Project/program governance, and Representation to government and other bodies.
- Operations of the committee including administration, project governance and meeting schedule.
This is not complete and admittedly still quite grey. The Charter is still in draft form and will continue to be refined.
The committee will continue to meet to progress in addressing national strategy and oversight in-flight projects. This should see it evolve accordingly as problems arise and are resolved, and as a new national governance landscape emerges.