EOSC consolidation as driver for national open science agenda

With EOSC rapidly taking shape, it is acting as a catalyst for national and regional open science developments. 

EOSC Synergy sat down with one of the members of the EOSC Association Board of Directors, Ronan Byrne (HEAnet) to discuss how European developments influence Open Science in Ireland. 

Hello Ronan! Can you tell us how Ireland is currently incorporating EOSC at national level? 

Hello! At government level, an exciting development is the establishment of a new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (D/FHERIS). This will naturally drive the research agenda in Ireland, generally. With specific reference to EOSC and open science, HEAnet (Ireland’s National Education and Research Network) is the mandated organisation within the EOSC Association in Ireland. HEAnet also acts as a co-chair for the National Open Research Forum (NORF), a key driver for a national open science support policy.

NORF was originally formed in 2017, but a new steering board was assembled in 2019 which has injected fresh impetus to the open science ambition in Ireland. The progress of open science in the health sciences sphere has, of course, seen significant momentum with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic serving as a catalyst for this! Greater collaboration in terms of data and research repositories in the health sciences – motivated by urgent collaborative COVID research – is an illustration of the benefit of adopting open science policies and practices. 

NORF is very active in many open science related areas: they’re conducting readiness and landscape analyses, and supporting key developments in data stewardship, research careers, incentives and rewards. NORF is proactively promoting open science and FAIR data. For example, a 3-day Data Steward Instructor Training workshop was co-organised with EOSC Synergy and FAIRsFAIR during July. Training initiatives like this are not only useful for Irish researchers to raise awareness about open science and EOSC, they also help to align NORF activities with the broader EOSC agenda. 

As we are essentially chasing the same open science end goal at national level as we are at international level, this alignment with European EOSC development is necessary! There’s currently a good momentum around open science in Ireland, whilst the awareness around EOSC within Ireland is still modest, yet improving. Being actively present at local events helps to raise awareness of EOSC amongst Irish researchers and it’s an opportunity to encourage participation in EOSC working groups that are currently forming. 

The developments around EOSC Governance and EOSC Implementation have been very rapid and impressive over the past couple of years. This was also timely in terms of responding to the COVID pandemic and assisting the acceleration of the Covid-19 Data Portal led by EMBL-EBI. One of the key challenges was to identify the key actors across the member state health research ecosystems, and the EOSC Executive and EOSC Governance Board proved to be very useful conduits for this process.  

Reducing fragmentation across the European science ecosystem is one of the reasons why EOSC is being established, but still, the involvement of national open science initiatives is crucial for the further development of EOSC. This seems like a contradiction but actually makes sense – can you elaborate? 

Across member states, there have been different approaches around deployment of AAI (Authentication and Authorisation Infrastructure), metadata management, FAIR principles and so forth. The sooner we start to converge on standards and protocols, the sooner the benefits of the EOSC ecosystem will show. Without EOSC, this fragmentation will not be solved at the speed we want to travel. Ultimately, this federated and standardised approach will lead to more effective research outcomes across disciplines, which is after all the endgame of converging to an open science approach, facilitating easier sharing of data and services, minimising duplication and potentially competing investments. 

This also extends to procurement strategy to ensure vendors and local service providers also adhere to open standards. For example, in the procurement of CRIS (Current Research Information Systems) and Research Management Systems, we should ensure that these products support open science standards and AAI protocols – the jam in the EOSC cake!  

You’ve previously compared EOSC to an elaborate layer cake. Can you tell us which ingredients are required for the effective implementation of EOSC in Ireland?

Indeed; I like to use this “layer cake” analogy with the bottom layer representing the physical connectivity infrastructure layer, and the FAIR and research data management layer as the top layer. As I mentioned above, open and common AAI and API management standards are the jam in between. Ireland is mature at the physical, connectivity infrastructural level, with a well-functioning NREN (National Research and Education Networks) in HEAnet, but we need an investment strategy to fill out further infrastructure such as storage, HPC, and quantum communications infrastructure. 

The toppings, FAIR and DATA management, and associated data stewardship, are more challenging. They are crucial as they inform conformity and consistency of adoption. This also feeds into your training curricula and influence on careers – with incentives and rewards playing a significant role here! 

The middle layer (the jam) also has its complications. I’m talking about AAI and API (Application Programming Interface), PID (Persistent Identifiers) and object ID  management. We’ve had significant success with regard to federated access management but how are all the additional AAI components going to be managed? Especially when it comes to managing the metadata, as this will only increase in volume over time. Enabling federation to accommodate machine-to-machine scenarios is a further challenge.

How will EOSC help to resolve these challenges? 

A challenge I see, which I expect is the case in every country, is that there is no single management entity that can manage all of these layers at once. As such, it’s difficult to get this wide audience on the same page. The EOSC audience represents a wide set of organisations and stakeholders (such as users, service providers, libraries, research managers) each with their own complexities. So, effective engagement with this wide audience becomes a lot more challenging. Further, as you are engaging across different national Member States and Associated Countries, aligning efforts and reporting results at an international level is a big challenge.  

For a small country like Ireland I believe it is very important to build (federated) bridges with the larger European research area. We must continue to collaborate in the wider global research ecosystem and the EOSC Association will assist in providing guidance and direction as to international standards and policies, which will also serve us nationally. I believe we’re pushing on an open door, as all Member States and Associate Countries are looking for guidance and direction in terms of progressing open science. As a small country such as Ireland, I believe that we will extract particular benefit from the work that the EOSC Association is progressing. This can be seen in the early benefits that federated access has brought, as researchers can seamlessly control and open their data to the wider federation and global confederations, while gaining access to the research of others as well.

It’s encouraging that we are having the same discussions, and facing the same issues, at the national level table as we are at the EOSC table. For example, NORF is establishing working groups that clearly align with those working groups currently being established by the EOSC Association. And getting involved in the EOSC task forces gets you in touch with the best experts in Europe. Being able to see what’s being done at the European level and then adopting that at the national level is a real game-changer. 

How do you envision the future of EOSC? 

As the Association is incorporated less than a year and the Board only recently elected at the inaugural General Assembly in December 2021, it is the most exciting start-up that I have ever been involved with! I want to acknowledge the work done by the EC, by the former EOSC Executive and Governance Boards, and all the volunteers that have put energy into various task forces and associated projects over the previous two years. This is a fantastic achievement and we are just building on that! But we need to maintain this energy, build on the momentum. 

EOSC, and adoption of a common open science approach, will equally serve to advance open science policies at national level. There is then a vested interest for Ireland, and all Member States and Associated Countries, in aligning with the EOSC vision.

The overarching EOSC vision is to enable an open science commons for Europe, which has the objective of enabling more impactful research outcomes, within and across disciplines, to ultimately help us in our grand challenges. We are starting with a minimal viable EOSC, but with a stated ambition for iterative expansion, and an objective to extend the EOSC ecosystem to embrace citizen science, as well as to the private and commercial sector. It’s a challenging and exciting strategy. 

We’re on the early stage of a journey towards a ‘Web of FAIR Data’ and the EOSC Partnership is the key catalyst to steer us forward!

Read the other interviews in this series