Claire Austin: My experience as a participant in the RDA-COVID19-WG

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27 Jul 2020

Claire Austin: My experience as a participant in the RDA-COVID19-WG


Ms Claire Austin is a Researcher at S&T Strategies Directorate, Environment and Climate Change Canada

What roles did you play in the RDA COVID-19 Working Group?

I led the RDA-COVID19 Data sharing in epidemiology WG, and the RDA-COVID19 Zotero Library WG. This rapidly turned into a full-time plus endeavour. I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Government of Canada, the Department of the Environment, and especially to my manager, Lindsay Copland for granting me the opportunity to devote my time to this undertaking by limiting my work in the Department to only the most essential activities. I am deeply indebted to my colleagues on the WG, and to the leadership of RDA’s Secretary General Hilary Hanahoe, without whom none of this would have happened.

Why did you feel the need to join the group?

I have spent the better part of the past 10 years working toward modernization of scientific data management and open science, first as a research scientist and principal investigator, and more recently as a senior scientist in a government science and technology strategies directorate. I am not an epidemiologist, but having studied at McGill’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health for my doctorate, I have developed an understanding of the field. By the end of January this year, like everyone else in the world regardless of background, I needed to understand COVID-19 and what it meant for our societies and for our families. I started spending my evenings and weekends tracking COVID-19 data and doing my own analyses. I could see where we were headed, and I felt powerless to do anything about it. When I received the invitation from the RDA, I jumped at the opportunity.

Who do you think would benefit most by applying these guidelines and recommendations (policy makers, researchers, etc.)?

The intended audience for the data sharing in epidemiology recommendations and guidelines are government and international agencies, policy and decision makers, epidemiologists and public health experts, disaster preparedness and response experts, funders, data providers, teachers, researchers, clinicians, and other potential users of COVID-19 data. However, these are not the beneficiaries. These are the people who need to come together in a coordinated manner to implement the recommendations and guidelines and develop a modern system for data sharing that will enable preparedness, early detection and rapid response to newly emergent threats, such as SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 disease, before they develop into epidemics and pandemics. The beneficiaries are the people of the world, their health and well-being.  

Can you identify a potential scenario in which these guidelines and recommendations would be applied and help alleviate the impact of another potential emergency?

Data are the foundation that supports all epidemiology, modeling, and public health decisions. Unfortunately, there is no international standard or coordinated system that can be used for collecting and disseminating data such as COVID-19 related data. This means that using the available data is extremely challenging due to issues with documentation, interoperability, completeness, methodological heterogeneity, and data quality. The recommendations and guidelines support development of an internationally harmonized specification to enable rapid reporting and integration of epidemiology and related data across domains and between jurisdictions.

What were the pros and cons of having this working group produce this report in such a small window of time?

The development of the recommendations and guidelines, and supporting output, was done under very aggressive time pressures. The work was conducted “in the open” with weekly public release of updated drafts. This has the dual advantage of getting useful information out early and creating the opportunity for rapid feedback that can be considered for the next draft. The disadvantage is that there is not enough time to keep up with all the literature that is also rapidly developing creating opportunities for errors and omissions. Doing open science under pressure is a very uncomfortable position to be in for scientists who have been trained to carefully think things through and subject their work to rigorous peer review. I believe that this experience, developed out of a need and a call for action, will help us to collectively get over that discomfort and embrace open data and open science.

How would you describe the value of the international research collaboration facilitated by the RDA on an initiative such as this?

The RDA plays a uniquely invaluable role in facilitating international collaboration and response to the COVID-19 crisis. The agile governance of the RDA, unencumbered by bureaucratic processes, favours rapid deployment of expert WGs, attracting members from diverse backgrounds who contribute their time, knowledge, and skills to achieving a defined objective.

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

There are so many big takeaways that I don’t know where to begin or how to identify the biggest one. It has been an immensely rewarding experience to be part of such a rapid coming together of experts contributing and learning from each other to achieve a common goal. A core group of committed individuals quickly emerged and bonded over the course of more than 30 virtual meetings with video held within a space of only eight weeks. We sought. We learned. We debated. We problem solved. We made mistakes and we corrected them. Most of the work was conducted outside of meetings. It was intense. It was exhausting. It was at times discouraging. It was managed chaos. It was motivating. It was inspiring. Out of it all, we developed recommendations, guidelines, and supporting output for data sharing that we hope will have meaningful impact. To make a difference, we must first believe that we can and will make a difference. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that there are no problems, only solutions. We, humanity, can find and build those solutions that will get us past COVID-19 and prevent future such disasters. The question is, will we do it.