Natalie Harrower, Director of DRI, about her experience as co-chair of the RDA COVID19 WG

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16 Sep 2020

Natalie Harrower, Director of DRI, about her experience as co-chair of the RDA COVID19 WG

Director of the Digital Repository of Ireland


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

I was one of the co-chairs of the group, and my particular responsibility in this respect was to chair the editorial team. The final document released on 30th June 2020 was the result of many drafts, including 5 public releases with open comment phases, and a review by RDA’s various governing bodies. Each subgroup had moderators and individuated editorial processes throughout this drafting period, so it was the role of the editorial team to structure these subgroup outputs into a coherent document with a consistent framework and organisation. The editorial team wrote the section on ‘Foundation Elements’ by identifying key points made across the subgroups, and turning these into overarching recommendations that can be addressed at a systemic or cross-disciplinary level. Striking a balance between moving foundational elements to the early part of the report, and ensuring key recommendations also remained within each section was a challenge. We wanted to keep the page count reasonable but were also aware that most readers of the document would likely only read the areas relevant to their work.


Why did you feel the need to join the group?

The group was formed at a time when it was clear we were in this pandemic for the long haul, but before it had started to feel very long. There was a lot of energy and discussion and nobody had really settled into what started to be called the ‘new normal’. I had a strong desire to contribute in some way to the global response. The Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI), where I am Director, had released a statement about how, as a digital archive for HSS data, we intended to support preservation and access to COVID-19 related data, to fast track data deposit, and support to members in our areas of expertise. As a team we also started pursuing a number of small projects to contribute our resources and skills in ways we could identify. The staff at DRI were similarly charged - everyone wanted to contribute in whatever way their skills allowed - so we fed off one another. I am very lucky to work with such an engaged team!

When the COVID-19 group originally formed, I joined the Epidemiology subgroup, because I’ve always had a personal interest in this field, and hoped I could contribute as one of the ‘data people.’ My contributions were limited here because the drafts quickly moved more fully into the field of epidemiology, where I have no actual expertise; I was asked to join as a Chair shortly thereafter, when it became clear that pulling all the pieces together into a single document was going to be a challenge, and that there would need to be a dedicated team to lead this process and drive decision making. I was very happy to take on this role, as I felt I could use my expertise in data management, FAIR data, Open Science, and general communications skills on a project that would have a direct impact on the COVID-19 research process. And this is process on which we are all hanging our hopes for the future...


Who do you think would benefit most by applying these guidelines and recommendations (policy makers, researchers, etc.)? Can you mention any case of adoption so far?

In the end, everyday people will benefit the most, because when research outputs are shared quickly, efficiently, and in FAIR ways, other researchers can better build on that research, and solutions to major challenges can be found more quickly. Research may seem like a pursuit conducted by an individual, small group, lab, institution or centre, but in fact it is a fundamentally global pursuit, with outputs of one effort becoming the inputs to another effort.


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

The focus is on COVID-19 data sharing, but a significant portion of the guidelines would be relevant to other public health emergencies, especially infectious diseases. The recommendations made to policymakers, funders, governments, and research infrastructures are absolutely key to advancing the capacity for data sharing in the global research system. Implementing them now means we will be much further ahead when the next health emergency emerges.


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

Contributing to this working group was a fantastic experience, and the drive to produce a quality document that stood up to several open consultations in a short period of time was part of that experience, even if it meant a commitment almost around-the-clock for a period of time. Our editorial team alone had members from 5 different time zones, spanning a 15-hour time difference, which made meeting times painful for at least one person every time. On the other hand, someone in Australia could write during their morning time, the US or Canada could wake up to find fresh text, and have the next part finished by the time Europe came on board. If you want to collaborate very efficiently on a writing task, I encourage you to work with great people from all of the world’s time zones! 

The real pro of the short window was that it focused our minds on the task at hand, supported decision-making and concrete deliverables, and facilitated a strong bond between members of the group. The con, of course, is that it felt rather relentless at times, and it would have been good to receive even wider community input, which doesn’t always arrive during circumscribed time periods. I do not think, however, that the quality of the document suffered, because the 160+ people who actively contributed to it worked with a kind of dedication and precision that one rarely sees. It had a tinge of magic.


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

RDA is uniquely suited to foster this kind of achievement, because it has a ready and willing pool of experts from around the world who are in turn connected to other experts who can be brought in for particular pieces of work. RDA has also been built from a grassroots philosophy, with openness, collaboration, and concrete problem-solving at its core. I have seen it go from strength to strength, and this working group was an exemplar of this. The pandemic hits certain vulnerable groups more profoundly than others, for health and age reasons, but also for social and economic reasons; still, it knows no borders. RDA’s membership spans the globe and all disciplines, and I think particularly attracts interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, so it’s uniquely suited to fostering collaboration on a global issue with impacts across all areas of society.


What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

One takeaway is that there is tremendous knowledge available to the world, and that knowledge, based on a deeper understanding of available information, is growing all the time. But despite all of our methods of communication, it’s still not terribly easy to connect all the pieces. Harmonised standards, agreements, procedures and methods for data sharing, along with a change in research culture to support this, are required to turn the vast pools of knowledge in different areas and geographies into solutions.

The other takeaway is that when things get really tough, there are a lot of brilliant and dedicated people willing to roll up their sleeves way past their elbows and contribute in whatever ways they can towards a common goal. It is inspiring and injects a ray of hope into the darkness of the pandemic.