This post is part of my application for the Circle U chair at the UCLouvain. The seven partners of Circle U set up a chair programme to ensure strong and sustainable connections across our universities, between research and teaching, between students and staff, and between universities and society.
My proposal for the Circle U chair can be articulated around the following question:
How is knowledge produced, maintained and shared?”
with a special focus on global health in an area of big, inter-connected data and collaborative research.
Universities are the focal point of knowledge production in our society. This knowledge is produced by the scholarship, research and development activities that are part of the academics’ principal duties.
The maintenance of this knowledge is arguably the weakest link of the knowledge chain. How data, experimental designs, results, know-how, processes and operation procedures are produced, curated, documented and maintained over time is all too often done using ad hoc procedures, with little or no systematisation. This leads to little scope to scale up to new challenges and opportunities. The activity of doing research and the management of these output is lacking the professionalisation and standardisation that one could expect for such fundamental and expensive activities.
The dissemination of this knowledge takes various forms. Education, the prime form of transfer of knowledge in universities, has widely diversified in recent years, with the digitisation of the education, the scale up and diversification of the student population, the increase in multi-way interactions between instructors and learners. This evolution is bound to continue to face novel challenges. Knowledge is also transferred between researchers. This dissemination takes the form of research articles, monographs, oral presentations among restricted audiences. This mode of communication has hardly evolved since the Royal Society started publishing research articles, despite the radical (r)evolution of modern research, and the advent of modern information and communication technologies. A third major mode of information dissemination, between the universities and the public is arguably the least active form of knowledge transfer.
The premise of my proposal is that many of the current challenges in large scale, high throughput, collaborative health-related research activities, notably those that try to bridge disciplines, is inefficient management and transmission of knowledge. I would argue that the application of open and reproducible research principles and tools can address these challenges. This proposal is based on my own practical experience in quantitative and computational biomedical sciences, my decade-long advocacy for open and reproducible research, and my participation in the Open Science Steering Committee of the UCLouvain.
It is essential to clarify a misconception about openness in research. It does not imply wild and immediate sharing of research outputs, which is particularly sensitive in clinical settings, when ethical and privacy concerns are paramount. Openness doesn’t enforce, but offers transparency and the possibility to disseminate appropriately, whether locally in a research lab, an institute, a global research network or to the public. Reproducibility in science and research defines the opposite of anecdotal observation. Reproducibility is a property that leads to trust in an experiment and its interpretations. Reproducibility is also a necessary quality to transmit knowledge. Openness and reproducibility are hallmarks or rigorous, accountable and transmissible science. My proposal aims at promoting and implementing open and reproducible research, focusing on the management and the transmission of knowledge in a biomedical and global health context.
I will be organising, contributing or promoting courses, seminars and workshops to raise awareness about and help implementing open and reproducible research to students, early career researchers (ECR), notably new PhD students as part of the doctoral schools, new academics arriving at the university and researchers across the institutes (As a member of the Open Science piloting committee, I am already committed to several of these actions at the UCLouvain). To maximise the impact of these initiatives, they should be informed or led by the students and ECR themselves to (1) maximise the effectiveness and long-term penetrance of these efforts and (2) make sure that the prime beneficiaries are the students and ECR themselves.
In addition, and specifically as part of the international reach of circle U, I want to expand these efforts by sharing and contributing these activities with our partners and beyond through the organisation of international conferences and summer schools that will promote these best practices and apply existing tools and resources.
My goal in terms of research is to foster collaborative projects between engineering and health-oriented research teams. These include for example the development and application of
software engineering practices to research processes and data management, notably continuous integration (i.e. the continuous testing and validation of data, software or results) to facilitate reproducible and transparent research in biomedical and clinical research, and
machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to integrate global health and clinical data across data types and physical locations.
The expected outcomes of such efforts are (1) becoming better at scaling up (increase in size) and scaling out (increase in diversity) our capacity in managing digital health data, (2) the production and management of more transparent knowledge and, ultimately, the (3) the delivery of high quality, data/knowledge-driven health care.
To reap the benefits from this proposal, it is essential that open and reproducible research principles percolate throughout all strata of universities and society at large. To do so, I believe that in addition to becoming part of the curriculum and widely discussed among scholars, these principles should also become part of the academic governance, such as the academic evaluation process.
Finally, in a time where informed expertise on global health and mere opinions have been confronted and considered equivalent, it is absolutely essential to emphasise open and reproducible principles as pillars of research and to broadcast these widely outside of the university. I thus also advocate for a dedicated online and media presence (again, involving students and ERCs) and close collaboration with existing academic and non-academics initiatives.