Interview with Chris De Loof on Belnet’s role as a Belgian mandated organisation for EOSC

Rosy Pauwels

Marketing @ Belnet
Thu, 09/14/2023 - 13:43

In 2020 Belnet was appointed as the Mandated Organisation (MO) in Belgium for EOSC-A. The Mandated Organisation plays an important role in both facilitating the development of EOSC in the country as in representing and supporting the national research community on an international level. Belnet is the Belgian National Research and Education Network (NREN), which means Belnet provides the physical connections to the EOSC ecosystem, but is not a research funding organisation or a research performing organisation itself. In this interview we find out in what ways Belnet represents the needs of the research community in Belgium, how they engage with this community and which strengths and challenges the organisation detects when talking about the EOSC developments in Belgium.

Representing the Belgian research community in EOSC 

Belnet connects people and organisations. The NREN provides solutions that are created in the EOSC or GÉANT ecosystems and offers these services as a trusted partner to the research community. Next to this, EOSC coordination meetings are organised, where stakeholders can share their opinions and work on creating a common position. In this meeting Belnet tries to represent the organisations that are not represented directly in the EOSC­-A, although Belnet is in favour that each Belgian organisation with an interest in Open Science and the EOSC, can become a member or observer. Chris De Loof, Adviser EOSC at Belnet: “As MO we are in charge of translating and communicating the mission of EOSC in the national context and inform our Belgian members, observers and other stakeholders on the development of EOSC and help to facilitate the discussion. We are covering all members and observers from the EOSC-A in Belgium that are either a Belgian university or a research performing organisation. Since Belnet is a national e-infrastructure, we cover nearly the whole Belgian research landscape. Belnet is very well positioned to connect the Belgian spectrum.” 

A big difference with some other mandated organisations is the fact that Belnet has no coordinating role in the country. Belnet is mainly facilitating mutual and bi-directional communication between the Belgian research organisations, the ministries and EOSC-A. As facilitator they deliver technical services and guarantee interoperability between the stakeholders of the EOSC. The national coordination is actually executed by the concertation group Open Science of the International Co-operation and Federal Co-operation commission (CIS-CFS Open Science). All the five regions of Belgium are represented here, having joint competencies regarding research, innovation and/or Open Science. 

Engagement and services with and for the R&E community 

“At the moment, Belnet’s engagement activities are strongly related to the technical services we offer”, states Chris. “As an example, thanks to our Communities of Practice, we interact with (digital) researchers, technical personnel and professionals working in the research organisations that are connected to the Belnet data network. Starting, moderating and stimulating a Community of Practice on Open Science tools is of vital importance. We notice this even for certain solutions, like the tool. is really an essential development for research data management and Open Science. Belnet took over the hosting of the tool and its community. The actual version of the platform is well performing but a quite static tool. As a service provider, you want to evolve and try to automate the tools as much as possible so DMPs can, for example, become machine readable. We need to involve and consult our research community to gather all the necessary requirements. So, who will give us the requirements? Yes, our community of practice.” 

Belnet is involved in the knowledge-sharing around the EOSC concept, but as a technical partner, the organisation does not train people in the skills they need to become Open Science practitioners. They would even not define themselves as the experts in the overall Open Science field, as Chris puts it forward: “The research performing organisations are often better placed to explain Open Science practices. In turn, Belnet will focus more on planting a seed in the heart of the - even sceptical - people to gain their trust and love for Open Science. The passionate researchers or even students, the Open Science grass root movements, the open source developers for research, they are the ones that are creating a lot of professional initiatives regarding Open Science, and most importantly, these students and researchers: they produce volumes of data!” 

By providing the tool towards the research performing organisations, Belnet puts forward the process of the research data life cycle and support researchers in following all technical steps involved, which is important to plan their own research data management and of course to receive project funding. Furthermore, researchers are offered Belnet storage thanks to the OCRE framework contract, and are connected to the long-term data preservations platforms. The authentication and authorization infrastructure (AAI) Belnet offers is crucial for rights management in the EOSC, because you want to give access to somebody that is defined and trustworthy. The AAI gives access to other interesting services which are linked to the EOSC as well, such as the webtool FileSender where you can send huge amounts of data from one place or person to another in a secured way. Most of those utility services are free of use, which perfectly fits the Open Science vision. Lastly, Belnet is able to connect research institutions to the high-performance computer (HPC) LUMI in Finland, in order to gain processing time. 

How Belnet interacts with the EU-level in a two way direction 

As a research partner, Belnet uses the European and international developments as one starting point to launch discussions on improving or developing new products, solutions and services. The other, most important, starting point, are the needs, use cases and requirements from their communities, where the need of alignment with developments outside of Belgium is high and even inevitable. Belnet tries to involve as much as possible the research organisations and other partners in a co-creation or co-innovation process with regard to delivering new or updated services. “Those services will not only be of interest for our own users but could benefit the wider research community as well”, explains Chris. 

“The most important way in which Belnet can contribute in EOSC in the future is by offering sustainability. If we look to the global landscape of e-infrastructures for research, we need the operational capacity of the NREN and national HPC centers for data connectivity, services, processing, provisioning and storage. They are the ones that, together with some well-equipped research performing organisations, guarantee the operationality of the EOSC on the long term. You need their national embedding, equipment and technical knowledge for a long-term service delivery to researchers. Belnet guarantees sustainability and interoperability as an NREN: the minimal and most sustainable level of systemization is the national infrastructure. The EOSC should be considered as the European sum of all national research and e-infrastructures, open science communities and open research data repositories and should be coordinated and governed on the highest level by the EOSC-A for advancing open science and the exchange of FAIR research data." 

EOSC developments: strengths and challenges in Belgium 

Belgium was an early adopter of Open Access and has a broad community of researchers promoting Open Science practises. Belgium was one of the first countries that signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access and created open access journals and repositories. Belnet still has the open access repository Orfeo in its portfolio, which is used by the federal scientific institutions. More recently Belgium signed the new ERA action 1: “Deploy Open Science principles and identify Open Science best practices” with a huge political impact. Last year Belgium has transposed the European Intellectual Property/Public Sector Information Directive in the national legislation, and Belnet is studying the Open Data Directive and potential opportunities. Both directives give Research performing Organisations and national authorities more tools for advancing Open Science. 

Furthermore, Belnet is involved in the EC funded project EOSC Focus and other universities are also partner in other EOSC related projects. Belgium has a high commitment to the goals of EOSC, the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) and Open Science in general. Belnet is part of the GÉANT ecosystem and connects the Belgian research organisations with other facilities, solutions and research organisations contributing to the EOSC. “We notice a high involvement of Belgian members in the different EOSC-A Taskforces, the heart of the EOSC. People are motivated to give the EOSC a strategical direction, but of course, like in other countries, there are also challenges and obstacles for the EOSC development”, states Chris. 

“The biggest challenge, is that there is no robust and seamless accessible technical and interoperability framework yet and another that the search and war for talent for data scientists and data stewards is very high. A good curriculum to become a data steward does not exist yet. As a MO we can help to facilitate these challenges. But we are not at the stage that we can easily and securely exchange volumes of FAIR data between interdisciplinary research communities. 

On the other hand, a continuous stream of funding remains crucial for the increase and the implementation of Open Science. In the past, some money has been invested in the training of data stewards and Open Science coordination, but another part should have gone to broaden the service-offering and expanding the EOSC federation. There is a need for seed money to develop some prototypes. The development of Research tools is not a commercial endeavour, although it might be. Technologies to let science be performed in an open and FAIR way costs money and human resources. To gain this continuous budget it’s very important that also politicians and funding organisations see the benefits of Open Science. Open science is a digital transformation of science and creates new opportunities and new services. The budget must not always come from public funding, but collaboration with commercial players must be possible, when they agree with the Open Science and Open Source principles. 

Moreover, the slow process may be a barrier for a broader dissemination, for missing a window of opportunity. For me, Open Science is the digital transformation of research. That means also that you can’t neglect the cultural and mental shift. It's very important to acquire those skills, the culture, to follow the principles of a good change management; digital transformation is not just about automatization, it's broader than that and it includes the human and social aspect. The same goes for open science.” 

Improvements and impact of EOSC in Belgium 

“The future lies in an alignment with the new common European data spaces, the bigger European Research Infrastructures, the national and European e-infrastructures for research and the Horizon Europe Partnerships. Some bricks of data spaces are like the EOSC; the EOSC is “supposed” to become the horizontal data space for research data. Data spaces, as the one of the Green Deal and Health data space, are in a high degree based on the interoperability of domain specific research data. For the EOSC, the Community of Practice are the researchers which will need to use and re-use data available in different other data spaces (health data space, agricultural data space, mobility data space,…). The interoperability framework and technical architecture of EOSC will become the blueprint of the EOSC data space. We need interoperable data, but unfortunately that is just the thing we are missing: where is the data, who has the data, where can you find back the data, where are the metadata and the persistent identifiers. That is a key area of improvement. I think we need to address this as soon as possible. Monitoring can help, but most of all we need some tangible results and use cases.” 

What concerns impact, Chris states that “the political interest in Open Science and Open data increases. This interest translates in high level policies, discussions, legislation, monitoring facilities and funding and also technology is getting prepared for interconnectivity and interoperability services for Open Science. Belnet has the chance to be the glue between those research organisations as most Belgian universities are building their own e-infrastructures capacity with research data repositories and knowledgeable data stewards and draft institutional Open Science policies. Most are actively involved in the EOSC ecosystem and are contributing to the EOSC-A Taskforces.” 

Briefly said: “Open Science is only possible if researchers approach it positively”, Chris concludes: “A happy researcher means a happy society. Scientist are performing their passionate research and they need the infrastructure to realize their goals. I think it’s very important that we stay focused on the basic principles of Open Science, advancing science for the benefit of society and that we focus well on our core business, doing research by scientists and to minimize the overkill of governance or overheads. Open Science is just science done right !”

Chris De Loof
Chris De Loof Senior Policy Advisor @ Belgian Science Policy Office @ BELSPO

Chris de Loof works on digital strategies for Scientific Research and Culture Heritage. Chris is a long-time promoter of open and FAIR data and open science and works since a couple of years as Innovation Manager and Adviser EOSC at Belnet. He has an interest for innovative, cross-cutting collaborations between cultural heritage professionals and researchers, mostly those in the fields of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Chris is delegate to the Commission expert group on the common European Data Space for Cultural Heritage (CEDCHE). He is also the Chair of the General Assembly of DARIAH, the European Research Infrastructures for digital humanities and arts, and Belgian representative in the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS).

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