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The ELIXIR of life (science)

Life science is a big data game nowadays, requiring large computational and data infrastructures.

June 07, 2021

Life science is a big data game nowadays, requiring large computational and data infrastructures. ELIXIR-UK is a community of scientists working together to ensure that’s possible, as part of a wider European network that delivers essential services and projects to support data-driven science.

Hannah Norman and Catherine Hunter, who coordinate ELIXIR-UK from the UK lead organisation, the Earlham Institute, explain the benefits of being an active part of this thriving and important community.

What is ELIXIR?

ELIXIR is an intergovernmental organisation spread across Europe, which deals in data services and infrastructure to support the life sciences.

The idea behind it is that lots of people are often doing the same thing. You don't want five different countries all doing something completely separately that has the same outcome - you want them to be talking to each other and working together on it. That’s why ELIXIR has such great support from governments and organisations in the UK and around Europe.

As well as providing a number of services, and developing standards, there are pots of money that partner organisations can apply for to work on joint projects.

ELIXIR-UK works with other Institutes and ELIXIR organisations across Europe to support data and infrastructure in life science research.

What is ELIXIR-UK?

ELIXIR-UK is a platform and network that supports the life science community in providing data services and training.

If your service becomes an ELIXIR-UK service - almost like a Which? mark for big data services - it will be promoted and supported by ELIXIR in terms of the network and the connections. It gives people more opportunities to work together, and to receive grants from the major funders, as well as ELIXIR itself.

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If you talk to the people who are active in ELIXIR-UK, the main reason they're involved is because of the collaborations and the networks, which bring opportunities.

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What's Earlham Institute's role in ELIXIR-UK?

We are the lead organisation of ELIXIR-UK.

The UK node is a distributed node with 19 members, and we’re hopefully going to be increasing that soon. We’re universities and research institutes spread all around the UK, and the coordination office is based here at the Earlham. Director of the Institute, Neil Hall, is the co-lead of ELIXIR-UK along with Carole Goble of the University of Manchester.

Nicola Soranzo also plays a key role in the activities of ELIXIR. As the ELIXIR-UK Technical Coordinator, he identifies and develops technical interactions between the UK member institutions and the wider ELIXIR communities. He also co-leads the ELIXIR Galaxy Community, which fosters the use and development of Galaxy (a web platform for data-intensive computational research) across Europe.

We also have so much fantastic research and tool development going on at the Earlham Institute, which of course is key to ELIXIR-UK. Without the people doing innovative work in this area we wouldn’t be able to provide the support and services to the wider community - so the Earlham is really vital for ELIXIR-UK.

With 19 current organisation members, ELIXIR-UK is growing fast, with the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich recently joining the programme.

What areas of work is ELIXIR involved in at the moment?

It's largely things like bioinformatics, but a lot of it is about data storage and sharing, particularly FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) data sharing. All of that is very important in the life sciences right now.

In terms of areas of life sciences, we’re pretty broad. Currently we're really focused on trying to build up our health data presence in the UK. One of our management committee, Tim Beck of the University of Leicester, has been really instrumental in building that up.

What's behind the drive to support health data in the UK?

It's an area that is quite complicated when it comes to FAIR data and data sharing because there’s a lot of issues around data privacy, confidentiality and that kind of thing - especially as it’s an area with big money involved. The current COVID pandemic has also shown how vital it is and has pushed us to look at it in more detail.

In the UK there are a number of stakeholders in this area, HDR UK being a major one. We think that, with all of our knowledge on FAIR data and data sharing, we have lots to bring to the table and can work with such organisations to improve how we work with health data - making it FAIR.

How are you bringing the community together to do that?

We’re organising a Health Data Workshop on June 21st, and we think it's going to be really interesting. We've got people from HDR UK speaking and from the ELIXIR hub - Tim Beck has been really good at getting people on board. The Dutch node of ELIXIR is very good with their health data, so someone from there is going to come and speak, too. There will also be breakout groups on FAIR health data and training.

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It's really nice to feel like you're helping people to change the way that we use data in the life sciences.

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What are the benefits of being part of the ELIXIR-UK community?

If you talk to the people who are active in ELIXIR-UK, the main reason they're involved is because of the collaborations and the networks, which bring opportunities.

A lot of our job is making sure that people are aware of what's out there, because there's a lot going on, but it can be quite confusing to find on your own. Our job is to signpost that and highlight it. Every week we send out a brief, which highlights what's going on in different communities and different focus groups.

Just recently, two ELIXIR-UK partners with different services were able to establish a whole new collaboration through some Horizon 2020 funding that they only found out about through our regular ELIXIR-UK newsletter.

A lot of people don't necessarily realise how important data management or all of their services are. That’s why we've started to improve our resources - we've been revamping our website, and we're hoping to add a bit more of a personal element with videos or interviews with people to get people engaged and see how their services actually help people in the real world.

What’s the best thing about ELIXIR-UK?

It's just such a nice community - and the range of different people that you work with. You work with people from research organisations all over the UK and across Europe.

They're also so passionate about it. You wouldn't be involved in ELIXIR if you weren't passionate about FAIR data, or whatever else it may be, because it takes up quite a bit of time, doesn't it? So you have to want to do it.

It's really nice to feel like you're helping people to change the way that we use data in the life sciences.

What's coming up?

We're going to be doing a new call for services soon. So if anyone's working on a project that they think's in line with any of the ELIXIR communities then they’re welcome to apply.

We also recently received funding for a new project to deliver research data management training to the UK community that's going to include a fellowship for people to develop training in their area of data management - so look out for that.

Peter Bickerton

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager