GBC Executive Director considers the real meaning of biodata sustainability

Jun 21, 2023

Guy Cochrane

With very few exceptions, life sciences research activities either generate or consume research data and very typically they do both. Biologists share, manage and make these data accessible to researchers through the world’s biodata resources which form a globally distributed infrastructure comprising many thousands of databases and connected data services.
Sustainability of the biodata resources and the infrastructure as a whole is key to the life sciences research endeavour and its benefit to society. Without access to this infrastructure, life science research activities would slow or stop altogether and the onward impacts of scientific progress, including for example drug discovery and tackling biodiversity loss, would be severely compromised.

Sustainability for biodata resources starts, of course, with funding, which must be both sufficient and stable. Sustainability also requires strong alignment between the funding organisations’ requirements and those of the resource or infrastructure being supported.

However, funding alone is not enough to assure sustainability. Engagement with the user community around each resource, and adding value for users for example by capturing and responding to feedback about services and content, are also vital. Users must be confident that the interfaces providing access are professional and reliable, and that available content is up to date and presented in the appropriate context. Alignment to relevant regulatory and legal requirements and healthy operational separation of the services provided by biodata resources from individual research programmes are also important. Appropriate governance comes into play across many of these aspects. Ultimately, of course, efforts to provide continuity and consistency of services will fail if data resources can’t attract and retain appropriately skilled staff to manage them; offering compelling career opportunities is also a factor in sustainability.

Dr Guy Cochrane, Executive Director of the Global Biodata Coalition. Photo credit: Jeff Dowling

While many of these features of sustainability are important for all stakeholders in the biodata resource infrastructure, those who have a particular interest in the health of the overall biodata infrastructure, such as institutions operating a portfolio of data resources or research funding bodies wishing to secure the best infrastructure to support their research programmes, also consider further features that define the sustainable biodata infrastructure as a whole.

This broader perspective considers, for example, the responsiveness of the infrastructure as a whole and its adaptability to the changing needs of science as new data types emerge and legacy technologies become less important. By necessity, these organisations are seeking an infrastructure that is neutral, able to buffer threats that emerge from political change and one that is protected from “monopolies”. Cost-effectiveness and efficiency will also always be important priorities, as will an appropriate level of redundancy able to provide failover and strong connectivity between biodata resources and data infrastructure beyond the life sciences, such as in the areas of health or the environment.

Through its collaborations with the managers of biodata resources, funding organisations and broader stakeholders, the Global Biodata Coalition is working towards a model to describe biodata resource sustainability. As well as enumerating the elements of sustainability, this model will help support the evaluation of the level of sustainability of resources and the infrastructure and direct development work towards greater sustainability. The road to biodata sustainability is long but the course is being plotted and the journey has begun.