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Jacob de Vlieg

"The main challenge is to implement a cultural change with respect to the way we approach science and assess scientific efforts."

CEO and Scientific Director Netherlands e-Science Centre
Professor of Computational Design & Discovery, Radboud University Nijmegen (part-time)
Group size: appr. 18 at e-Science Centre (incl. on site engineers); 5 at RU Nijmegen.

1. What is the leading research theme in your group?
"The main objective of the Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC) is to promote and undertake modern, data driven science and thereby change the way we do research. Our goal is to innovate science using advanced ICT and we believe the advances we make in one discipline are often relevant to other research areas. We do not focus on a single specific scientific question or discipline, but we try to make better use of proven technologies and existing ICT tools and infrastructures by actively setting up interactions between different fields of research. A recent example is a collaboration between bioinformaticians, visualization experts and researchers in the plant breeding industry. Our current activities span a broad range of areas, for example ecology, climate research, water management, linguistics and social sciences. This broad orientation is essential to create new opportunities for innovation and creative re-use of powerful eScience in new domains.”

2. With what type of groups or organisations do you collaborate most and why?
“Our portfolio of projects includes partners from practically every university and many of the knowledge organisations in the Netherlands. All of our projects are collaborations between our eScience engineers, who work at the interface of science and IT, and project teams working in academic environments. Just as exciting is the growing interest of industrial groups that want to work with NLeSC.”

3. From your research perspective, what are the main challenges in bioinformatics right now?
"In general, the main challenge is to implement a cultural change with respect to the way we approach science and assess scientific efforts. The dominant force is to come up with something new. However, there are already so many proven ICT & bioinformatics technologies out there that we want to focus our attention to using and implementing those first. This will ensure scientific, social and economical value. And it will help to define the fundamental research questions of tomorrow. Basic research will always be necessary and essential but we don't want to reinvent the wheel. We also want to explore existing informatics alternatives developed in different scientific domains. Too often, new and powerful ICT findings do not generate any impact in the field and that is a waste. This is in part a result of academics being primarily judged by their publication records, which requires “new” developments to be publishable. We need to develop new standards for recognizing and assessing the output of science. Developing and making available sustainable and high quality tools is e.g. an alternative way to measure output of academic ICT research.”

4. What is your most important task as CEO?
"I am lucky to have a team of very motivated and skilled eScience engineers with strong networks and proven track records in delivering informatics driven innovation. In many ways my role is to provide guidance and ensure they are working in an environment that allows them to continue delivering that scientific impact. Another key asset of NLeSC is its team of Integrators, experts from various scientific disciplines and domains with a history of driving innovation in that discipline by the use of eScience and advanced ICT. They help determine the direction of NLeSC, devise and lead new projects and represent us at domain meetings we could otherwise never have reached. My role is to turn the outcomes of their exchange of ideas into concrete projects, where a technology or model developed by one area is applied in a completely different setting. One can compare it to translational medicine: we are in “translational ICT science”. Together with the Integrators we bridge the gap between ICT and modern science and R&D. NLeSC should eventually be judged on its contribution to scientific breakthroughs and on its social and business value. As CEO I am ultimately responsible for this, but I am very glad to have such a driven and talented team to share that responsibility with."

5. Where do you see room for improvement in your organisation?
"When it comes to bridging the gap between industry and academia, we still encounter inflexible attitudes when it comes to trying to understand the other. Although the situation has certainly improved, often those seem two completely different worlds. The nature of our team and the structure of NLeSC, including its start-up mentality, means we are well placed to bridge that difficult gap.”

Text by: Esther Thole.