"No country can manage in isolation"

In an interview about the international ELIXIR project, we learn how research works across national borders.

Published on 03.09.2015

More and more research involves teams that are spread out all over the world. Cross-border access to documents is thus essential, meaning that authentication and authorisation need to work internationally.
We spoke to Tommi Nyrönen of ELIXIR Finland (see box), who explained just how crucial it is for international research to be able to access files across national borders.

What sort of things are the life scientists using the ELIXIR infrastructure working on?
Tommi Nyrönen:
In Finland, our node hosted at the CSC-IT Center for Science is working with local organisations that do, for example, molecular-level studies of cancer, genetic diagnosis of dogs and horses, and basic research into resolving the birch tree genome.

What are the biggest challenges you face in the ELIXIR project?
The amount of data produced by research of this type is one challenge, but it is also demanding in terms of expertise. The data created have to be annotated and structured according to international standards and shared collectively with other countries.

There are some rare diseases caused by genetic variation that must be put into the larger reference data context before they are properly diagnosed.

What is special about working on a pan-European project?
It is about challenges that no country can manage in isolation. The life science ecosystem is global. The application of genetics in healthcare is emerging at an accelerated speed as the public starts to understand the possibilities in light of real-world examples. There are some rare diseases caused by genetic variation that must be put into the larger reference data context before they are properly diagnosed. Doctors are seeking to diagnose the root of these diseases, and they will be able to optimise treatments when provided with molecular-level data. Now, this is a real challenge. How do we make data available online for research to create services that pull intelligence for those who need it when they need it? Once a service has been created relying on the data, how do we keep the whole distributed infrastructure together so that critical operators like healthcare providers can build on it? These types of challenges outline what ELIXIR nodes like CSC need to make happen within ELIXIR in collaboration with the European e-Infrastructure.

How are you working together with GÉANT at the CSC-IT Center for Science to overcome these challenges?
Research data volumes have to move seamlessly around the continent. The reference data for human genetic variation alone is hundreds of terabytes. The data created and published need to be shared and channelled back into research effectively. On top of that, ELIXIR provides data sets describing other animals, insects, plants, bacteria, viruses and all other life forms on the planet. Volumes more than double every year. This is where GÉANT and national research and education network providers play a key infrastructure role. The goal is to bring online processing of biological data to researchers where they need it and when they need it. This way, we are eventually able to create biotechnology applications. When the discovery of existing research data stored in ELIXIR data centres is made easier, savings are also possible as duplication of basic research reduces.

The goal is to bring online processing of biological data to researchers where they need it and when they need it.

What role does eduGAIN play in ELIXIR's efforts to support life scientists?
Most of the data produced by public research are shared on the Internet. However, in some cases data needs to be protected at least for a certain time for ethical, legal, societal or business reasons. In these cases the data service providers who host, distribute and share those data have to create an access control mechanism. In the case of ELIXIR, the plan is for this to be set up with the bodies who have the authority to grant access based on, for example, acceptance of terms of use. Typically, these are the original data creators like leaders of EU framework projects or biobank sample cohorts. Since eduGAIN is a prospective candidate to provide a single sign-on for the biomedical community services that need a login, we have decided to rely on this existing, trusted European network to first electronically identify researchers who seek an access-controlled dataset for their work. Once the proper level of assurance regarding the identity has been achieved, the data-access committees can process requests based on the rules that apply to the protected data using tools provided by ELIXIR.

In your view, what role should eduGAIN play for research going forward?
I think eduGAIN and GÉANT enabling user actions have been instrumental in moving forward together to work on life science data infrastructure challenges. Especially for open but sensitive data, we must offer a level of security to ensure that users with access to data are recognised researchers. Scientific communities stand at different starting points in the implementation of federated identity management technologies. Proactivity from the eduGAIN provider to understand the needs of the life science community is highly desirable, and vice versa; the life science community needs to learn what it can expect eduGAIN to deliver.

This article is based on Paul Maurice's interview with Tommi Nyrönen, which appeared in the May 2014 issue of CONNECT magazine. SWITCH has edited it slightly with Nyrönen's consent. CONNECT is published by the European research network GÉANT.
This article appeared in the SWITCH Journal October 2015.

Tommi Nyrönen@ELIXIR

Tommi Nyrönen is in charge of the Finnish node of ELIXIR, a life science research infrastructure project covering laboratories in 17 participating European countries and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). ELIXIR provides services that help in managing the huge volumes of data generated by life science research. Nyrönen works at CSC, the IT Center for Science in Finland.
SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics is the Swiss node of ELIXIR.


eduGAIN is an interfederation infrastructure that connects over 30 national AAI infrastructures around the world. The SWITCHaai Federation was one of the first eduGAIN members. Membership of eduGAIN allows Swiss AAI users to access data and services in other national AAI federations. At the same time, Swiss AAI services can offer university members and researchers in other countries secure, trusted access via eduGAIN. eduGAIN makes cross-border collaboration easier, which can be especially beneficial to major international research projects.

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