Reflections from the recent IAB meeting (March 21, 2017)

What is the main purpose of SciLifeLab? Is it a national infrastructure providing service to all scientists in Sweden? A collaboration platform locally for the four host Universities? An international research center recruiting top scientists? A center facilitating impact for the society in health and environment research? Simple questions, but depending on who you ask, you often get different answers.

SciLifeLab has many stakeholders with different opinions and interests. There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but it is critically important that we work better together and achieve the right balance and communicate it well. SciLifeLab has already been a success in a number of ways, but there are also many areas that still need improvement. With some 3000 infrastructure projects annually, involving a community of over 1200 scientists at the four host universities but also at other universities across the country, SciLifeLab is a big organization that will need to change gradually.

The government has recently provided a 4-year budget for funding SciLifeLab in 2017-2020. This provides long-term continuity and an opportunity to develop the organization systematically and in a number of fronts. In addition, we will have to start working on strategies to ensure the continuity and expansion of government funding from the year 2021 onwards.

Two weeks ago we hosted distinguished guests to ponder these and many other key questions about the future of SciLifeLab as the International Advisory Board (IAB) visited SciLifeLab for the second time on March 8-9. This is a very high level, insightful and engaged group of experienced top-level scientists and science leaders from all over Europe, USA and Asia. The IAB members heard many presentations, asked lots of questions and interacted with the SciLifeLab community, from rectors to PhD students, in a number of ways. The management group presented the progress during the past two years and highlighted future plans and challenges. All new platforms and facilities were introduced. Scientific highlights were presented, and the SciLifeLab fellows met with the IAB to elaborate on the challenges that they have been facing.

The IAB will give recommendations and follow up the progress of SciLifeLab, thereby helping the management group and the national board to decide about the long-term directions. The views of IAB are also important to the government and to all of our stakeholders, including the host universities and the entire life science community at SciLifeLab and in Sweden. We expect to receive a written report from the IAB in about a month and will distribute this document to the SciLifeLab community and to our stakeholders. Therefore, I will not try to predict on what the IAB report will contain, but will touch upon some of the key topics that were discussed. These are also issues that we want to engage our community to think about.

In 2016, we carried out an international evaluation of all the SciLifeLab infrastructures and a new platform organization was decided upon and funded for 2+2 years. Work is now underway to formally launch this new infrastructure platform structure. Genomics and bioinformatics platforms will still undergo further assessment before their long-term budgets are decided upon. In 2017, the management group will continue to work closely with the infrastructure platforms, including the life cycle plan for technologies, facilities and platforms. We will launch the new infrastructure organization and the associated new web navigation by summer 2017. We will further develop plans towards a data-centric SciLifeLab, which consist of developing a link from all platforms to the bioinformatics facilities and to the data office.

Research profile at SciLifeLab
In 2017, we will also give more attention to the coordination of research activities at SciLifeLab. The high-quality infrastructures have helped to create a national brand for SciLifeLab, with international visibility. However, we also need to have a clearer research focus to achieve more international recognition. National infrastructures at SciLifeLab are open to all qualified scientists in Sweden (”breadth”), while the research profile at SciLifeLab should have the potential to reach the international frontline in selected areas (i.e. ”depth”). While infrastructures are largely funded from national government funding controlled by the board, science funding often comes in small bits and pieces from the host universities, the government SFO support as well as numerous grants that the individual PIs raise and control. Thus, the coordination of research is much more complex and has to focus on creating the right environment, critical mass, and collaborations across universities.

Research programs and fellows
One idea that we are considering is to launch SciLifeLab research programs and make them a powerful and dynamic complementation to the infrastructure platforms. However, a number of questions emerge: How should we launch these research programs? How big and what kind of programs should be included? How do we anchor them with the technology platforms, the host universities as well as with the national mission? Another critical issue is also how we can improve the coordination of the SciLifeLab fellows program. This program is of central importance to the profile of SciLifeLab, but there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome to make the program work more smoothly across the host universities.

Synergy between infrastructures and research
SciLifeLab was built on a technological base. We would now like to continue from there to foster the creation of internationally leading research programs. During the IAB meeting, we discussed the importance of the synergistic interaction between research and infrastructures. Excellent research requires excellent infrastructures and top infrastructures need top scientists as users and contributors to the future development. We need to retain the access of SciLifeLab infrastructures to all qualified scientists, but also balance the desire to have more stringent prioritization of projects based on scientific quality, in order to improve turnaround times and help to create excellent science.

Ongoing organizational change at SciLifeLab
During 2016, the SciLifeLab management group worked with the host universities to improve the organizational structure of SciLifeLab. The central idea is to build an organization across the universities having better synergy and coordination. We now have scientific directors who represent all the four host universities in the management group and also participate in the SciLifeLab committees (formerly SFO groups) at each host university. This should significantly improve the creation of a ”united SciLifeLab”, where we work closer together across all the host universities, both in Stockholm and Uppsala, but also across the nation, integrate SFO support and national funding better, as well as seek synergies between infrastructures and research.

Upcoming topics
In the next issue of this newsletter, we will discuss the new SciLifeLab organization in more detail as well as its implications for the SciLifeLab community. We have also planned Community Updates regarding the IAB report when it has been published, the new SciLifeLab infrastructures, the life cycle plan of research infrastructures, the SciLifeLab fellows program, planning of the research program concept as it goes forward and many other things.

Best regards,
Olli Kallioniemi and the SciLifeLab national management group