Office of Scientific Information Management takes shape
By Eddy Ball
Knowledge management is a crosscutting theme of the 2012-2017 NIEHS strategic plan. With approval in June from NIH, NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., is proceeding with implementation of the Institute’s Office of Scientific Information Management (OSIM). She charged the new office with facilitating a more collaborative approach to science through data sharing and identifying the technology infrastructure required to enhance data analysis and discovery.
Birnbaum named NIEHS senior advisor Allen Dearry, Ph.D., as OSIM director. Dearry will coordinate efforts of three staff — Data Scientist Rebecca Boyles, Informationist Stephanie Holmgren, and Library Manager Erin Knight.
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As Dearry explained, “Changes in technologies and methods have shifted the bottleneck in scientific productivity from data production to data management, communication, and interpretation.”
“All of us, no matter what field of biomedical research we are in, are inundated with data,” Dearry explained. “This situation presents the intramural and extramural communities with challenges in terms of collecting, storing, managing, and disseminating data effectively.”
By creating this new office, NIEHS is establishing itself alongside other NIH and federal information science activities. OSIM staff members, along with others across the Institute, are representing NIEHS on workgroups to develop new trans-NIH data science policies and initiatives. Dearry serves on the NIH Big Data to Knowledge executive committee and is co-chairing the interagency Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program’s Big Data Senior Steering Group.
The ultimate goal of data coordination and sharing is to maximize NIEHS and NTP research investments, greatly increasing discovery of how the environment influences human health and disease. As data scientist, Boyles will begin by helping to establish a trans-NIEHS scientific data council. She will also assess the scope of NIEHS data sets, tools, and management practices.
“Environmental sciences data encompasses a very broad range of data types from biological and genetic data, to environmental and population information,” Boyles said. “This presents a special challenge for determining collection protocol, tagging or identifying data, and making data accessible to the scientific community.”
As scientists engage in research using massive quantities of data, better tools for data curation and analysis will make it easier for them to see patterns that emerge from their data, and then to make quality judgments about what those patterns mean.
An informationist is someone who has a combined knowledge of library science and biomedical subject matter, and is embedded in a group to provide information services tailored to meet that group’s specific research needs. Holmgren, who served as acting director of the NIEHS Library for two years, started as an informationist in 2006. In her new role with OSIM, she will provide comprehensive literature searches, identification and evaluation of new databases and research tools, and assistance with content management. Holmgren will also develop a program to train research, policy, and program staff interested in becoming informationists within their groups.
As a foundational element of OSIM, Knight and her staff are at the forefront of providing modern-day library services to the Institute’s scientists, and can help researchers navigate the vast amount of information available to them.
The NIEHS Library continues to evolve from its traditional print model to a more online presence, offering NIEHS staff access to electronic resources, including more than 6,000 e-journals and 1,500 e-books, as well as many scientific databases. Professional librarians continue to provide reference and document delivery assistance, literature searches, and instruction on e-resources that will help researchers save time and money. The library professionals are also available for help with special projects and one-on-one consultations.
Like other activities of OSIM, the NIEHS library will increasingly reach out to NIEHS scientists and administrators, in order to ensure the library collection and services continue to evolve and stay relevant for the benefit of the Institute. Library staff will also work closely with, and support, the data science and informationist programs.
“I look forward to the contributions of this new office. It will help us meet the challenges of information science, research collaboration, and data-driven environmental health research,” Birnbaum said.