“Open science must be built from the bottom up”

Published: 2023-02-06

Björn Halleröd has long been passionate about open science and for making it possible for researchers to share data. He has also played a significant role in how SND has developed over the years. Now he will take on the role as chair of SND’s steering committee. In this interview, he talks about his commitment, the new assignment, and even reveals something unexpected about him.

Photo of Björn Halleröd
Björn Halleröd, Professor of Sociology at the University of Gothenburg, is the new chair of SND’s steering committee.

Already in 2001, when the Swedish Research Council was founded, Björn Halleröd was on the Scientific Council for Humanities and Social Sciences. He was also active in the reference group for the Swedish Social Science Data Service (SSD), which later became SND. What started as sporadic efforts to share research data has, over the past 15 years, developed into intensive work on open science, both nationally and internationally. Björn Halleröd’s own research has increasingly been based on existing data, collected in long time series. He jokingly describes himself as a “data predator” and says that he tries to practice what he preaches in his own research.

Why is open science and open data important?

“There are two things that make it important. One is the purely scientific aspect, that you can follow up the research, have access to the data, verify the results. There has to be a transparency in the system, so to speak. Research has to be reproducible, and you must be able to understand it.

The second aspect is economic efficiency; to ensure that investments can be reused. It can be a matter of simplifying research when you conduct new experiments or collect new data. You can also use old data for new studies. Additionally, the use of existing data is central to all areas where reality changes. After all, you can’t study how things change if there are no previous data. In that way, access to open data is a crucial quality requirement for research.”

What are the most fundamental actions going forward to achieve the goal of open access to research data by 2026?

“We must continue the work that provides researchers with tools, support, and procedures to manage data with metadata and other elements that mean that the data can actually be reused. This must be done in a way that is meaningful to researchers. It’s not something you can force on them; that won’t yield any quality.

It’s also a financial issue as it takes time. It requires resources. It’s quite easy to say that this is something you have to do regardless.

I also believe that we need discipline-specific discussions about which data to preserve. We can’t save all data. I think that organizations such as SND, in close collaboration with researchers, must have some form of ongoing assessment of which data are useful and which data are actually used.”

How do you think that the discussion about which data to preserve should be conducted, considering that it can be quite sensitive?

“These discussions must reasonably be conducted within the scientific community, by those who understand the subject.

You can say that there is a dividing line between reproducible data, where you can make another observation and see the same thing, and data that can’t be reproduced because they’re unique for their time. And this isn’t just data about society and individuals, but also in fields such as ecology and climate, for example. These unique data have to be saved. We can see that research in all disciplines has gone from studying the here and now to also studying changes.”

What are your most important lessons from the work you’ve done so far in open science, including your years at the Swedish Research Council?

“If you’re outside of research in the role of, for example, a politician, it’s extremely easy to say that open data is self-evident; the government has paid money to collect data, so those data should be used as much as possible. They may not fully understand the costs and the complexity involved. They come up with an idea like EOSC and think that if we launch this, we’re home.

If you don’t ensure that there are local, national, and international structures in place, it’s never going to work. It must be done on the grassroot level of research. Understanding this and what it means is a challenge. If you were to build a large organization top-down, it would cost an enormous amount of money and would probably fail.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea behind EOSC, but academia and the research structures around it have to be involved, because that’s where the work has to be done. It must be built from the bottom up.”

You’re now taking on the role as chair of SND’s steering committee, which we are glad to see. Why did you agree to it?

“I think this is something very important and it’s great if I can contribute in some small way. It’s been exciting to see how SND has developed over the past few years. There’s very much that could be done to improve the cooperation between different authorities, where I can only mention the Swedish Research Council and the universities. There are also so many interesting areas to work with, such as ethics review issues and similar matters.”

Is there anything specific in the work with open data that you want to promote as part of your assignment for SND?

“A steering committee shouldn’t be bogged down with the small issues; it should be used to identify central strategic questions. One strategic question that affects much of the research in medicine and social sciences is collaboration with other authorities, especially with healthcare and the regions. There is a lot happening now to make data accessible, but accessibility relies on coordination. We need to get collaborations in place. It would be fantastic if SND became the coordinating organization for this.”

What do you think about the future development of SND after the current funding period?

“There have been several investigations in the field of open data, but so far, nothing is happening from the political side regarding the proposal for a new authority, for example. The only ones who can keep pushing this question are the universities and the Swedish Research Council. They have to say that there’s a proposal that we want to move forward. SND can also be a discussion partner and drive this question.”

You’ve had previous assignments similar to your role on SND’s steering committee. What would you say characterizes you as a chair?

“You have three central tasks as a chair:
The first is ensure that meeting times are kept and that you stick to the agenda.
The second is to ensure that everyone who wants to speak gets the opportunity to do so.
The third, and perhaps most important, is to make sure that what is on the agenda is meaningful to those who participate. We don’t want to spend time on discussions where members feel that they can’t influence the outcome. They need to feel involved, otherwise you won’t get anything out of them.”

You’re a familiar face to many in Sweden who work with questions about research infrastructures and data sharing. But can you tell us something about yourself that no one would expect from you?

“I took a beginner’s course in classical ballet for adults. It was in spring 2015 and I know the person who taught the course. It’s probably the strangest thing I’ve done, I think. I can’t say that I was a star, and I never knew my muscles could be so sore.”

A little more about Björn Halleröd

  • 62 years old.
  • Married.
  • Professor of Sociology at the University of Gothenburg.
  • Chair of SND’s steering committee since 1 January.
  • Currently researching to what extent parents’ religion influence girls’ and boys’ educational opportunities. The project reuses data from the 1990s onwards from Demographic and Health Surveys, collected by USAID (United States Agency for International Development).
  • Lives in Gothenburg and grew up on Orust.
  • Moved to Umeå after his military service and started studying sociology. The plan was to be there for a year – but he stayed for 28.
  • Believes that it is underrated to do nothing at all in his spare time, but has a summer cottage at Bokenäset, where he digs ditches, does drainage work, and reads books.