Speaking out: Henk Wals, director of DANS
We have been talking to Henk Wals, who has been the director of DANS, the Dutch institute for permanent access to digital research data, since April, 1.
One of Henk Wals’s new responsibilities is the positioning of DANS in the Dutch and European data landscape. He explains: “It’s all about the movement towards open science. As research data and results are shared faster and better, the circulation of knowledge accelerates and scientific outcomes are achieved at a faster pace. The public importance of organisations promoting this trend is great. This also applies to institutions involved in long-term preservation. DANS does both. We preserve research data and make it available to others. That’s what motivated me to take this job.”
Henk Wals sees many opportunities and challenges. “How do we keep our services in line with the accelerating development of technology and scientific practice in the longer term? In the Netherlands, over a hundred of organisations and departments are dealing with data, storage, infrastructures and so on. How do we organise that landscape, how do we agree to connect research data and how do we avoid wasteful duplication of services? Fortunately, serious attention is now being paid to these aspects by initiatives such as the National Platform for Open Science (NPOS) and the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). I believe we should work towards a network organisation that has a well-defined division of tasks, good coordination and solid agreements in place. However, network thinking requires a cultural shift that must not be underestimated. It will take some time.”
“DANS can make a valuable contribution to such a network. For a start, we have many years of experience in offering open access to and long-term preservation of research data. That is rare in our landscape. We also have a lot of expertise that we can share, for example through training and consultancy, not least because DANS itself conducts research into data archiving and data use. This is essential to keep up with the rapid development of technology and scientific practice. It will allow us to play a part in driving innovation within the network. There is the added advantage of us being part of the research world. Take, for example, all the partnerships in which DANS is already playing a coordinating role. We know fairly well what’s going on and what is needed. With multiple international connections and European projects, DANS could also contribute to strengthening the Dutch position in Europe.”
“What I noticed in my introductory talks is that the DANS staff are very capable and extremely motivated. There’s a great atmosphere. Henk Harmsen, director of operations, is going to retire this year, but my predecessor Peter Doorn will remain with DANS as a researcher. He’ll be available for advice, which is good. I am very confident that I’ll be working successfully with deputy director Ingrid Dillo. She has extensive knowledge and plays a vital role in many international data organisations. A knowledge-intensive organisation like DANS depends entirely on the quality and motivation of the people who work there. I have no worries in that respect.”
Strengthening the data infrastructure
“In short, I think DANS has everything it takes to be a useful hub in a network of Dutch and European institutions that contribute to the data infrastructure. We are prepared to commit to such a role, and KNAW and NWO support the idea, I have been assured.”
Henk Wals is a social and economic historian. He studied and obtained his PhD at the University of Amsterdam. He was the director of Huygens-ING and, most recently, general director of the International Institute of Social History (IISH). Both of these data centres have played an important role in the development of the digital infrastructure for the humanities. In 2016, Huygens ING and IISH, together with the Meertens Institute, became part of the KNAW Humanities Cluster, a research organization of approximately 300 FTEs with a strong emphasis on digital humanities and digital infrastructure. Wals was chairman of the management team until 2020. From 1995 to 1999 he was a board member of the Dutch Association for History and Informatics (VGI), from which the Netherlands Historical Data Archive (NHDA) had emerged in the late 1980s. When the NHDA was looking for organisational shelter and funding, Peter Doorn and Henk Wals turned the NHDA into a KNAW institute in 1995. The NHDA later merged into NIWI, from which DANS was created in 2005. Peter Wals was also a member of the steering committee for the Historical Sample of the Dutch Population (HSN). From this position, he worked with NIWI/DANS on NWO applications and projects. In the 21st century he was chairman of the E-Data and Research journal and national coordinator of DARIAH, succeeding Peter Doorn. In addition to being DANS director, Henk Wals chairs the supervisory board of CLARIAH, in which DANS has a seat too. He is also a board member of the Digital Heritage Network (NDE).