Unlike many end-users, scientists tend to respect IT and look for ways to exploit it. It’s the hugely ambitious expectations and demands that this brings about that provides the context for Alison Davis’s achievement. She has built an IT infrastructure that underpins a £650m research building and the scientific computing platforms integral to its collaborative scientific work – that’s 4.5PB of raw storage and 3,000 cores of compute to support scientific data capture and analysis, plus a migration of 1.5PB of data from legacy servers and sites with no loss.

Job title

Company name
The Francis Crick Institute

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
The Crick is a biomedical research institute. Our goal is to understand the underlying causes of human health and human disease. As such, one could say that everybody is a customer, as any of us could potentially benefit from the discoveries that will be made by Crick scientists. The Crick’s IT is critical to the organisation’s ability to deliver on this goal. Our ability to keep pace with the scientists’ needs from their IT has the ability to very directly influence the quality and speed of research.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
This has been a hugely significant year for the Francis Crick Institute. In August 2016, the Crick achieved practical completion of its new building, the Crick Lab, which has cost some £650m. This building is integral to the Crick’s vision to be able to deliver collaborative science, by providing a state of the art environment that fosters interactions between researchers. The provision of the IT infrastructure that underpins the building and the scientific computing platforms are integral to delivery of this collaboration.

The delivery of the Crick Labs building was later than originally forecast, but there was still a deadline to move into the building by the end of 2016. This meant that the 38-week migration period originally planned had to be compressed into 18 weeks. The IT&S team managed to achieve his successfully, with strongly positive feedback from our end users. The migration was the culmination of some 80 different IT projects required to establish the building and successfully migrate staff.

Highlights include:

  • delivery of the network which provides connectivity for some 26,000 monitoring points on the building management system, and sufficient capacity to transfer high volumes of research data effectively around the building
  • installation of a new scientific computing platform – 4.5PB of raw storage and 3,000 cores of compute to support scientific data capture and analysis
  • successful backup and migration of legacy servers holding approximately 1.5PB of storage from legacy sites with no loss of data
  • successful migration of end-user databases from legacy servers (some run directly by the end-users) into a virtualised environment in the Crick Labs datacentre
  • successful migration of end-user legacy websites into the Crick Labs datacentre.
  • migration of around 2,000 end-user workstations from legacy sites into the Crick Labs; there was no general standardisation of workstations at the legacy sites, so this included a mixture of Mac, Wintel and Linux
  • delivery of 70 Canon multifunction devices (and removal of personal printers, saving support time and effort)
  • roll-out of Cisco Unified Communications to around 1500 users
  • floor-walking support to help all newly arriving labs get up and running effectively, and ‘lab buddy’ support to labs from the IT senior management team to provide a point of escalation
  • implementation of a wayfinding application for the building, to enable scientists to locate colleagues and points of interest.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
The Crick Lab itself is an innovation in the way in which the scientists who have come together to form the Crick will work. The main activity of IT over the past years has been to enable that. In order to deliver it, we have had to introduce technologies that have been new to the Crick and its scientists, if not always particularly leading-edge in industry terms.

  • One particular innovation has been the delivery of the wayfinding application for the Crick, which allows Crick staff in the building to be able to map their location, find colleagues and points of interest. It uses location services based on the Cisco wireless access points, rather than a separate system of iBeacons. We believe that the Crick is the first UK organisation to have implemented this technology.
  • We have also tried to be innovative in the way in which we approach IT security, taking a ‘rights and responsibilities’ approach with end users, rather than a prescriptive, policy-based approach. For example, we are trialling the use of ‘self-managed’ laptops, where scientists get the rights to manage Crick-provided equipment, but are accountable to me as CIO for following good practice guidelines, which we supply.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
The move of the Crick to the new labs is a key enabler in changing the collaboration between the researchers and staff from the legacy institutes that came together to form the Crick. As CIO, I have led my own organisation through a change of bringing together our own staff from four legacy sites into an environment of open plan and hotdesking at the same time as we have been supporting the rest of the organisation in making this move.

IT has also demonstrated a change in its level of visibility to the end-user community in the new building, with a centrally located helpdesk and identifiable floor walkers (wearing burgundy polo shirts) being available as users moved in. I led by example and also wore a polo shirt to participate in floor walking activities in the early phases of the moves.

One particular area of change has been persuading people not to bring their personal printers from the legacy sites, but to make the transition to using multifunction devices. I was personally involved in supporting the management of this change, which despite initial reservations from users has been very successful, with praise for the implementation from a number of scientists, including our chief executive.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
The Crick’s activities are inherently digital in that IT is an integral part of research. There has been limited need to explain that to the organisation. However, there is still work to do in the dialogue around information security to ensure that there is a balance of rights and responsibilities.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
In order to deliver the Crick labs, we have had to work with a number of key suppliers and it has been important to us to ensure that we have had shared goals in order to successfully deliver. One particular example is North Highland, which has been a key project delivery partner. We had a particular challenge in the delays to delivery of the building, and had to work with the North Highland team to ensure effective use and reforecasting of resources during the delay period to minimise additional costs of delay to the Crick. In the end, we were able to manage the delay with only about one-third of the original projected cost overrun.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
I strongly believe in the value of a diverse team and I am very proud to have led teams over my career with great diversity. The Crick is inherently a very diverse institution – 70% of the researchers come from outside the UK. Although there is not a formal mentoring scheme at the Crick, I have taken a lead in mentoring staff, including (but not exclusively) female managers. I am a member of a women’s CIO network and recently took two of my women managers to a meeting so they could meet other women CIOs.

I believe in a value that was expressed by one of my former organisations as ‘everyone deserves special treatment’, and I try to work with individuals according to their personal styles and circumstances.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
The IT organisation is organised in two main groups: core IT and scientific computing. The core IT team is responsible for the platforms and infrastructure used by the organisation as a whole. They are fully trained in ITIL principles and we are currently running an effective operations programme, which will embed the processes and policies for working in the new building. The scientific computing team works closely with the researchers on specialist scientific solutions, across HPC, big data, research applications development, digital development and databases.

This organisation allows us to operate in a bimodal way, with core IT delivering robust and sustainable platforms, while scientific computing is typically more agile and can partner closely with scientists on sandbox solutions. However, it also operates as a matrix, with high-performing teams made up of staff from both areas coming together to deliver solutions. For example, the migration of laboratory websites from the legacy organisations involved a cross-functional team to build new VMs and migrate the digital content.

In terms of ensuring that our priorities are aligned with the wider organisation, the Crick has an IT governance committee, which is chaired by the COO and a scientific computing steering group, chaired by the director of scientific operations. Business cases for new projects have clearly defined benefits associated with them, and the IT&S objectives are linked to the organisational ‘Discovery Without Boundaries 2018’ overall mission and vision.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
Block and Cisco provide us with our networking equipment, unified communications suite and associated services. The network is key to our ability to support a state of the art building.

OCF as a systems integrator, together with Lenovo, DDN and Mellanox, has supplied the initial storage and compute capabilities for the new building. This currently amounts to around 3,000 cores and 4.5PB of raw storage, which are now installed and in use by Crick scientists.

We are working with Arkivum, on a JISC framework, to supply nearline archiving of our systems. Initially this has been to archive legacy data.

We are part of the JISC Southern Data Centre, which is provided by Virtus. This is currently used to house the collaborative biomedical research analysis platform, eMedLab, which is shared with other partners (UCL, QMUL, Sanger).

In more exploratory areas, we are working on research with a number of external partners to explore how their cloud solutions can be used to benefit the Crick’s research.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?
The coming year is going to be a time of bedding in the technology that we have installed and making sure that we are fully exploiting it as an institute to provide a strong platform for future growth. We also need to ensure that we make a successful phase change from a setup project into business as usual, with effective operational delivery.

Specific activities include:

  • further development of the Crick scientific computing platform, to refactor legacy storage and implement further tiers of storage
  • work on data presentation and curation to enhance data management and allow for effective use of scientific data
  • development of models and processes to support the sustainable development of scientific data storage
  • increasing end user and senior executive awareness of information security risks and responsibilities
  • full uptake of document management, with clear user engagement about how to efficiently and effectively exploit the institute solutions for a variety of use cases
  • understanding the true cost of the mixed end-user computing platform (Mac/Wintel/Linux) to the Crick; this ‘mixed economy’ is seen as necessary for science, but it is important that the cost can be articulated.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
I have been part of Brexit discussions with the Crick executive and the board. There are two key areas where Brexit is likely to have an impact on the Crick. The first relates to the ability of scientists from the EU to come and work in the UK. The researchers currently working at the Crick come from over 70 countries, with the majority being from EU member states. If the Crick is restricted in its access to the best worldwide talent, this will affect the quality of the scientific activity. There is also a potential impact in terms of access to European funding from grants. IT has minimal influence on these two areas.

There is a more practical element, which is simply keeping abreast of any risks to the IT cost base –for example, through suppliers increasing prices.


When did you start your current role?
November 2013

What is your reporting line?

Are you a member of the executive leadership?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
There are no other emerging roles of this type employed by the organisation. The digital development team sits in my function.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
I meet with our CEO, Paul Nurse, as needed, rather than on a formal basis. On average I probably see Paul once every fortnight. He takes a lively interest in IT.

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?


What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
Approximately 60% on operational spend and 40% on new developments, including growth of storage and compute to support new R&D.


Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. Analyst houses
  2. CIO peers
  3. Consultants
  4. Media
  5. Industry bodies


Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
No dedicated professional. We work with an information security working group which I lead and which is a working party of the institute security steering group.


Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?

How many employees are there in your IT team?

Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?


Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • cloud
  • datacentre/infrastructure/server
  • security
  • enterprise applications
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • devices (desktop).

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • cloud
  • datacentre/infrastructure/server
  • security
  • AR/VR
  • enterprise applications
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • devices (mobile)
  • devices (desktop)
  • networking/communications

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
VR, machine learning, data visualisation techniques for large imaging data, and orchestration layers for handling big data from multiple sources.


Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?