illustration Hadi Quesneville and the art of data

3 min

Hadi Quesneville and the art of data

Big data, open science, open data — data are taking an increasingly important role, as much in science as in everyday life. Hadi Quesneville is one of the first Chief Data Officers to be appointed by a research institute in France. He speaks about his new role in this burgeoning field and discusses the issues facing open science today.

Published on 22 December 2020

To help research institutions develop and implement policies on scientific data, the Research Data College of the French Committee for Open Science published seven recommendations (in French), which included appointing a Chief Data Officer and establishing a network of data points-of-contact with research institutions. Fascinated by plant genomes, Hadi Quesneville joined INRAE as a research director and head of the Genomics - Informatics Research Unit (URGI), where data was a part of his everyday work. In 2020, he became INRAE’s first Chief Data Officer. What career path led him to this role? What does the job consist of?

Seeing the big picture on big data

Hadi Quesneville worked as a lecturer at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris and in a joint research unit at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). In 2007, he joined INRA (now INRAE) as a research director and head of the Genomics - Informatics Research Unit (URGI), which had been located in Evry and later moved to Versailles. URGI specialises in plants and plant parasites. “Plant genomics has always fascinated me,” says Hadi, “so I was thrilled by the opportunity to work at INRA.” He began to focus his research work on genome analysis and in particular “that aspect of genomes that we still did not have a good way of annotating: mobile genetic elements, so that we can study their evolution and their functional roles.”  With his team, Hadi developed software and databases to carry out this work. The amount of genomics data collected was ever expanding. This leads to issues about access and computation. How should the data be stored? How can it be extracted? Hadi realised he had to rethink how he stored huge datasets in the databases he developed for his work, and began adapting the databases to be more effective.

Opening data is the start of a virtuous circle

As the director of URGI research unit, Hadi was also involved in the construction of information systems. Notably, he coordinated the development of a single-access web-based system for accessing worldwide data on wheat called WheatIS — a part of the international Wheat Initiative. This brought Hadi ever deeper into the intriguing and boundless world of data. He finds data fascinating and thanks to his interdisciplinary background, on 1 March 2020, he was appointed as Chief Data Officer. “I couldn’t be more pleased. The role is really wonderful for satisfying my own personal curiosity as it will take me from genomics into so many other areas: soil, climate, biology, economics, social sciences. I’ll be dealing with research issues but also with issues around disseminating, promoting and using research. It’s really exciting to be in a role with such a wide scope.”

Towards a new industrial revolution

Data is having a profound impact on our lives

“Nowadays, many people believe that data is driving a new industrial revolution. Our society has been transformed by the arrival of smartphones, social networks, drones, sensors and the Internet. A lot of innovation now comes from data,” says Hadi. This data boom is bringing about deep changes in society. Data is driving decision-making processes in both business and in government. It’s really having a profound impact on our lives. “INRAE creates all kinds of data. It’s vital that we find the best ways to make use of it. It’s a thrilling opportunity.” As a part of his everyday work, Hadi is involved in developing road maps for various INRAE divisions, including the Directorate for Open Science (DIPSO) and the Directorate for Partnerships and Innovation Transfer. He works with data issues outside of INRAE as well through, for example, his activities with a working group created by the French ministry for research, which brings together his counterparts from other research institutions, and with stakeholders in Europe. Hadi is also passionate about visual arts, and sees many connections between science and art. “In one as much as in the other, discussions and exchanges are the source of inspiration. They are essential for developing new ideas and nurturing intuition.”

Governance, dissemination and support

Hadi’s work with data covers three major areas: data governance, the dissemination of data, and supporting INRAE researchers in their dealings with data.  “I am the point of contact for scientific data issues at INRAE, both within the Institute and externally at national and international levels. Data governance deals with who can take decisions about sharing data and how those decisions are made. Data dissemination looks at who can use the data and how. It is important to understand the intrinsic scientific value of data, but also to consider the risks that may arise from their use, such as reduced competitiveness, possible reputational damage, possible loss of private data, or the safety risk to individuals, to property or to biodiversity. There are many elements that must be taken into account. The regulatory framework of laws and contract conditions must also be considered. Laws in France mandate that government agencies make their data publicly available in the best possible conditions, while granting exceptions for certain kinds of data, such as personal or sensitive data.” Hadi regularly advises on data governance with unit directors, heads of divisions and the INRAE management board, answering questions and sharing points of view within the Institute. He leads a working group that deals with complex situations arising from data governance and coordinating efforts around multiple-stakeholder data within INRAE.

INRAE addresses issues that are fundamental to our society

Data have become key drivers of strategic thinking and decision-making processes in the business world, in civil society and in public policy. They also have considerable economic value as well. “INRAE address issues that are fundamental to our society, such as climate change, sustainable development and the concept of ‘One Health’, which views health holistically as an interchange between environment (including animals and plant health) and people.  It is a concept that aims, in particular, to better prepare us for emerging diseases that pose a pandemic risk, such as COVID‑19. These interdisciplinary challenges call on the use of data from many different fields of study, such as environmental science, biology and social sciences. Identifying the data INRAE needs to carry out its research is essential so that their access can be secured, they can be efficiently disseminated and their quality improved. This leads to the third focus area: supporting INRAE researchers in their dealings with data, how to manage different types of data, how best to collect and to disseminate data, and addressing the legal questions surrounding data.”

Data belongs to everyone

Open data is a fundamental part of the research ethos

For Hadi Quesneville, “opening up data is the start of a virtuous circle that will strengthen scientific integrity and the quality of scientific findings. When access to data is simplified, it’s easier to reproduce the results. This leads to better-quality research all round.” In addition to saving time, reusing data also lowers the cost of scientific research, facilitates partnerships and fosters the shift towards transparency. “For researchers, open data is part of their ethos. It helps them work better, and their work in turn benefits the wider community. Science belongs to everyone, and knowledge should be shared around the world. Everyone should be able access it.” Open Science seeks to make science more accessible by facilitating access to publications, data and even to laboratory equipment. Two complimentary websites were created to promote and help disseminate INRAE data:, a digital repository for INRAE data, and, to share best practices and guide researchers as they orient themselves in the world of data. “The site is a way for all INRAE researchers to share their data easily,” says Hadi.


Anaïs Bozinotranslated by Daniel McKinnon


Hadi Quesneville INRAE Chief Data Officer