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Promote data sharing to advance global research say policy leaders

According to an article published on Science|Business, EU and US experts see big benefits from scientists sharing more data - but say global agreement on privacy, literacy and other issues is needed.

Washington, DC - Leading American and European policy makers said greater international collaboration is needed so scientists can share more research data to solve climate, healthcare, economic and other challenges facing the globe. 

“An international problem requires an international solution,” said Rep. Dan Lipinski, the ranking Democrat on the US House Subcommittee on Research. Speaking at a conference in July on US-EU trade policy, Lipinski said, “All trends point to greater access to scientific data” to advance global research faster. “These are big issues that are best dealt with together.”

“Within the transatlantic partnership it seems to me this will be an opportunity for scientific collaboration,” agreed Malcolm Harbour, a British Member of the European Parliament who is chairman of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Affairs. While ensuring safeguards for data privacy, he said, “We should encourage the expert groups we set up, and the interoperability tools for the Internet, and get on with it.”

The legislators were speaking at a panel discussion in Washington about international collaboration in scientific data - and the work of a new international organisation, the Research Data Alliance. The RDA was launched in 2012 by the US, EU and Australian governments as a coordinating body to identify and remove technical barriers to effective sharing of scientific data across the globe and across scientific disciplines. The RDA has opened membership to a wide range of technical experts in industry, academia and policy, and now has more than 750 members from over 50 countries.

Counting the benefits

Economic stimulus is among the potential benefits. “We are on the cusp of a tremendous wave of innovation, productivity and growth - all driven by big data,” said Francine Berman, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member of the governing RDA Council, speaking at the conference, which was organised by the Transatlantic Policy Network and Science|Business. As an example, she cited a recent study finding that, “Strategic use of this data infrastructure can create $300 billion (in economic output) in the healthcare sector annually in the US. Data is needed for both big ideas, and business.”

A range of scientific and social problems could be tackled more efficiently if researchers could find and use each others’ data. For instance, Berman said, asthma currently affects 300 million people around the world - one in 12 in the US, incurring $56 billion in medical costs. It’s a complex disease affected by many factors - “a socio-cultural health problem.” To tackle it, she said, global health researchers would need access to many local databases of air quality, health services or patient profiles - but that’s not possible today. “Data infrastructure is needed to help us combine this data. We need interoperability frameworks. We need a common policy to help guide us when patient information is involved. This is a global issue,” Berman said.

Tracking and preventing wildfires is another area of potential data collaboration, said Ross Wilkinson, executive director of the Australian National Data Service and an RDA Council member. The cost of wildfires, especially in built-up areas, is high around the world; and, he said, it would be “nice to understand how we can live safely in an environment where fire is a threat.” But that would require shared knowledge of soil quality, water resources, population distribution and other factors, and “There is not a particular scientific discipline you can go to, to answer the question.” Enabling greater sharing of databases, across disciplines and borders, would help.

Other fields that would benefit from more data sharing include astronomy, linguistics, oceanography, climate research and more, the panellists said. “The impact of scientific data has gone viral; it covers all areas of investigation,” said John Wood, another RDA Council member and secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. “We are talking about the free market of scientific data.”

Read more on Science|Business

Tagged in: data scientists
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