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Exploiting data revolution is key to scientific and economic progress

21 June 2012

Intelligent openness about the data that underpins scientific ideas must be the default position according to a report published today by the Royal Society. Scientific progress can only be maximised, and scientific understanding most effectively exploited in the economy and public policy and communicated to citizens as a basis for their judgements if intelligent openness is the norm.

The Science as an open enterprise report highlights the need to grapple with the huge deluge of data created by modern technologies in order to preserve the principle of openness and to exploit data in ways that have the potential to create a second open science revolution. Exploring massive amounts of data using modern digital technologies has enormous potential for science and its application in public policy and business. The report maps out the changes that are required by scientists, their institutions and those that fund and support science if this potential is to be realised.

Professor Geoffrey Boulton chair of the Royal Society’s Science as an open enterprise working group said: “We must treat scientific data as a public rather than private resource, exploit the collective intelligence of the scientific community through collaboration and invest in the infrastructure required to make the most of the data. You need sensible restrictions to protect commercial value, privacy, safety and security but we do not have to choose between any of these concerns and openness, in fact they can complement each other.

“The UK has the world’s most efficient science base so we should be very well placed to capitalise on the data revolution if we adapt quickly enough. Too often we have failed to make the most of our science. The US has already invested heavily, with the White House stating that ‘the future of computing is not just big iron, it is big data’. If scientists, universities, business and government act decisively, we might not miss the boat this time.”

The report highlights the opportunities for scientists and businesses in sharing data, including for example the potential for developing new medicines. It also draws attention to failures to publish negative results of clinical trials for medicines, which may distort approval processes, and it strongly supports a mandatory system of open reporting for clinical trials.

Professor Boulton continued, “Science is vital to many of the dilemmas that confront us, but needs to be communicated intelligently, by which we mean it must be supported by evidence, which must be accessible, intelligible, assessable and usable. The internet and other digital technologies offer great ways for scientists to feed these wider demands for information and evidence”.

Six key areas for action are highlighted in the report:

  • Scientists need to be more open among themselves and with the public and media
  • Greater recognition needs to be given to the value of data gathering, analysis and communication
  • Common standards for sharing information are required to make it widely usable
  • Publishing data in a reusable form to support findings must be mandatory
  • More experts in managing and supporting the use of digital data are required
  • New software tools need to be developed to analyse the growing amount of data being gathered