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Ensuring Scientific Data Remain a Global Public Good

Sandy HarrisonA Blog post by Sandy Harrison (WDS-SC Chair)

At the end of October last year, the members of the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council voted overwhelming for a merger of the two organizations. The new organization—which will be called the International Science Council and which should come into being in summer 2018—will serve as a single, global voice for science and will help to provide the evidence base for, and coordinate action on, issues of public concern.

The importance of data for enabling science and for providing the necessary evidence base for action was necessarily both a major concern and discussion point during the meeting at which this historic vote was taken. Access to high-quality data from multiple disciplines is needed to be able to understand and address the complex issues facing our global society. New pluridisciplinary approaches to analyzing and modelling data will be required. And the data upon which decision-making and management of our planet rests must be open access, freely available, and subject to public scrutiny.

ICSU-ISSC Merger Announced at 32nd ICSU GA

So far, so good. However, recognition of the importance of free and open access to data is only the beginning. The new 'voice of science' in the 21st century will need to champion the infrastructure required to ensure free and open access to data. Data stewardship cannot be achieved through pious statements or international accords, it requires the existence of data stewards—organizations that are funded and supported to provide professional support for data archiving, data analysis, and data sharing.

The mission of the World Data System is, of course, to provide an umbrella for data stewards worldwide and to champion new and better ways of ensuring the continuance of our data infrastructure. But there is still a long way to go to ensure both the continued funding for the many organizations that are part of this landscape and that these organizations continue to adopt and promote best data practices.

Too much of the data compilation is currently being done by individual scientists or science teams on short-term funding; too much of the work of data stewardship is currently being done pro bono. Neither of these situations is sustainable. Thus, we must hope that the new International Science Council will make the practical issues of data stewardship in the 21st century a major focus of its work. And then we really will have something to celebrate next summer!