Science Policies for the 21st Century: Open Science and Big Data

Open Science has been defined in a number of ways, but broadly refers to efforts to make the outputs of publicly funded research – both data and information – more accessible in digital format to the scientific community, the business sector and society more generally.  Open Science combines the age-old requirement for openness in science and the opportunities offered by new information technologies (IT) that are reshaping the scientific enterprise. Open Science is being widely embraced as a means for accelerating research, ensuring transparency and reproducibility, enabling collaboration and fostering innovation.  

The recent OECD report, Making Open Science a Reality, highlights the potential benefits of open science and identifies important policy challenges that need to be addressed if the full potential of Big Data is to be realised and new international ‘Big Science’ initiatives are to succeed.  Areas where policy action is required include:

Building a culture of Open Science within the scientific community.  Whilst some fields of science, most notably particle physics and astronomy, have embraced the opportunities presented by new IT to increase openness, collaboration and data sharing, this is not universally the case. In line with the OECD guidelines (2006) a number of funding agencies and governments have mandated that research data (and publications) should be openly available, but turning this into reality will require a significant change in practice, in particular in academic environments. For instance, , the lack of incentives, support or recognition for publishing data on-line represents a significant obstacle.

Development of data management and analysis skills.  A variety of skills are required at different levels.  Researchers need the necessary analytic skills to effectively exploit new forms and scales of data and to make their own data available for secondary analysis. New data science curricula and training courses will be required to address existing skill gaps.

Sustainable support for evolving and expanding data infrastructure needs. A large variety of mechanisms are used by the science community to collect and make data accessible.  There is a need for strategic planning and investment in data infrastructures that are both flexible – i.e. respond to evolving technologies and needs – and sustainable – i.e. can ensure long-term open access. New business models, involving a variety of funding streams, may need to be developed to support these various Open Access infrastructures.

International collaboration/coordination. Shared and inter-operable data infrastructures are required to support ‘Big Science’ initiatives that can bring together the intellectual resources of many countries to address fundamental research challenges, such as understanding the human brain, and complex societal challenges, such as mitigating and adapting to environmental change.  Progress requires cooperation at many levels, from the development of data standards to new governance practices. 

Ethical, legal and social issues, including IPR.  Much of the new Big Data that could be valuable for research is owned by a small number of private companies and not openly available. At the same time, health records and other data from academic research have enormous potential for accelerating business innovation but their use is variously restricted by privacy regulations and ethical considerations, notably when it is owned by the public sector. Innovative approaches to managing and sharing data and information while respecting concerns of privacy, security, and intellectual property ownership will need to be developed and promoted as part of this collective movement.

Despite the great promise of Open science, there are also some concerns. These major changes to scientific practice are taking place in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, where in many countries there is stagnation or reduction in budgets for science. Open Science initiatives will require significant investment in human resources, infrastructure and coordinated research. Although there will be new opportunities for partnerships with private foundations and the business sector, much of the funding will have to come from the public purse. Measuring the impact of Open Science as it develops will be critical for maintaining the support and commitment of the science community and the public and to design appropriate policies.