The UK Royal Society is a fellowship of the world’s most brilliant scientists. Founded in 1660, its members have included Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Distinguished thinkers Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee are current members of the society.
It is arguably the most prestigious scientific community in the world. And so it is of note how strident it is about the importance of open data for the advancement of science.
In Science as an open enterprise, a report published late last week, the UK Royal Society highlights six areas for action:
- 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.
For centuries, the scientific community has had a commitment to openness. The volume of data today is so immense that it requires new ways for scientists to collaborate that goes beyond sharing findings in scientific journals. It means the infrastructure needs to be tuned to make the most of the data. The report stresses the economic importance of data and the need for business to open its data with the scientific community.
Open inquiry is at the heart of science. And that is the founding principle for the society’s report.
Historically, publishing findings in scientific journals means people can scrutinize the information. Scientists can reuse it for other purposes. It’s this capability to scrutinize, challenge and reuse the data that keeps science progressing.
In today’s world, that means making the data more accessible so it can be reviewed and scrutinized in an open, collaborative environment. The overall idea is that an open data environment will help further science and increase public trust. That’s why articles on scientific literature should be online, along with the data behind the findings.
It also means new ways of collaborating. The Society urges professional scientists to collaborate more with amateurs, whose collective intelligence has already proven to be worthwhile by using such techniques as crowdsourcing:
For example, in 2009 the Fields medallist mathematician Tim Gowers posted an unsolved mathematical problem on his blog with an invitation to others to contribute to its solution. In just over a month and after 27 people had made more than 800 comments, the problem was solved. At the last count, ten similar projects are under way to solve other mathematical problems in the same way.
The report is worth the read. It’s a complete study that illustrates the importance of data in the field of science.
The power of an open community is best expressed in the renaissance it fosters. Today we see that firsthand. We talk all the time about the tools used to collect, manage and analyze data. But what data means to society is what truly matters, and why the findings in this report deserve a close look.