Message from Geoffrey Boulton, CODATA President 2014-2018
Friends and colleagues,
I am honoured to follow Professor Guo Huadong as President of CODATA. He led CODATA at an important time, when the awareness of the new possibilities and new challenges of the data explosion of recent decades was spreading, in what he quoted as a ‘second revolution of discovery’. He oversaw the development and early stages of implementation of a strategic plan to cover the period 2013-2018.
At times of rapid development and change, a strategy must be a living document that is able to adapt to novel discoveries and approaches and the evolving needs of the international science community. Consequently, the first few months of my term of office were taken up, together with CODATA’s Director and its Executive Committee, in developing and refining this strategy to take into account rapidly changing developments in data science, in policy and in practice, and in strengthening synergy with the International Council for Science (ICSU), CODATA’s parent body.
Recent decades have seen an unprecedented explosion in the human capacity to acquire, store and manipulate data and information and to instantaneously communicate them globally, irrespective of location. It is a world historical event involving a revolution in knowledge creation, communication and utilisation as profound as and more pervasive than that associated with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Research has rapidly moved from an era of data scarcity, in which, with some exceptions, data have been small in volume and sparse in distribution, with statistical techniques optimised to extract information from such limited data, to one of abundance, in which an unprecedented storm of data offers major opportunities and profound challenges.
Many of these opportunities and challenges arise from so-called ‘Big Data’. The data are ‘Big’ because of the volume that systems must ingest, process and disseminate; because of their diversity and complexity and the need to integrate data from a wide variety of sources; and because of the rate at which data streams in or out of the systems that handle them. The challenges are to create infrastructures, methodologies, policies and practices that enable researchers to identify patterns and processes that have hitherto been beyond our capacity to resolve and to analyse and predict the behaviour of complex systems.
Effective exploitation of Big Data depends fundamentally upon an international culture of ‘Open Data’ that involves sharing of data and their availability for re-use and re-purposing. The benefits to individual researchers of harvesting data from a wide variety of open sources offers them and the international research enterprise a far more effective and efficient use of the data corpus as a source of scientific discovery than depending exclusively on self generated data. It is also vital that data that underpins a scientific publication is made concurrently open to scrutiny if we are to retain reproducibility and invalidation as the bases of ‘scientific self-correction’, which has been the bedrock of scientific progress.
Open Data is also a crucial part of Open Science movement, which seeks to transform science into a more public enterprise rather than one conducted behind closed laboratory doors. It not only offers novel possibilities for commercial innovation, but also for greater involvement of a wider range of stakeholders and citizens in co-production of knowledge, and for deeper democratic engagement with the ways that scientific knowledge is created and used. It enhances the possibility of producing globally integrated science solutions and of responding globally to the major problems facing the planet and its inhabitants through transformations in behaviour and approach for which neither the scientific community nor the general public are well prepared. It is an increasingly important component of ICSU-sponsored programmes such as Future Earth, Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, and Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment.
In addressing this vision, CODATA will work at both the international level through its task and work groups and at the national level in collaboration with national CODATA committees. Its redeveloped strategy has three central priorities:
Data principles and practices
Although science is an intrinsically international enterprise, and although international programmes that address global challenges are increasingly important, researchers work within national systems of organization, funding and priority setting. There is a need for:a framework of international agreements, practices or standards codified in the context of subject-specific conventions;national policies and practices for funding and incentivising research, and for physical and software infrastructure; and institutional policies and practices through whichopen data curation and support for researchers are managed.
Frontiers of data science
CODATA will stimulate and support two areas of essential scientific inquiry: research into those processes that enable the so-called ‘data chain’ to work efficiently and that ensure that the burden of data management does not fall excessively on the shoulders of domain researchers; and research into the basic science of data analysis, to ensure that the inferences drawn from data are statistically valid. An important part of this effort is the re-launching of CODATA’s Data Science Journal as a front-rank scientific journal.
Exploiting the data revolution to maximum national and international benefit requires substantial investment in human capital, both in the training of a new cohort of data scientists and in the education of domain researchers. CODATA’s work will focus primarily on supporting developments in low and middle income countries. We should aim to minimise any “knowledge divide” between these countries and those with strongly resourced research systems.
Working with others
CODATA will work with international bodies such as the ICSU World Data System (WDS) and Research Data Alliance (RDA) to maximise, through coordination of effort, their international impact on the use of research data. A recently published memorandum of understanding underlines this commitment. At the same time, CODATA will continue to strengthen its work with international scientific unions and thematic bodies such as the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), Dryad and DataCite.
A further important priority is to strengthen the synergy between CODATA’s international work and the activities of its National Committees and National Members by ensuring mutual awareness of activities, by joint planning of shared priorities, and through a national members section of the CODATA website to give notice of planned activities of CODATA international, to solicit involvement, to give notice of national members’ plans and to report on the activities and opportunities CODATA’s Committees, Work Groups and Task Groups.
The success of the programme outlined above will depend upon the extent to which the Director and the small Paris coordinating office, CODATA Officers and Executive Committee can coordinate the large CODATA and ICSU communities, in collaboration with other international and national bodies, in a common enterprise that is so important to the future of science. I commit myself wholeheartedly to this enterprise and look forward to working with you to ensure that international benefits flow from our efforts.
All good wishes,