The United States spends over $475 billion each year supporting research and development, with over $140 billion coming from the federal government. This investment drives American innovation and discovery across a broad range of disciplines, from catalyzing medical breakthroughs to discovering more about the universe and supporting technological advances to improve the lives of all Americans.
To realize the greatest benefit from this research investment, researchers should make their data publicly available for others to use as well. Initiatives such as the Human Genome Project have demonstrated the power of opening scientific data in a reusable format so that researchers around the world can rapidly build off one another’s findings. An MIT study showed that genomic data released under the Project was applied more widely than proprietary genomic data, while a Battelle Technology Partnership Practice evaluation demonstrated the federal investment in genomic research provided $141 in economic benefit for every dollar spent, with an economic impact of $796 billion. Major open science initiatives span a wide variety of disciplines, including the Open Source Malaria Consortium, which strives to find a cure for malaria, a disease that kills 600,000 people each year; the Dronecode Foundation, which unites experts across the unmanned aerial vehicle industry to develop an open source platform for drones; and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which uses open science to map images of one-third of the sky.
For the past several years the federal government has been working to open up research data, especially federally funded research data. In February 2013 the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a memo directing all federal agencies that expend over $100 million annually in research grants to require that grantees make the results of their research publicly available. The memo included specific requirements for ensuring fast, free, public access to research articles, as well as a requirement that researchers applying for federal funding develop a data management plan. As of July 2016, sixteen federal departments and agencies had released public access plans and five had plans under development. At that time, nine agencies required their grantees to develop data management plans for new research progress, and seven more were phasing in such a requirement including requiring the sharing of research data.
While agencies are actively implementing these policies, opening up research data is more complex than ensuring access to published articles. Strategies for opening data may need to be more closely tailored to specific scientific disciplines. Opening up research data can involve challenges in data privacy, intellectual property protection, ensuring proper credit to researchers, and other issues that can inhibit data sharing. Research agencies would benefit from a coordinated effort to identify common solutions to these challenges, develop best practices, and share learnings from different approaches to data management.
To provide this coordination, the National Science and Technology Council should establish a Federal Research Data Council. OSTP should oversee the Council, which will focus on coordinating implementation and expansion of open science throughout the federal government with a particular focus on the data underlying scientific publications. The heads of each agency should designate a lead who will work with the Federal Research Open Data Council to represent his or her agency’s perspective and help coordinate initiatives within his or her home agency.
While the federal government has formed several interagency data groups over the last decade, the Federal Research Data Council would put a high priority on research data sharing specifically. A possible model is the Federal Privacy Council that President Obama formed in February 2016. Research data sharing, like privacy protection, is a goal that spans a large number of agencies and an area that involves complex technical, legal, and other considerations. A high-level council formed at the direction of the White House would be able to address these issues across government with authority.
Following this model, the Federal Research Data Council should:
The Council should also support the final five agencies to develop and release their public access plans as soon as possible. Since these agencies have not kept pace with others in this regard, it should be a priority to have them release and implement their plans. As part of this initiative, the Council should review existing public access plans to identify best practices, and explore opportunities to take the public access requirement to the next step by requiring free access to data underlying published research articles.