What do the 2013 U.S. Funding Bill and a recent conference in Gothenburg, Sweden have in common? For one thing, they both deserve the attention of young and aspiring researchers in all fields.

This past Tuesday, President Obama signed the continuing resolution that made official the $85 billion in budget cuts that included severe slashes to research, (collectively coined the #Sciquester by Twitter), that will reduce the number and/or size of research grants awarded by government agencies like the EPA and the NSF, and notably will cut $1.6 billion out of the NIH’s annual budget.

This final figure is not to be taken lightly. NIH director Francis Collins recently expressed his concern: “I worry desperately that this means we’re going to lose a generation of young scientists.” Considering that the NIH can only afford to spend around 10% of its budget on grants going to new researchers, and considering that these new researchers already face a very low (15%) R01 grant approval rate, sequester cuts are certainly going to severely restrict the amount of money going into the hands of the people who are potentially doing some of the most original and innovative science. As young investigators face this reality in the coming years, many will be forced out of the profession—or at least out of the public and academic sectors. And when sequestration ends and money returns, these researchers will already be lost. The fact is that research is an investment in the future, and it cannot be started and stopped at whim. We as a nation are already under-invested.

With such limited funding up for grabs, I cannot help but contemplate the responsibility conferred onto those researchers who do receive money. Looking to the future, young scientists today should consider carefully how current practices could be changed to make research spending more efficient. The tax-paying public, as well, should ask how we can increase the returns on our collective investment. This brings me to Sweden.

From the 18th to the 20th of March, Gothenburg was the host site of the first plenary meeting of the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international body formed by the U.S., Europe, and Australia with a simple mission: to make it possible for scientific researchers to share their data across institutions and across nations. Why? Because data sharing limits wasteful or redundant spending, enhances collaboration, and allows us to get the most out of information. Currently, researchers are in the habit of publishing results, but not underlying data. But Francine Berman, Chair of the RDA, points out that complex problems require multiple data collections: “For example, a question such as “What areas sustain the most risk in an earthquake?” might involve sensor data, population data, data on neighbourhoods and structures, data from earthquake simulations, etc.”

Bringing all of this together is no small feat. In order for data sharing to be a reality, the RDA and other groups will need to develop not only the actual tools for sharing and mining data, but also the infrastructures, standards, and policies necessary to generate a new culture and open dynamic in the international research community. This kind of ambitious venture is worth it, especially considering what it would do for research in some of the most pressing and time-sensitive fields, such as the development of disease treatments, the monitoring of environmental change, and the creation of new energy sources.

Happily, though the road ahead for the RDA is long, the shift to open access is already taking place in other ways. In February, President Obama directed federal agencies with more than $100 million in funding to make federally-funded research results accessible to the public within a year. The precedent for this was set by the UK, where all research done with government money must be made freely available. However, with these kinds of changes come significant challenges and considerations. IP rights must be safeguarded, standards and best practices must be agreed upon.

Perhaps most importantly, researchers’ and their subjects’ privacy must be protected. That’s why Harvard SEAS professor Salil Vadhad is leading a multi-disciplinary, cross-departmental investigation called the “Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data” project to develop the policies and tools that can help us achieve the true potential of data sharing. Hopefully, projects like these will be successful and multiply, and one day result in sustainable, open-access networks for researchers to use.

Of course, I admit that data sharing alone will not solve our money troubles; in fact, achieving the RDA’s mission will cost quite a bit. But these new developments represent a major step towards making research practice more sustainable and cost-effective in the future, and though the next generation of scientists will face many challenges, we certainly have much to look forward to.

 

Nicole Bassoff ’16 is currently a freshman in Wigglesworth, a future resident of Adams House and a prospective MCB concentrator.

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