Open data creates chances for scientists on tight budgets

atul butte 2
Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences, UCSF, speaking during the WCSJ 2017. Copyright: Anna Valmero/SciDev.net

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  • Huge repositories of free data are available online
  • Open data is often a requirement of publicly funded research
  • Enables researchers to create own new diagnostics

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[SAN FRANCISCO] Vast repositories of biomedical data that are available on the Internet for free mean that researchers around the world can create their own drugs and diagnostics.

“Open data, especially biomedical open data, is the most important export today of the western world,” said Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco, during the World Conference for Science Journalists (WCSJ) in San Francisco on 27 October.

“Open data, especially biomedical open data, is the most important export today of the western world”

Atul Butte

Publicly funded research often comes with the condition that the data it generates is open for everyone to access for free, a trend known as open data. It means there are large amounts of research data available online in repositories such as the US-based National Institutes of Health and the European Bioinformatics Institute.

“My message to researchers, especially high school kids and all the rest around the world, is to learn about computer science, learn about what data is and statistics, and then learn what are the unmet needs in your own area, in your own country and see whether those datasets could be useful to create some kind of diagnostic or therapeutic that your country is waiting for,” emphasized Butte.

He cited data on colon cancer as an example and which are freely available and shared online. Such data he says can help researchers and pharmaceuticals come up with better treatments.

The emergence of open data has been helped by funding organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which often have a policy of ensuring that data generated by research they fund remains open to others to access.

Open research data is the latest step in a trend that has seen journals progressively move towards allowing people to access research papers for free, known as open access publishing.

“The next big disruption required the data of the research to be made public immediately,” Dave Knutson, senior communications manager from the Public Library of Science, better known as PLOS, said during the WCSJ.

In order to reproduce science and make sure science said what it did, there is need to see the data behind it.

“The very nature of an Internet connection allows anyone, anywhere to gain access to scientific publishing and datasets. We often see low- and middle-income countries that their universities and scientists don’t have the money to pay for a thousand subscriptions to a thousand different journals,” explained Knutson.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.