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The picture that we paint of “big” and “small” science, and of the formal and informal zones of data exchange is, of course, overstated to clarify the basic concepts. The big science system is not free of individual strategic behavior that is typical of the small sciences, and the latter often benefit from access to public repositories where data are freely and openly available, rather than through the ad hoc transactional process. However, the “brokered networks” typical of small science are endemic to all sciences, and access to data is everywhere becoming more dependent on negotiated transacting between private stakeholders.

For the purposes of this symposium, we have chosen big science geophysical and environmental research that uses large observational facilities and small science biomedical experimental research that involves individual or small independent teams of investigators as emblematic of these two types of research and related cultures. We use them to provide real-world examples of the opportunities and challenges now inherent in the role of scientific and technical data and information in the public domain.


Although the scope and role of public-domain data and information are well established in our system of research and innovation, for reasons that subsequent speakers in this symposium will elaborate, there is another trend that is currently under way, which may be characterized as the progressive privatization and commercialization of scientific data and by the attendant pressures to hoard and trade them like other private commodities. This trend is being fueled by the creation of new legal rights and protectionist mechanisms largely from outside the scientific enterprise, but increasingly adopted by it. These new rights and mechanisms include greatly enhanced copyright protection in digital information, the ways in which access to and use of digital data are being contractually restricted and technologically enforced, and the adoption of unprecedented intellectual property rights in collections of data as such.

This countervailing trend is based on perceived economic opportunities for the private exploitation of new data resources and on a legal response to some loss of control over certain proprietary information products in the digital environment. At the same time, it is disrupting the normative customs and foundation of science, especially the traditional cooperative and sharing ethos, and producing both the pressures and the means to enclose the scientific commons and to greatly reduce the scope of data and information in the public domain.

Viewed dispassionately, the need to appropriately reconcile these two competing interests in a socially productive framework is imperative and the goal of such a reconciliation seems clear. A positive outcome would maximize the potential of private investment in data collection and in the creation of new information and knowledge, while preserving the needs of public research for continued access to and unfettered use of data and other public-domain inputs. These pressures, their potential impact on science, and the potential means for reconciling them in a win-win approach are the subjects of the next three sessions, respectively, of this symposium.

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