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1. Introduction – Cathy Wu University of Delaware This symposium was organized by a committee of the Board on Research Data and Information of the National Research Council (NRC), in collaboration with the NRC’s Board on Life Sciences and Board on International Scientific Organizations. The Board on Research Data and Information was established in October 2008, and it is driven by the growing impact of digital data and information in research. The board’s mission is to improve the stewardship, policy, and use of digital data and information for science and the broader society. Recent decades have witnessed an ever-increasing range and volume of digital data. All elements of the pillars of science—whether observation, experiment, or theory and modeling— are being transformed by the continuous cycle of generation, dissemination, and use of factual information. This is even more so in terms of the re-using and re-purposing of digital scientific data beyond the original intent of the data collectors, often with dramatic results. We all know about the potential benefits and impacts of digital data, but we are also aware of the barriers, the challenges in maximizing the access and use of such data. There is thus a need to think about how a data infrastructure can enhance capabilities for finding, using, and integrating information to accelerate discovery and innovation. How can we best implement an accessible, interoperable digital environment so that the data can be repeatedly used by a wide variety of users in different settings and with different applications? That is the objective of the symposium: to use the microbial communities and microbial data, literature, and the research materials themselves as a test case. We want to see if we can identify some guiding principles that can address various dimensions of this transformation—the economic, legal, and institutional dimensions—that could be brought about and whether the upstream microbial research inputs can ultimately be organized in a globally accessible, effective, and digitally integrated research commons. In this symposium, we would also like to discuss models and approaches to lower the transaction cost and support access for not just digital data and literature, but also for the physical microbial materials. We intend to look at this from various perspectives—publicly funded research, public–private interactions, and the concerns of developing countries. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Department of Energy, we will have a special thematic focus on research and applications in energy and environment. So the idea is to use the microbial research commons as a way to analyze the various issues that are affecting the potential opportunities offered by the use of the digital and material resources, and to examine how the microbial commons could be used as a model for further discussion and analysis in other research contexts. This symposium is very timely. Just last month the National Research Council published a new report, A New Biology for the 21st Century,1 in which the NRC called for a federally funded, decade-long interagency effort to harness biological technology and information. The report called for a New Biology initiative that would take an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to life science research to address some of the most pressing problems in food, environment, energy, and health. One of the major goals of the New Biology initiative would be 1 National Research Council. A New Biology for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2009. 1
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to address the tremendous opportunities created by the massive and growing amounts of data generated from recent biological research and technological advances. Thus this symposium on the microbial research commons is timely and fitting in that microbial research affects all these other areas of interest and may contribute to this New Biology initiative. There are several things we would like to accomplish in this symposium. First, we will look into some of the research and application opportunities that may arise from the sort of improved integration we are discussing. This is the value proposition: What do we gain by this integration? Then we will review the scientific, technical, institutional, legal, economic, and socio- cultural barriers and challenges. We will examine some alternative legal, policy and institutional approaches, such as a compensatory liability regime for the transfer and use of microbial materials, common-use licensing of scientific data and information, open-access publishing, open data networks, and so forth. In this context, it is important to emphasize that open-access publishing is but one component of a Commons, which is a broader concept that encompasses free access with few reuse restrictions on all types of upstream knowledge resources, subject of course to legitimate countervailing policies or requirements. We also will consider information technology, including the impact of new information communication technology tools, such as social networking, data and text mining, and Web 2.0. We will look at governance and institutional designs, principles, and policies, as well. Because the topics we will address are very broad and encompassing, we designed a program that would allow us to discuss various aspects of these issues in different sessions. In this morning session we will try to establish the context, focused primarily on microbial research, and the opportunities and the barriers. We will look into the value proposition and then also examine the industrial perspective and the concerns of developing countries. Then in the afternoon, we will first analyze access and reuse of microbial materials and then of digital knowledge resources. We will review how the commons models might work for materials and culture collections, including from the legal and economic perspectives, as well as for the digital resources, including Web applications, Web information services, and academic publications. Tomorrow we will have the thematic focus on microbiology research and applications in energy and environment, and the opportunities they provide in terms of both materials and the digital commons. We will look into issues such as international cooperation, inter-governmental organization, and institutional design for the materials research commons, as well as management of academic journals, data standardization for facilitating interoperability, and economic and institutional issues for the digital commons. Finally, the last session of the symposium will focus on the governance issues associated with an integrated microbial commons, and, again, there are a few existing approaches that can be reviewed. Following the presentations in each session there will be panel discussions during which we hope to gather many different opinions and approaches. It is not the symposium’s objective to come up with one consensus, but rather to provide a broad review of the issues that need to be addressed and brought to the forefront. 2