Another important trend Nguyen identified is that people’s increasingly complex interactions with technology “are generating massive amounts of data:” in 2011, the amount of information created was more than 1.8 zetabytes, or 1.8 trillion gigabytes. Ninety-percent of that data is unstructured, she added, noting that data are a source of innovation and economic growth. “Data is the fuel that drives all these powerful technologies,” she commented, but there is also “tremendous potential for abuse.” In Nguyen’s view, this is a key policy issue. She suggested that the best way to achieve balance between the benefits and potential harm will be to establish a “complete data ecosystem” in which individual users, policy makers, industry, and researchers from many disciplines, including the social sciences, work together to develop policies that balance the needs of all of these stakeholders.57
Elizabeth Wilder, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Elizabeth Wilder described her thoughts about transformation in science, based on her experiences as director of the Office of Strategic Coordination at the NIH. That office is charged with identifying areas of science in which transformation is needed and using its funds to support researchers in those fields in overcoming challenges and pursuing opportunities likely to foster the needed changes. Wilder noted that transformation often takes place spontaneously in biomedical research: a remarkable, fortuitous discovery may open up entirely new fields. Her office, however, is focused on circumstances in which transformation can be pursued.
She and her colleagues have learned that most of the research at the NIH is initiated by creative investigators. In order to bring about transformation in a field, or engineered transformation, however, it is necessary to begin with a process in which a group of experts focuses on defining where the field needs to go and what needs to happen for it to reach those goals. For example, a series of NIH programs, funded over several years, were designed to make it easier to conduct interdisciplinary team research on biomedical topics. The programs focused on breaking down departmental barriers, and they were accompanied by administrative changes within NIH. Wilder believes that the result has been a “culture shift” and that many more people do now spontaneously consider interdisciplinary research.
Another program was designed to engineer an entirely new field of research on the extent to which the microbes that live inside and on the human body influence health. Developing this field of study was a daunting challenge, Wilder explained, because it involved the generation of new biocomputational informatics strategies. It was necessary to engage many researchers in sampling the biome in many healthy people and developing new computational and analytic methods. Demonstration projects were needed to shape understanding of what can be learned from differences across people in the composition of their biomes.
For this effort to work, Wilder concluded, it was necessary to have many researchers thinking collectively about the steps that would be needed to answer
57For more details on this research, see Bus and Nguyen (2013); and Nguyen (2013).