greatly enhanced capabilities for collecting scientific data, for example, from remote sensors; increasing exploitation of broadband networks and capabilities for transmission of video data over networks; the advent of digital wireless communication; increasing support for collaborative work by long-distance communication; growing capabilities for natural language processing; increasing recognition of the importance of standards in data structures and in networked communication; growing acceptance of the need for cooperation in monitoring and controlling network activity; and increasing use of intranets.
Associated with advances in, and increasing reliance on, information tools and infrastructure are a number of problems that present barriers to access, including the growing congestion of the Internet and consequent constraints on scientific communication and research; the storage and distribution of data that are inadequately described or indexed for significant numbers of potential users; the rapid obsolescence of electronic information-processing tools and storage media; the vulnerability of electronic networks and data repositories to accidental or deliberate damage; and the growing competition for use of currently limited network resources. Another difficulty—the current lack of adequate access to scientific data in developing countries-nevertheless has the potential to improve quickly.
The natural sciences—including the physical, astronomical, geological, and biological sciences—face a number of trends, opportunities, and challenges affecting researchers' capabilities for sharing data. The most obvious involves dealing with the exponentially growing volume of accumulating scientific data, which now, as a result of expanding computational power, also includes elaborate simulations that often incorporate animation as well as quantitative information. With the end of the Cold War has come declassification of some data that are now providing many new opportunities for researchers, particularly in the Earth sciences. In addition, because of the breadth and scale of major interdisciplinary, global-scale research efforts such as the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the Human Genome Project, and the Hubble Space Telescope project, data from individual disciplines have become important to understanding and progress in other fields. Making data available, comprehensible, and useful across disciplinary boundaries has become a far greater imperative than before these projects existed. This task, however, is complicated by the fact that scientific data do not constitute a uniform, easily accessible body of information.
For example, scientific data may be categorized in many ways: by form or coding (numeric, symbolic, still image, animation, or other); by content; by means of generation; by level of quality and complexity; by the source of support for the data-accumulating activity; by time and space, in the case of observational, geospatial records; and by the institutional structures through which the data are distributed and stored. Certain of these characteristics, such as level of quality