On the Full and Open Exchange of Scientific Data



To address issues of the global environment, it is essential to have a sound scientific understanding of the Earth and its constituent elements. The research required to attain that understanding vitally depends on observations and processed data on all aspects of the system and from all parts of the globe. Such research has been facilitated by an international system of full and open exchange of scientific data and information. In May 1995, however, a proposal will be considered by the Congress of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), originating in its working group on commercialization. This proposal would restrict the availability of environmental data, information, and relevant products, seriously affecting the ability of scientists to conduct research on global- or regional-scale problems. Current international practices guaranteeing the full and open exchange of scientific data should, if anything, be expanded, not restricted.

The Need for Full and Open Exchange

The Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere form an integrated system that transcends national boundaries. To understand the elements of the system, the way they interact, and how they have changed with time, it is necessary to collect and analyze environmental data from all parts of the world. Studies of the global environment require international collaboration for many reasons:

  • to address global issues, it is essential to have global data sets and products derived from these data sets;

  • it is more efficient and cost-effective for each nation to share its data and information than to collect everything it needs independently; and

  • the implementation of effective policies addressing issues of the global environment requires the involvement from the outset of nearly all of the nations in the world.

International programs for global change research and environmental monitoring crucially depend on the principle of full and open exchange (i.e., data and information are made available without restriction, on a non-discriminatory basis, for no more than the cost of reproduction and distribution; see Attachment 1, OECD [1994]). Commonly, observations collected for a specific, narrow purpose have had unforeseen, yet crucial application to research activities of widely differing scope and magnitude. Since it is difficult to predict what data may be important for environmental issues in the future, as much data as possible must be made available to scientists. Moreover, prompt feedback on the quality and completeness of distributed data is essential for building quality data sets of all types. The quality of remotely-sensed data, for example, is only assured through immediate use of the data; problems uncovered a year or more after the data are collected could result in extensive gaps in time-series data sets. For these reasons, an international system of full and open exchange has been and remains the best means of supporting essential environmental research.

Experience has shown that increased access to scientific data, information, and related products has often led to significant scientific discoveries and the opportunity for educational enhancement. For example, the declassification of GEOSAT (a U.S. Navy geodetic satellite) data below 30 degrees south latitude led to a breakthrough in the study of global ocean floor topography and ocean sediment thickness (Smith and Sandwell, 1994a). The researchers also produced a global sea floor topography map that is being distributed internationally through the World Data Center system (Smith and Sandwell, 1994b). An example where not only the scientific community but the general public was engaged, was the near-real-time monitoring of Shoemaker-Levy comet fragments colliding with Jupiter. Impact phenomena observed by individual scientists from around the world were shared over the Internet, allowing astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to continuously modify their plans to make the optimal observations (Kerr, 1994). A third example concerns the transmission of real-time weather information into elementary and high schools with the goal of fostering science education. A one-year pilot program organized by the American Meteorological Society was so successful in engaging teachers and students on problems ranging from science to social studies that it will be expanded to include other types of environmental information (Geer et al., 1995).

In contrast, international agreements and actions that restrict the flow of data and information limit the ability of scientists to conduct research and develop adequate predictive tools to advise their governments on global issues. Unreasonable financial charges, restrictions on further distribution -- especially when the burden of enforcement rests on individual scientists or data centers -- or undue delays in obtaining data are deleterious to scientific enterprise, particularly in economically developing countries. For example, the commercialization of Landsat put the cost of Thematic Mapper data beyond the reach of many scientists and greatly diminished data sharing with foreign countries (e.g., Gabrynowicz, 1993; Goward, 1989). An example where delays in obtaining data allowed a calibration error to go undetected for months concerns the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) satellite. Misinterpretation of these data led to erroneous estimates of global warming (Reynolds, 1993).

The Proposal for a Change in WMO Policy

The free and unrestricted exchange[1] of weather and climate data and information under the aegis of the WMO has long been a shining example of global international scientific collaboration, to the mutual benefit of all participating nations. Studies of weather, its interannual and interdecadal variability, and its long-term trends are key to understanding climate and the underlying causes of global change. Such understanding is essential for making effective policies that address issues of the global environment. A critical requirement for such research programs is the acquisition and assimilation of a complete spectrum of meteorological and hydrological observations, from hourly to multi-annual, with global geographical coverage at high spatial resolution. Such observations are necessary for developing and creating the requisite information products.

In order to understand climate processes, it is necessary to document the daily progression of weather on a global basis. The WMO provides a mechanism for exchanging global weather observations among its Member nations. Much of these data are collected for operational purposes, but they are also integral to climate research. Climate research is thus built scientifically, culturally, and institutionally upon a foundation provided by the weather services of the world. All participating nations, whether or not they maintain vigorous climate research programs, have an abiding interest in the equitable and effective access to raw and processed data, information, and climate and weather-related products. Developing countries rely on these products for building scientific expertise on environmental issues. Access to the products has been facilitated by the free and unrestricted exchange policy advocated by the WMO (see Attachment 2).

There is now a proposal before the WMO Congress from its working group on commercialization to replace the present principle of free and unrestricted exchange of meteorological and related data and information with a two-tiered data exchange system (WMO, 1994). Tier 1 would include a minimum list of types of data, information, and products that are available for free and unrestricted exchange, plus any data that originating countries so designate (Attachment 2). Tier 2 would include all remaining data; these are subject to restrictions to prevent their use for commercial purpose other than by the originating Member. An analysis of the reasoning behind the proposed change is given in White (1994). According to a representative of a proponent Member nation, "...such a Resolution is required in order to ensure the harmonious co-existence within the framework of WMO of Meteorological or Hydrometeorological Services (NMSs)[2] and the private sector in countries with different general policies about the funding of the infrastructure, on which all operational and research meteorology, hydrology and related environmental services depend. Currently, certain factors arising from these general policies are seriously affecting some NMSs and are leading to the breakdown of data and product exchange under WMO auspices" (Hunt, 1994). The intent of the resolution is to exempt data, information, and products for research and education programs (WMO, 1994).

In spite of this disclaimer, the CGED feels for reasons listed below that a change to a two-tiered system will result in restricted access to and degradation of data, information, and products that are crucial to global environmental research:

  1. Since the data and information exchanged through the WMO are used for both scientific and commercial purposes, there is no satisfactory way to divide the data into categories with different restrictions. Governments must therefore determine whether their interests in commercialization undermine their goals of understanding and monitoring the global environment.

  2. Individual countries have considerable freedom to decide what data and information are placed in Tier 1 (i.e., unrestricted) The aggregation of complete global data sets requires that all Member nations exercise this freedom in a similar manner. Given the motivation toward commercialization, it is likely that for purposes of scientific research, Tier 1 will be incomplete. According to Annex 2 to draft Resolution 11.4, there is no requirement that climatological data, high-resolution satellite data and products, and global model products are placed in Tier 1 (Attachment 3, paragraphs 3, 4, and 7). Even if Tier 1 were to include all data and information traditionally regarded as "climate," that would not be sufficient for implementing global programs like the World Climate Research Program and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

  3. Publication of Tier 2 (i.e., restricted) data constitutes re-export under the terms of the proposal. According to Annex 2, paragraph 10 of the WMO proposal, "The new practice introduces no restrictions on access to, or re-export of, Tier 1 and Tier 2 data and products for research and education programmes having non-commercial purposes." Nevertheless, the nature of restrictions on Tier 2 data and information prevent publication of such data as the basis of a scientific conclusion (see Attachment 3, paragraphs 12, 13, and 15a). Dependence on proprietary data that cannot be subject to public scrutiny destroys credibility in science.

  4. Under the same provision, such data and information cannot be made available to scientists in other countries; their aggregation into global data sets is prohibited. There is no credible mechanism that allows effective data sharing among scientists for research and educational purposes but precludes its use for commercial purposes.

  5. The scientific community and data centers would have to enforce proprietary restrictions on the further distribution of Tier 2 data (see Attachment 3, paragraphs 22 and 23). In particular, the World Data Centers, which hold only unrestricted data, would be unable to exchange any Tier 2 data, and thus could not function as a primary means of data exchange for global environmental programs.

  6. Restrictions on access to WMO-exchanged satellite data will make it more difficult to prevent unacceptable gaps in the climate record. Since satellite data and products can be placed in Tier 2 (Appendix 3, paragraph 4), there is no guarantee that the raw data will be scrutinized by the scientific user community in sufficient time to detect any degradation in data quality. Environmental research and monitoring require uninterrupted, high-quality time series data and information.

  7. It is difficult to imagine a commercially-driven system that does not raise the cost to the scientific user community. With limited research budgets, the apparent price to the user has considerable impact on which data sets and products are actually utilized for research. This impact is likely to be greatest for education and small research programs, particularly in developing countries.


The pressing need to understand and monitor the environment has made it more important than ever for scientists to have increased access to relevant data, information, and products. WMO draft resolution 11.4 (Cg-XII) would have the opposite effect, and would set a damaging precedent for other international agreements. It is thus incumbent on the United States to take all actions necessary to foster the principle of full and open exchange.

1. It is the understanding of the CGED that the terms "full and open exchange"and "free and unrestricted exchange" are effectively equivalent (see Attachment 2).

2. NMSs are the hydrometeorological organizations in various countries; they are presumed to represent their governments in forming and implementing WMO policy.

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Last Update: 4/3/95