Introduction by Symposium Chair
M. G. K. Menon
I am honored to chair this meeting and to participate in an area of crucial significance for science and human development. This symposium will focus on issues relating to scientific data and information and on access to these resources, particularly from the viewpoint of those created by public funding, which should be in the public domain and on which there are significant encroachments taking place.
Science today not only produces data but also is significantly dependent on these data for its own growth and survival. Science is highly interdisciplinary. One cannot say at any point in time, in terms of data or information, what may be required. To work in biology and genomics research one needs access to data from functional genomics, structural biology, and crystallography, apart from much else. The same data from crystallography may be needed for research in physics or chemistry. The various disciplines within science are linked by their need for access to the same databases. Data are fundamental to the growth of science. Any effort to restrict access to data will, in some way, prevent the growth of science.
Science has been based on the availability of information, on open access to that information, and on transparency. It results in further growth of science as well as technology and applications. It is in the area of technology and applications that intellectual property rights should apply. But the point I wish to emphasize is that the primary source of information and data cannot be denied to science.
Databases are becoming enormous and interlinked. For example, consider the global earth system and its many interconnections. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Program of ICSU is a very large program. In asking a question on temperature rise and its consequences, one might first consider carbon dioxide and then other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One then looks at the generation of these gases and at the way they are transported. The gases may remain as they are or be absorbed, converted, or stored in repositories. This then leads into areas like oceanography, including sea-level rise, and plant systems. A range of such issues arise, which is why ICSU included the biosphere program in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. Similarly, if you consider biodiversity and what exists on Earth, it is large and complex. One would like to know more about relationships and various aspects of evolution. People ask the question whether all of these data can be put together in databases and accessed; this is a separate question for computer scientists. On the other hand, when one looks at the scale and complexity of databases, and wants to access pieces of it, then one is often faced with intellectual property restrictions.
A further feature of databases, which very often is not considered, is their invisibility. In a sense they are inherent in many different places and get absorbed into areas of application and user interfaces. In these cases we have to be very careful about restrictions that apply.
In addition to its responsibility in the production of data and databases across many disciplines, science has also provided the underpinning of what we now refer to as the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution. Physics and chemistry were basic to the advance in solid-state electronics and microelectronics. Mathematics was fundamental to the development of software. It was, in fact, the vast amount of data pouring out from the high-energy particle accelerators that created the conditions for the development of the World Wide Web, which we all use. The World Wide Web originated at CERN in Geneva.
Science created the Internet. Many of the tools of information technology—for example, space and communication technologies, including knowledge of the radio spectrum, the laser, and aspects of magnetism needed for storage—all emerged from it. Science has made it possible, through ICT, to have databases and access to them. We cannot deny science, which has been the creator of all of this, its future. We must see to it that access is widely available.
CHALLENGES FOR DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
We also must consider the impact of restrictions on access, not only from the viewpoint of science and as an international endeavor, particularly noting what is happening in the developed countries, but also on what would happen to the developing societies, and how they would access the data and information that is vital for their development and for their nascent science. We are talking about an economic divide, and now there is the growing digital divide. The problems faced in developing societies, including poverty, illiteracy, population growth, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and ill health, among others, are a result of poor economic growth. This will be exacerbated by the growing digital divide.
First of all, the poor cannot afford computers. Telecommunications in general in developing societies is poor and where (and to the extent) available, expensive, making access to the Internet limited.
Illiteracy is especially a problem. People who are illiterate cannot use computers. The Internet is significantly English-dominated and will be so for a long time to come. In India today only 5 percent of its population of one billion know English. Although there is access in some other major languages, none of these are the primary mother tongues or languages in developing societies. There are vast numbers in the developing societies who, for a variety of reasons, are educated but computer illiterate. In most places energy availability is poor and in some cases totally unreliable for the use of current computer systems. Computer systems will have to be made more inexpensive and telecommunications less costly for more widespread growth of information technology in these countries.
These are the problems developing countries face, even if total access to everything is available, without any hurdles and barriers relating to access. Reading material has become enormously expensive. There are very few universities in developing societies that can afford the scientific journals that are produced. These journals are enormously expensive, along with books; therefore, as far as developing societies are concerned, one has to consider the ethical aspects of this issue. If you want them to develop, it is absolutely vital that they be given freer, much more open and lower-cost access to the existing and growing global reservoir of global knowledge. In return they have an enormous valuable inheritance in content that they can provide to the world, so far carried by oral tradition, community knowledge, and social interactions. Its magnitude and value have still to be evaluated, but it is certainly significant.