In the 17th century, after spending countless nights alone with his telescope meticulously charting the night sky, Galileo unveiled a series of observations that ultimately led to a greater understanding of the cosmos. While many of the great Italian astronomer’s ideas still have relevance today, the era in which the lonely scientist would toil away in isolation until he makes a breakthrough has long since passed. In its place has emerged a new model of scientific discovery where collaboration and the free exchange of ideas is crucial to solving complex problems. And in today’s digital world, collaboration means not only sharing ideas, but also sharing data. Fortunately, the European Commission has committed to giving every researcher in Europe the technical and legal tools they need to easily share data. Unfortunately, the private sector has not been as lucky.
Over the past year, the European Commission has announced a set of initiatives to build a modern data sharing platform for European researchers. Two of the most important components include the European Open Science Cloud, which will provide researchers access to a collaborative virtual environment to store, share and re-use scientific data, and the European Data Infrastructure, which will provide researchers access to high-bandwidth networks and supercomputing capabilities. Together, these two initiatives will ultimately ensure that 1.7 million European researchers have access to the computing infrastructure they need to store, transmit, and process scientific data.
Not only are researchers increasingly collaborating within their fields, they are also collaborating across disciplines and national borders. Fortunately, these initiatives recognize how essential data sharing is to scientific advancement. The European Commission has expressed a commitment to a liberal data sharing policy that is “as open as possible, as closed as needed.” Therefore, the ultimate goal of these initiatives is not only to build the technical capabilities needed to share data among researchers across Europe, but also the legal and regulatory framework to do so. Better policy can help unlock data that may be restricted unnecessarily. For example, using open access policies for government-funded grants that allow researchers to opt out of data sharing, rather than opting in, can help making data sharing simpler and more efficient.
Even though the European Open Science Cloud and European Data Infrastructure initiatives are part of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy—an initiative designed to break down regulatory barriers across the 28 national markets to create a single market that will allow citizens, businesses, and governments to better take advantage of digital tools—European policymakers have unfortunately not yet recognized that the same principles that apply to scientific data sharing should also be applied to the rest of the economy. The recently approved General Data Protection Regulations will limit how much of the private sector can collect, share, and reuse data. For example, the rules require companies to specify how they will use data before they collect it—a requirement which, by definition, sharply limits how businesses can innovate with data. The result is that the EU now has a lopsided policy towards data that may help attract some of the brightest scientific researchers to Europe while at the same time encouraging entrepreneurs to set up shop overseas.
Commercial innovation, just like scientific advancement, often requires collaboration and data sharing. While the private sector may not need the government to provide the same assistance in building the data infrastructure that it is providing to the research community, it does need policymakers to provide the right legal and regulatory framework so that data-driven innovation can occur. Hopefully, European policymakers will soon see the light.
Image credit: Wellcome Library, London