The rising tide of data generated by research threatens to overwhelm scientists unless Europe leads a global effort to develop comprehensive "e-infrastructure" to handle this information, according to an expert report published yesterday (6 October).
The High Level Expert Group on Scientific Data told the EU executive that a piecemeal and spontaneous data collection system is springing up across the globe but opportunities will be lost if policymakers do not invest in digital information management.
The group wants a new global framework for handling data that is "flexible, reliable, cross-disciplinary and cross-border".
In their report to the European Commission, experts say their proposals could unlock huge opportunities which have gone untapped due to the ad hoc way in which scientific data is currently handled.
A properly-functioning system would allow researchers in different domains to collaborate on the same data set, bringing new insights and sharing views. "They can use, re-use and combine data, increasing productivity," the report says.
By 2030, researchers should be able to access data from any discipline from trusted data repositories which measure up to international standards, according to the group.
This could help solve grand challenges such as climate change and energy supply, according to the panel, and also empowers amateurs to contribute to the scientific process as well as supporting evidence-based policymaking.
The report suggests developing the profession of "data scientist" and calls on EU member states to develop advanced-degree programmes at university level on data management in addition to including it on secondary school curricula.
The challenge will be to incentivise researchers, companies and individuals to contribute their data given concerns over privacy and ownership, says the High Level Group. The other major stumbling block is the cost and deciding who should pay for the infrastructure given the unpredictable benefits it may bring for companies and society.
The report also calls on the European Commission to accelerate efforts to develop a framework for a "collaborative data infrastructure" and demand extra funds for projects in this area.
"One obvious source is found in the EU's structural funds," says the report, which calls on the European Council to expand the funding possibilities in this area by using structural funds for digital infrastructure.
The ballooning volume of data also raises serious energy concerns at a time when sustainable growth is the order of the day. The impact of e-infrastructure on carbon output should be considered by policymakers, the report says.