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15/09/2014

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STEM in Parliament: Invest in the data gold rush!

Science, industry and politics are united, says Phil Willis.

The endless stream of disappointing economic news, and the strong hints that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) will bring yet more austerity, should send alarm bells ringing in every publicly-funded science facility. The challenge to persuade the Treasury of the case for investment in science as a prerequisite for economic and social wellbeing remains as strong as ever, though the joint efforts to win a substantial settlement for science in 2010 demonstrated that the community is learning.

Science, industry and politics are united, says Phil Willis.

The endless stream of disappointing economic news, and the strong hints that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) will bring yet more austerity, should send alarm bells ringing in every publicly-funded science facility. The challenge to persuade the Treasury of the case for investment in science as a prerequisite for economic and social wellbeing remains as strong as ever, though the joint efforts to win a substantial settlement for science in 2010 demonstrated that the community is learning.

I say ‘investment’ because, for too long, the science and engineering communities have allowed public expenditure on science to be badged as ‘public spending’. Few private sector companies would regard their expenditure in research and development as anything other than investment, so it was interesting that when the President of the Royal Society recently made this point, he found common agreement with both Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Roland Aurich, the Chief Executive of Siemens UK.

Agree to invest
Finding common accord between science, industry and politics is rare. This moment needs to be nurtured. We must now find further agreement about where investment is most needed and where it will find most favour. That task has always proved difficult and various attempts have fallen short. Equally the science community all too often looks at investment in a rather narrow and parochial sense. This allows politicians to divide and conquer all too easily.

Interestingly, a common area of agreement has emerged which, if nurtured dynamically rather than apologetically, could provide the raw material for investments in a wide range of disciplines. I refer of course to data mining – the 21st century equivalent of the Klondike.

Current Klondike
Today’s data miners differ from the gold miners in the Yukon in 1896 in that they have an unimaginable amount of bounty at their disposal. Last year alone, data amounted to some 1.8 zettabytes, according to the IDC Digital Universe study. And the amount is being doubled every second year. To put the volume into perspective: we would need 57.5 billion 32 GB iPads to store it all! What is more, there is hardly an area of scientific endeavour where data mountains are not being created,
with little extraction of their real value.

There are of course many obstacles to effective data mining but it is good to see ministers recognise steps that need addressing. Dr Cable has already acted upon advice from
the Royal Society by affirming the principle that, as in the US, all publicly-funded research data is a national good and should be available with as few restrictions as possible. The launch in 2013 of the Gateway to Research web portal covering projects funded by the Research Councils is yet another example of ministerial support. But, as the Hargreaves Report so clearly pointed out, issues of intellectual property and copyright remain extremely difficult challenges to overcome.

UK ideally placed
Such challenges must be addressed, and swiftly. McKinsey International has estimated that ‘big data’ technologies, including text and data mining, would create 250 billion for Europe’s economy each year. As the most efficient and productive research nation in terms of output per dollar, the UK is ideally placed to take full advantage of the new data gold rush, with health and life science research at the forefront. The NHS has the largest and most comprehensive
database on the planet.

If science is to make a special plea for increased funding in the new CSR, let us build a case around investment, around an area of real opportunity – let the UK become the Klondike of the next decade. Let the data gold rush begin!

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Lord Willis
Lord Willis is Chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities and Member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee
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