Open data initiative to plough on with global agenda amid geopolitical tensions

06 Jun 2023 | News

The Research Data Alliance has been working for ten years to build a global infrastructure allowing researchers and innovators to openly share data. Its director Hilary Hanahoe tells Science|Business about plans for the future in a rapidly changing world

Research Data Alliance director Hilary Hanahoe

The Research Data Alliance (RDA) is to widen its focus from setting the technical standards that allow IT systems to interoperate, to work on standards for sharing the research data held in these systems globally over the next five years, amid geopolitical tensions that are disrupting open science cooperation with China, Russia and other parts of the world.

The director of RDA Hilary Hanahoe says that in the ten years since its formation, RDA has made good progress on technical standards and while this effort will continue there will be a focus on setting interoperable standards for research data. “We are already in a fairly good position to help support standards,” she told Science|Business.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave many research organisations around the world with an additional impetus to share data, with scientists needing access to databases ranging from chemical libraries, evolving viral genomics and epidemiology studies tracking the spread of COVID-19, to sociological surveys on the impact of the pandemic, to speed up the development of drugs and vaccines and to ensure public health decisions were based on the latest facts.

That highlighted the value in RDA’s mission of enabling sharing and re-use data across technologies, disciplines, and countries.

During the pandemic, the European Commission asked RDA to help define guidelines and recommendations for researchers and funders. Nearly 600 people signed up to work on a document providing guidelines for clinical and social sciences data, but also horizontal areas around ethics and the impact on communities. “It just showed the willingness and the openness and the power of this volunteer community,” said Hanahoe.

As a post-pandemic example, RDA has an agriculture working group that is trying to set interoperability guidelines for wheat and rice data, and Hanahoe says the alliance could go beyond that.

RDA was established in 2013 by the European Commission, and the US National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, along with Australia’s department of innovation, to build the infrastructure needed for sharing research data openly around the world.

Scope to expand

The alliance is modelled on the Internet Engineering Taskforce, a volunteer organisation of computer scientists, network operators and engineers who are responsible for the technical standards needed to maintain and improve the usability and interoperability of the internet. That model gives RDA the scope to expand its work on standards for research data. “We need to set up an open and correct structure for that,” Hanahoe said.

A few years back, the Commission put forward a proposal for the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC), aimed at giving the EU a global lead in research data management and access. Following this, in December last year, the Commission launched a contract notice for building the infrastructure and services for EOSC to give scientists access to a rich portfolio of interoperable and reusable data.

According to a declaration signed in 2017, EOSC will work on “minimal and rigorous global standards” for open research data, with those standards being defined jointly by research communities.

Hanahoe said EOSC will be successful if it is taken up by the users and demonstrates its services and tools are interoperable and multidisciplinary. RDA could contribute to that standards-setting process, she said. “To my mind, the success of [EOSC] and others across the world will be around interoperability and standards and we see a role for RDA in supporting the creation of standards.”

Hanahoe also believes international scientific cooperation and open research data sharing should not be hindered by geopolitical challenges. She said the war in Ukraine and rising tensions between the West and China are not an obstacle to advancing RDA’s goals. However, such challenges need to be dealt with “in a very careful, delicate way, and diplomatic way,” she said, adding, “Geopolitical tensions will always exist. Today it's the Chinese [conflict] over semiconductors or whatever, and tomorrow it will be something else.”

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