Utilizing big data will advance the field of agriculture as long as researchers are willing to embrace change and adopt collaborative strategies, a new Council for Agricultural Science & Technology (CAST) paper suggests.
Although agricultural researchers generate vast amounts of data, little of it is shared with peers or accessible to the public. A diverse group of scientists led by Purdue University agronomy professor Sylvie Brouder is calling for change and proposing the infrastructure to make it happen.
Brouder led the creation of a commentary paper, “Enabling Open-Source Data Networks in Public Agricultural Research,” for CAST with colleagues from the Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Washington State University, Texas A&M University and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada. Brouder presented the paper to lawmakers March 11 in a series of events on Capitol Hill.
The commentary argues that “information, including all data, collected from publicly funded scientific activities belongs to the public and should be freely available and usable.” Much of the information captured by organizations conducting research is not shared with outside scientific communities, and incidental data are often kept private. This impedes scientists’ abilities to generate richer analyses from the entire data set and apply it beyond its primary purpose.
“If we really want to democratize access to science, facilitate innovation and address grand challenges to our current food systems, we need to develop mechanisms to incentivize an infrastructure to support open data,” Brouder said.
“The next generation of agricultural problem solving will require big science and forging linkages across data sets and disciplines,” the CAST paper says. “Currently, a lack of data sharing and data accessibility is a major barrier for making better decisions in agriculture.”
Solving the world’s grand challenges -- feeding nearly 10 billion people by 2050, reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and ensuring access to clean water -- depends heavily upon agricultural research and advances. Individual studies chip away at these issues, but combining data from multiple efforts offers opportunities to produce global change.
“There are significant opportunities to make advances in so many areas of agricultural research if we share results and make big data out of small data,” Brouder said.
Currently, the lack of a standardized method of organizing agricultural data makes it difficult to combine the data from many small studies to see the bigger picture. Also, many scientific journals put data behind paywalls, keeping it from the public and from researchers who cannot afford to access the dozens or even hundreds of journals relevant to their fields.
“There is a case for making data openly available because it democratizes access to science,” Brouder said. “Open data and open access have big implications for how we do science.”
The CAST paper authors argue for developing best practices for data workflow and standards for federally funded projects, offering incentives to making available the data not presented in peer-reviewed journals, coordinating among data networks and repositories and curating and preserving data for use beyond its original intention.
They also call for institutions to bridge gaps between agricultural researchers and data scientists as well as shift to more of a team science approach that prioritizes data sharing. The authors contend that data should inform end-user applications that can address environmental and social challenges.
The paper also outlines strategies academic institutions and their partners should consider to enable more data-driven research. One strategy involves producing a sustainable, open-source data network that provides scientists with easier access to previously inaccessible data sets.
However, the new approach comes with a learning curve. Researchers will need to collaborate with data scientists and participate in educational opportunities to better understand the process of working with an unfamiliar source of information.
“I was never taught how to be a good steward of data; it is only recently that I became aware of how much of an impediment this was to delivering research with added value and impact,” Brouder stated. “Not everyone needs to become a data scientist, but we need to enhance data literacy across most of the agricultural disciplines.
“We spend a lot of time as researchers communicating our science,” Brouder said. “Today, we have a chance to take our message to people with the power to make changes that can have true impact on our future.”