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May
25

Can scientific databases survive without government funding?

A couple of database related items caused me to ponder how we take scientific databases on the web for granted. The first was seeing that due to funding changes in Japan, KEGG was asking for user support, and had created a non profit to raise funds. If database funding is cut or changes in Japan and it causes one of their preeminent databases to go to these lengths, imagine if that happened (or worse) to any of your favorite databases in the US due to funding cuts. Perhaps one day it is there and the next it is gone. Sort of a doomsday scenario if your research depended on it. It is one thing to have to pay for a previously free resource, its another if it just plain vanishes? OK wake up! it has not happened yet (or maybe it has- tell me). Just for fun, take a moment while you drink your tea or coffee today and imagine how your life would change if the PDB, PubMed, PubChem, ChemSpider or another database went away, how would it impact your research etc?

Well that is hypothetical you say. What can be done to ensure longevity without the whims of government support. Make each database a charity, require telethons to fund them, find a sugar daddy or mummy ?
Companies (pharmaceutical, consumer goods etc) use these databases and get a freebie . They should fund them directly or indirectly. That is my controversial comment for the day.

This brings me to the second piece of database related news. Of course, ChemSpider is owned by the RSC and for the past 4 years a group of advisors or “friends” of ChemSpider has done it’s bit in spreading the word. This past week we were disbanded as the RSC takes steps to put together a new board to focus on their “customers”. If asked I would do it all again. ChemSpider while it was privately owned was also free to the public and was developed fast and moved at lightening pace. Since it’s purchase by RSC the most noticable changes have been that the logo changed, it now has the look and feel of a database that is commercial (which is not a bad thing) and it is fast to query. But the rate of change or new developments I think took a hit. For me it will remain a valuable resource and I hope that RSC has a good grasp on what the “customers” want because they are people like me. I sincerely wish them luck in their next phase. Viva free databases, long may they continue!

So I have unwittingly suggested a few paths to database longevity. Get a charity to run you or a publisher (or one that is both) or someone that has a vested interest in your development and growth for the long term. Not sure that governments are the right people to run scientific databases because they are, slow at decision making and fickle, one day they may want to fund another war instead of science. Space programs come and go, scientific databases for the public good should not.

4 comments

1 ping

  1. Antony Williams, ChemConnector says:

    Sean..the news about KEGG is indeed quite surprising and I do need to take some time myself and comment on that…what will it mean to various projects in terms of accessibility. I worry similarly about data shifting from Open to other licenses…what is released as Open initially..can it change? What happens then. People say that PubChem data is “Open” but there is NO license that declares that. Go find it. YES, it is free to download…but that’s not equivalent to Open Data licensing. ChemSpider was a hobby initially and the truth is it couldn’t have kept growing and have been supported if I had gone off to find a job doing something else. It was all-consuming by the time RSC (THANKFULLY) acquired it. I’m fortunate to have been retained with the project and the project is stable, growing and extending in its reach. But there is no forever with any of these databases I’m afraid. And yes, Open Data and open Source does allow other people to take the code and data and set them up internally but the skillsets and resources are not always around. Also, people with the passion to do this are few and far between. People prefer to USE than to host/support and develop in general.

  2. sean says:

    Thanks Tony,
    As an avid (and thankful) user and contributor to databases like CS I definitely should have added a comment on the massive amount of effort it takes to keep these efforts going. Not for the faint hearted. What will be the next CS type of database that comes along?
    I should also say this blog was prompted by a sleepless night. So apologies if it was a bit apocolyptic!

  3. DHL says:

    Hi Sean, thanks for your article. Here is another valuable science database in trouble. According to a Nature news report (ref 1): TAIR, “The world’s most valued plant database faces extinction because its funding is being phased out by the US National Science Foundation (NSF)”. Despite an impassioned plea from the community – see comments on ref 2 – “no alternative source is on the horizon”. A 2010 report (ref 3) summarized several issues with the current funding mechanism: First, “many funding bodies require databases to compete for funding with hypothesis-driven research that is usually assessed on its novelty and ability to generate publications. However, these measures of success are incompatible with data-intense research (O’Malley et al, 2009) and cyberinfrastructure (Leonelli, 2010a) for which the key requirement is not the generation of new resources, but rather the capacity to maintain and improve existing ones. This creates an environment in which it is relatively easy to set up novel databases or resources, but difficult to maintain infrastructure over the long term”. Second, both KEGG and TAIR are used by global research community but funded by one country Japan and USA respectively. Currently there lacks a mechanism for different countries to share the burden of funding databases. Quote from ref 3: “However, any national funding scheme will not be able to provide a solution to a global problem: data do not adhere to geographical boundaries. An international funding agency that could fund data infrastructure would be an ideal solution, but such an institution does not currently exist”. The issue of funding scientific databases has now become an urgent one as many of the databases that have thrived and matured in the past decade now face third round of grant renewal. I’m afraid under the current funding model, some of them will face an uphill battle in securing the funds.

    Ref 1 http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091118/full/462258b.html
    Ref 2 http://www.arabidopsis.org/doc/about/tair_funding/410
    Ref 3 http://www.nature.com/embor/journal/v11/n10/full/embor2010145.html

    1. sean says:

      Thank you Donghui, I would be glad to hear of other databases in a similar position. Also I would point database specific hosts to a new wiki which Antony Williams and I started to capture and publicize scientific databases to increase their visibility http://www.scidbs.com/index.php?title=Main_Page

  1. What is the effective lifetime of a database? » Collaborative Chemistry says:

    […] « Can scientific databases survive without government funding? […]

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