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National Research Council (US) Board on Research Data and Information; Uhlir PF, editor. Designing the Microbial Research Commons: Proceedings of an International Symposium. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.

Cover of Designing the Microbial Research Commons

Designing the Microbial Research Commons: Proceedings of an International Symposium.

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Preface and Acknowledgments

The opportunities to accelerate scientific discovery and resulting applications are made increasingly possible by technological breakthroughs and pioneering methods to process and integrate vast amounts of data, information, and raw materials. Microbial research, which is outgrowing its “small science” institutional structures, should consider building upon these opportunities in an attempt to develop a global microbial research commons to promote access to databases, literature, and materials through an open, digitally distributed network. However, the increasingly blurred line between basic and applied research confers potential economic value even upon research inputs that are far upstream. As a result, the research community is increasingly being forced to come to terms with commoditizing pressures within developed economies. These pressures restrict the conduct of public-sector research through strong intellectual property rights and related contractual restrictions on access to and use of materials, publications, and data. At the same time, restrictive policies in developing countries under the Convention on Biological Diversity complicate research uses of microbial materials held in public repositories ex-situ, and make it increasingly difficult to access the vast in-situ materials these countries control.

These trends have led to a proliferation of diverse licensing strategies and techniques, which collectively have elevated the transaction costs and other barriers for even relatively simple cooperative research projects. There is, thus, a need to focus on the obstacles to upstream, non-commercial research and the solutions to them. An early step is development of a set of design principles that address the economic, legal, and institutional dimensions of the transformation of the existing research infrastructure into what could become a globally distributed and digitally integrated research commons. The goal of this redesigned “soft” infrastructure would be to better manage publicly funded research resources, without compromising downstream commercial applications and fruitful partnerships between the public and private sectors, or between developed and developing countries.

Of course, a variety of responses is possible. Some are more conservative with respect to an understanding of the scientific “commons” as a common resource available on a nondiscriminatory and non-commercial basis, whereas others may be based upon a pro-actively managed or regulated set of practices. These latter responses would compromise the conservative view in the interest of achieving greater patronage and participation of actors who have other motives and rationales for participation. A more detailed discussion of the “commons” concept is provided in the presentation by Paul David in Chapter 3 and Charlotte Hess in Chapter 25, as well as from various other perspectives of course throughout this volume.

The Board on Research Data and Information held an International Symposium on Designing the Microbial Research Commons at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC on 8–9 October 2009. Organized by a separately appointed Steering Committee, this symposium expanded on prior international discussions on the same topic at a conference in June 2008 in Ghent, Belgium (see: The October 2009 symposium addressed topics such as models to lower the transaction costs and support access to and use of microbiological materials and digital resources from the perspective of publicly funded research, public-private interactions, and developing country concerns. The overall goal of the symposium was to stimulate more research and implementation of improved legal and institutional models for publicly funded research in microbiology.

The International Symposium on Designing the Microbial Research Commons focused on accomplishing the following tasks:

  1. Delineate the research and applications opportunities from improved integration of microbial data, information, and materials and from enhanced collaboration within the global microbial community.
  2. Identify the global challenges and barriers—the scientific, technical, institutional, legal, economic, and socio-cultural—that hinder the integration of microbial resources and the collaborative practice of scientific communities in the microbial commons.
  3. Characterize the alternative legal and policy approaches developed and implemented by other research communities, such as common-use licensing for scientific data and information, standard-form material transfer agreements, open access publishing, and open data networks that could be applied successfully by the microbial research community.
  4. Define the contributions of new information and communication technology (ICT) tools in building federated information infrastructures, such as ontologies, data and text mining, and web 2.0.
  5. Discuss and evaluate the institutional design and governance principles of data and information sharing among information infrastructures, drawing upon and analyzing successful and failed case studies in the life sciences.
  6. Identify the range of policy issues that need to be addressed for maximizing open access to materials, data and literature information in an integrated microbial research commons.

The statements in this volume are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of other workshop participants, the steering committee, or the National Academies. The symposium agenda is provided in Appendix A and the list of the meeting participants is presented in Appendix B.

On behalf of the Board, we gratefully acknowledge the support for this project of the Department of Energy under grant number DE-SC0002579, and from the National Science Foundation under grant number OCI-0821873, as well as the core support it has received from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Technical Information Center, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Library of Congress.

This volume has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the NRC’s Report Review Committee. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for quality. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.

We wish to thank the following individuals for their review of selected papers: Minna Allarakhia, University of Waterloo, Canada; Subbiah Arunachalam, Consultant; Nancy Connell, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; Michael Carroll, American University; Melanie Dulong de Rosnay, Communia; Micah Krichevsky, Bionomics International; Michael Lesk, Rutgers University; Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University; James Staley, University of Washington, Seattle; and W. Edward Steinmueller, University of Sussex, UK.

Although the reviewers listed above have provided constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the content of the individual papers. Responsibility for the final content of the papers rests with the individual authors.

We would especially like to recognize the contributions of Daniel Cohen, on assignment to the National Academies from the U.S. Library of Congress, who assisted with the editing and the production of the manuscript. Subhash Kuvelker and Cheryl Levey of the Board staff also helped with the review process and the preparation of this volume. Finally, and not least, we would like to thank Fran Sharples, director of the Board on Life Sciences, for her assistance with the project.

Cathy H. Wu

Steering Committee Chair

Paul F. Uhlir

Project Director

Copyright © 2011, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK92746


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