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16

Discussion Framework

Paul Uhlir

In the first session of this symposium, we described some of the potentially limitless possibilities for research and innovation that might ensue from using digital technologies to exploit scientific data available from the public domain as it was traditionally constituted. However, these prospects dim the moment we consider the ramifications for science from the economic, legal, and technological assaults on the public domain that are described in the Session 2 presentations. Here, we explore some of the likely negative implications of these trends for science and innovation unless science policy directly addresses these risks.

In the interests of clarity, I outline the effects of present trends on a sectoral basis, in keeping with the functional map of public-domain data flows presented previously. 1 I begin with the government's role as primary producer of such data and then consider the implications of present trends for academia and for our broader innovation system.

If a basic trend is to shift more data production and dissemination activities from government to the private sector, one should recognize at the outset that the social benefits can exceed the costs under the right set of circumstances. In principle, private database producers may operate more efficiently and attain qualitatively better results than government agencies. Positive results are especially likely when markets have formed; competition occurs; and the public interest, including the needs of the research community that was previously served by the government activity, continues to be met.

There are also numerous drawbacks associated with this trend, however, that require careful consideration. To begin with, the private data supplier will seldom be in a position to produce the same quantity and range of data as a government agency and still make a profit while charging prices that users can afford. In other words, the government agency has typically taken on the task of data production and dissemination as a public good precisely because the social need outweighs the market opportunities. Social costs begin to rise if the profit motive induces the private supplier to reduce the quantity and range of data to be produced or made available. For example, a private data producer typically markets highly refined data products to end users in relatively small quantities, whereas basic research, particularly in the observational sciences, generally requires raw or less commercially refined data in voluminous quantities. On the whole, overzealous privatization of the government's data produc-


1For information on these data flows, please refer to Chapter 1 of these Proceedings, “Session 1 Discussion Framework,” by Paul Uhlir.



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