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Chapter 2: Conference Introduction | Data for Science and Society: The Second National Conference on Scientific and Technical Data | U.S. National Committee for CODATA | National Research Council

U.S. National Committee for CODATA
National Research Council


Conference Introduction

Bruce Alberts

     Good morning. I am Bruce Alberts, and I am both the president of the National Academy of Sciences and the chair of the National Research Council (NRC), which is the operating arm of the National Academies. It is a pleasure for me to welcome you to this conference. You have already had a brief introduction to the conference from Dr. Kafatos, so I don't think I really need to do that. However, I would like to say a word about the National Academies, as we call ourselves, and also a word about this issue from my personal perspective. I was a scientist in universities for 30 years before I came to Washington; I am a cell biologist, and my remarks will reflect my own scientific background.

     Let me just say a word about the U.S. National Committee for CODATA (USNC/CODATA), which is a standing committee at the National Academies and the U.S. committee that adheres to the international CODATA. It is very important to us in many ways. In 1997, a subcommittee of the USNC/CODATA released a report Bits of Power: Issues in Global Access to Scientific Data.1 This report alerted us in the United States to get very active in the issues arising from the European Union's directive on increased database protection.2 We want to prevent the kind of protection of databases that would hinder scientific access and use. We are still in the middle of that battle. For the last 3 years, the National Academies have been interacting intensively with Congress over this issue. Our focus has been on ensuring fair-use kinds of exceptions for science and education if such a new law is adopted.

     The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863, with President Abraham Lincoln giving us a charter as a private organization. We are not part of the government, and the charter was very unusual for an honorary scientific society. It said, in effect, that in order to exist, the Academy must advise the federal government on any matter of science or technology that is requested and, moreover, that "the Academy shall receive no compensation whatsoever" from the government of the United States for these services. This statement has led to a great volunteer tradition. We now have approximately 6,000 volunteers every year at work on all kinds of committees.

     During World War I, it became very obvious that more than scientists were needed to give this kind of advice, and the National Research Council was established so we could bring in lawyers and teachers--and whatever other kinds of persons we needed, in addition to the scientists and engineers who were required, to form the committees to advise the government. Somewhat later the two other "Academies"--the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine--were formed. So, the National Academies is an organization with three presidents--medicine, engineering, and science--who together oversee the National Academies and its operating arm, the National Research Council.

     One of the recent reports released by the NRC focuses on medical errors, to which the government probably responded more quickly than it has to any report we have ever produced. Often, it takes several years for the government to really respond to a report, but within a week, President Clinton held a special news conference to talk about medical errors. This report, To Err Is Human,3 has had a profound effect on American consciousness about errors in medicine. Later this winter, you will hear about another pending report on genetically modified, pest-protected plants, a very hot issue both nationally and internationally. We have had a committee working for more than a year on this subject, and we hope that the report will be released at the end of this month. We publish about one report every working day.

     The most fundamental issue that we are involved with today is spreading an understanding of the nature of science. To this end, the National Academy of Sciences has been producing a series called Beyond Discovery: The Path from Research to Human Benefit.4 It was started in 1993, in order to make the public and Congress aware of how science works and why investment in fundamental knowledge is critical for the world and the nation. Each unit in this series of reports contains a time line highlighting the various discoveries that have provided new knowledge and led in the end to something that brought great human benefit, whether it be the global positioning system (GPS) or the cure for childhood leukemia. In the case of GPS, it all started with atomic clocks, a purely scientific investigation that at the time was thought to have no practical application. Nevertheless, atomic clocks were to form a major underpinning to the ensuing development of the global positioning system. The point that we make over and over in this series is that science works by combining knowledge in unexpected ways. It is thus critically important to make sure that scientific knowledge is disseminated to as many people as possible, because no one can predict where or how it is going to be combined in new ways to create something that will bring benefits to human beings.

     The World Wide Web makes it possible for the first time to disseminate scientific and technical knowledge on a universal basis. We haven't by any means fully exploited or understood this capability, but it is a great opportunity that we face today. As an example, the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) has done wonderful things to spread information about genomes and other medically relevant data widely throughout the world. It has a terrific set of Web sites, which make available to anyone this rich array of data at no cost, as well as many other kinds of information. In particular, I want to mention a site called PubMed, which exploits the great investment by NLM in producing the MEDLINE database of abstracts of many of the major journals in the biomedical sciences. This is something that we all used to pay for. I used to sit in my laboratory, and every time I did a major search, it might cost me $100. At that time, $100 was a lot for me to pay for these searches, and it was totally out of range for most developing countries. So NLM did a wonderful thing by making this information available for free on the World Wide Web. PubMed is now used by anybody with a major health problem in the United States who knows about the site. In addition, scientists all over the world now have access to this literature resource.

     The National Academies has made an electronic version of our scientific journal--The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences--freely available to anybody connected to the Internet after one month. Many other journals are now doing the same thing with somewhat longer delays. These are wonderful things to do. They will not only make science work better, creating a much faster advance of science worldwide--but also strengthen the position of science in the world, spread science throughout our societies, and let many more people understand and appreciate what we do. This is an issue, of course, that you are all here to discuss at this conference.

     Finally, I would like to welcome our friends from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We have 9 representatives of the Chinese Academy participating in this conference. Our Academy and the Chinese Academy have been interacting closely in recent years, and we have begun many collaborative activities, which are enormously important for the future of the world and for our two countries. Our scientists and engineers continue to work together, and we like and trust each other.

     So, with this, all that remains is for me to thank the organizers for making this whole event possible.


1 See National Research Council. 1997. Bits of Power: Issues in Global Access to Scientific Data, National Academy of Press, Washington, D.C.

2 See Directive 96/9/E.C. of the European Parliament and of the Council of March 11, 1996, on the legal protection of databases, 39 O.J.L. 77/20, March 27, 1996.

3 National Research Council. 2000. To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

4 For additional information, see the Beyond Discovery Web site at <>.

Copyright 2001 the National Academy of Sciences