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President's Corner

Winter/Spring 1997

President's Corner

Threats to free and open exchange of scientific data continue

Few issues arouse the passions of scientists and educators more than threats to the long-held international principle of free and open exchange of scientific data--making data and information available, without restriction or discrimination, for free or for only the nominal cost of reproduction and distribution. This is especially true for atmospheric scientists and educators who depend on global atmospheric data sets for understanding and predicting weather and climate and use the same data in instruction and training.

In recent years there has been a growing trend to restrict the exchange of scientific data around the world. In 1994 and early 1995, there was an attempt to modify the World Meteorological Organization's 100-year-old policy of openly sharing meteorological data by restricting certain types of data thought to have high commercial value. In part because of the international outcry from atmospheric scientists, this attempt was essentially defeated, and the WMO's 12th Congress reaffirmed in June 1995 the long-held principle of free and open exchange of data and explicitly approved a resolution that supports the continued free and unrestricted access to weather data by the research and educational communities.

The principle was challenged again toward the end of 1996 when a proposed treaty on intellectual property regarding databases was developed for consideration by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The proposed WIPO treaty contained provisions potentially far more damaging to the research and education communities than the WMO's proposal to restrict meteorological data. For example, the treaty contained provisions intended to

While recognizing the need to protect the legitimate rights of private-sector investment in databases, many people--scientists, educators, and others--felt that the proposed WIPO treaty went much too far in its restrictions on all data, including, for example, meteorological data, environmental data of all kinds, data on the U.S. government, medical science data and health statistics, stock market data, and even sports data. The public outcry against adopting such a far-reaching treaty before its potential consequences could be fully understood and debated led WIPO to drop consideration of the proposed treaty at its December 1996 meeting in Geneva.

The UCAR community participated in the debate on the database treaty through letters and e-mail to the Department of Commerce, which asked for input on the treaty. Conway Leovy (University of Washington) summarized the case for the research community: "As a meteorologist and climate researcher, I am acutely aware that virtually all advances in my field over the past several decades would have been impossible without freely available global data sets which can evaluate the state of the climate system over time." Edward Zipser (Texas A&M) articulated the importance of open access to weather data for educational purposes: "As a citizen, I would be outraged if our children [were] denied access to the weather data which are now becoming available on the World Wide Web. It would fly in the face of this administration's expressed policies to spend money to provide access to the Internet for every schoolroom in America, only to see some of the most eye-catching and exciting tools, such as global satellite data, which has had such a positive impact on science education and science literacy, disappear from the Web!"

Despite the recent successes with WMO and WIPO, few people believe the debate is over for good. The issues involved in using the Web for dissemination of data, and in balancing the rights of the commercial sector with the legitimate needs of the research and educational communities, are pervasive and challenging enough to ensure continued discussion. Perhaps the biggest victory in the recent bout is that the arena for this discussion has expanded significantly. The atmospheric sciences community, which has written so persuasively in recent months, will remain engaged as the debate unfolds.

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Apr 4 13:38:24 MDT 2000