Rand and Data Now

I just came back from an Issues in Focus talk at RAND in Santa Monica about whether the United States is losing its edge in science and technology. You can read the full report by Titus Galama and James Hosek, here. But to sum it up very succinctly, the answer is no. The US is still extremely competitive and looks to remain that way according to their research. Obviously, there’s much to be debated about this topic and they weren’t as blunt in their assessment as my one word summary. However, instead of focusing on their research (which their report summarizes well), I want to focus on a question that came up several times from the audience: is there more current data?

Many of the graphs that Dr. Galama showed during his talk were compelling but they were plotted over time and roughly ended between 2001 and 2005. This is not because of some omission on Dr. Galama and Hosek’s part, it is because the data was just not available. They mentioned this several times in response to the audience questions. Talking to Dr. Galama after the Q&A, it was clear that he wants the most current data possible. Indeed, a recommendation from their report is all about obtaining data now:

Establish a permanent commitment to a funded, chartered entity responsible for periodically monitoring, critically reviewing, and analyzing U.S. S&T performance and the condition of the S&E workforce.

They essentially recommend an organization whose whole responsibility is to get good current data and synthesize it. However, the establishment of such an organization takes time and indeed may never happen. What should researchers do in the meantime? I believe the solution lies in taking advantage of the web. In particular, as the web becomes increasingly current (i.e. this blog post, tweets, etc.) and increasingly structured (RDFa, YQL, Linked Data) the kind of data that Dr. Galama needs will be available. The key then is making it accessible for synthesis. Once that (non-trivial) problem is solved and Dr. Galama can use an up to the moment graph in his talk, then the audience question will change from “Is there more current data?” to “Where did that data come from?”.

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