The Book of Trogool

No, you can’t have a pony

I read the RIN report on life-sciences data with interest, a little cynicism, and much appreciation for the grounded and sensible approach I have come to expect from British reports. If you’re interested in data services, you should read this report too.

A warning to avoid preconceptions: If you pay too much attention to all the cyberinfrastructure and e-science hype, it’s very easy to fall prey to the erroneous notion that most of science is crunching massive numbers via grid computing and throwing out terabytes of data per second.

It ain’t so. It never was so. Will it be so in future? Not any time soon, I’m thinking.

The report-writers don’t try to soften their error (and much love to them for it): “There is much talk of ‘big science’, and our initial research design presumed that we would be studying large-scale formal collaborations. But we found that most research groups in the life sciences continue to operate on a relatively small scale, and we revised our plans accordingly.”

Again, we don’t have hard evidence for numbers or weight of small science versus Big Science. If we plan for nothing but Big Science, however, we’re making an enormous error in judgment.

There’s a good bit of attitude mining in the report; I have little to add to it, so I will merely recommend that you read it. The lack of carrots for data-sharing is a deal-breaker, just as it was for self-archiving, and I agree with RIN that using sticks only will cause fairly serious backlash.

Skipping to the end of the report, then, we find out what researchers want by way of data-curation support. Namely, everything and the kitchen sink. At zero cost to them or their grant agencies, of course. I don’t know why any other response would have been expected; it costs researchers nothing to say in a focus group that they want a pony, so why would they not say they want a pony?

At some point, someone will have to tell them they can’t have a pony. I don’t envy that person or agency one bit. Even so.

I believe that individuals and institutions planning data-curation services should take researchers’ wants as expressed in this report with a generous dash of salt. No institution can give them what they want, because what they really want is for the problem to be taken care of for them without their involvement. What should be aimed for is giving them what they need.