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Scientific Data Systems in Latin America and the Caribbean

Alfredo TolmasquimA Blog post by Alfredo Tolmasquim (WDS Scientific Committee member)

Several countries in the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, among others, have relevant scientific production and participation in important multinational associations and projects. However, this scientific activity has not been reflected in effective participation in forums related to the management of scientific data. An example is that no LAC country has a scientific data system accredited as a Regular Member of the World Data System (or certified by the CoreTrustSeal). At both the International Data Week held in September 2016 in Denver, Colorado and the recent one held in November 2018 in Botswana, Gaborone, the number of researchers from these countries was very limited.

With the objectives of surveying the scientific data management initiatives in the region and increasing its integration with other international forums, WDS organized—together with the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) and the Museum of Tomorrow—the Latin America and the Caribbean Scientific Data Management Workshop, which took place on 17–18 April 2018 in Rio de Janeiro. The Workshop was supported by some multilateral bodies such as the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science, ICSU Regional Office for LAC, Inter-American Institute for Global Chance Research, Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement; as well as Brazilian institutions such as the Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology, the Brazilian Institute for Scientific Computing, and the Network for Research and Development.

The Workshop brought together more than 150 participants, comprising researchers from countries in the region such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Guatemala, Paraguay, Panama, El Salvador and Honduras; members of the WDS Scientific Committee; representative of the Research Data Alliance; and policy-making and funding institutions, including the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication and the Foundation for Research Support of São Paulo State (FAPESP). Unfortunately, representation from Mexico, the second largest producer of science in the region, was not present, despite numerous efforts to identify and attract researchers.

The Workshop consisted of presentations on the state-of-the-art and future perspectives for scientific data management; on ways to accredit scientific data repositories; and on opportunities for funding, training, and infrastructure in scientific data management. In addition, 44 scientific data system initiatives in the region were presented from a wide range of fields—soil and agriculture, biodiversity, climate, astronomy, geology, health sciences, anthropometry, and the humanities, to name but someproviding a good landscape of what is being done. The full programme, the papers presented, and videos of all the sessions can be accessed on the Workshop website.

It became clear from the presentations that there are major disparities in the LAC region. On the one side, there are highly structured and complex data systems, such as the Inter-Institutional Laboratory of e-Astronomy developed by the National Observatory, Center for Integration of Data and Health Knowledge of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, and Biodiversity Research Program coordinated by National Institute of Amazonian Research. On the other side, there are universities or countries that are taking the first steps towards creating their repositories of scientific publications. For the latter, the La Referencia project has been fundamental, since it is creating a network of open access repositories for science and involves many countries in the LAC region.

The Workshop also highlighted the existence of simultaneous initiatives in the same field. This is the case for agronomy and soil sciences in Brazil, which has robust systems being developed at the same time at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, the Federal University of Santa Maria, and the Brazilian Company on Agriculture and Livestock Research, but with no cooperation among them thus far.

The Workshop, moreover, brought to the fore some of difficulties face by countries in the region to develop scientific data systems. One is that the structuring and management of scientific data is not perceived by institutions as bringing benefits. As a result, they are the concern of individual initiatives, which lack adequate infrastructure and sustainability. This problem is especially aggravated by the discontinuity of project funding by governments and agencies. Another aspect mentioned is the lack of rules and standards established by agencies, and fostered at the time when financial support is given to a project. The exception is FAPESP, which in 2017 implemented a rule whereby projects receiving up to approximately 50,000 USD must plan in advance the destination of all scientific data collected or produced during the course of the research.

In addition to exchanges of information and the development of greater synergies among the participants, the Workshop provided a number of concrete results. The first was the creation of a Working Group at the ABC to elaborate norms and guidelines on the treatment of open data for science and technology in Brazil. This Working Group is currently in the process of planning a follow-up meeting to the Workshop to be held in 2019. A further consequence of the Workshop is that ABC has been invited to participate in debates in the National Congress of Brazil on a new law regarding the treatment and protection of personal data. There are likely many more such examples beyond Brazil, and Workshop participants will be contacted to discover the positive outcomes of the Workshop in promoting scientific data systems in countries and projects throughout the LAC region.