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Science-societal relationship critical to success of big data analysis

Leading experts present challenges during ORAU annual meeting

March 17, 2015

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—Today’s scientists working with big data to identify the next breakthrough in medical care, environmental solutions or other critical areas need to be skillful in data analytics but also adept at communications. That was one of the key insights attendees heard recently at ORAU’s 70th annual meeting of its Council of Sponsoring Institutions, titled “Big Data Analytics: Challenges and Opportunities.”

“For science to prosper, the science-society relationship must be positive and strong,” said keynote speaker Alan Leshner, Ph.D., chief executive officer emeritus for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Leshner, who holds a doctorate in physiological psychology from Rutgers University, told the audience that many scientists are not prepared to talk about their work and its implications with the public.

The challenge comes when scientists, as a result of the growing efficiencies found in today’s supercomputers, can more easily tap into and process large databases of information, social media or other sources for their research needs. While this information may be publically available, Leshner emphasized that for society to become more comfortable with the use and analysis of it, scientists must be seen as someone who can safeguard the information and use it wisely.

While people generally have high regard for scientists, per Gallup polls and other indices, the general public usually has little understanding of how the research actually occurs and how the information would be used. It is that lack of understanding that often can create a barrier to further developments in science, according to Leshner. As part of his work with AAAS, he challenges scientists to also become better communicators and to proactively reach out to the public as early as possible in the scientific process to begin the education process.  

“This is not just an issue for science, technology or any domain,” Leshner said. “It is in fact becoming an issue for everyone and brings us to a broader question regarding the social context in which big data are embedded.”

Balancing the potential societal benefits of the research with the individual concerns regarding use of personal, yet publically available, information is another nuance of this challenge, according to final keynote speaker Budhendra Bhaduri, Ph.D., corporate research fellow and director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Urban Dynamics Institute.

“We (the public) want to know everything about everything all the time,” said Bhaduri. “And some people choose to tell the rest of the world what is happening in their lives, freely and openly.”

Bhaduri, who holds a doctorate in earth and atmospheric sciences from Purdue University, walked the audience through an example in which data mined from the U.S. Census was coupled with other publically available data sources, to assess a community’s carbon footprint and even identify public health issues within a localized area and specific demographic.

“Through smart phones and social media tools, scientists can now have access to the intent of people,” Bhaduri said. “However, while there are some benefits for everyone generated from this information, not everyone may want their personal information to be a part of this process.”

“The subject of big data is still developing, and conversations regarding its challenges and opportunities are still emerging and evolving,” said Andy Page, ORAU president and CEO. “This meeting served to spur additional discussion among our university partners on opportunities to collaborate, especially in the areas of education and data management which look very promising.”

Rounding out the meeting, were three discussion panels. In the morning session, speakers talked about big data centers and how to find the value in large-scale data sets. In the first afternoon session, speakers discussed data analytics, knowledge discovery and how to accelerate scientific discovery and innovation in predictive analytics. In the final session of the day, the discussion focused on the big data enterprise and how to provide a sustainable framework that supports data management, data integration and real-time data analysis.

The complete agenda, including presenters, topics and links to presentations, for ORAU’s annual meeting can be found on its website.

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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