Skip Navigation

Maximizing scientific value of big data requires public-private partnerships on a big scale

Recent ORAU annual meeting highlighted this and other challenges of accessing, organizing and gleaning discoveries from large amounts of digital data

March 21, 2016

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—The analysis of large volumes of digital data, or “big data analytics,” has incredible potential to transform the ways in which researchers approach scientific discovery. Yet as several government and academic speakers emphasized during the recently held 71st Annual Meeting of the ORAU Council of Sponsoring Institutions, addressing the challenges of managing big data—and trying to piece out meaningful insights—requires public-private partnerships on a big scale.

Speakers at the two-day meeting, which was hosted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and involved nearly 200 attendees, highlighted opportunities for academia, government and private industry to develop partnerships that advance big data applications in the areas of medical, imaging and cybersecurity.

Keynote speaker Sriram Subramaniam, director of the Center for Molecular Microscopy at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), presented the challenges of visualizing complex cells and tissues. Images—created from electron microscopes—have been in use for many decades.  However, developments in an emerging area of imaging called cryo-EM recently enabled Subramaniam and his research team to achieve atomic resolution imaging of protein complexes.

“By cryogenically freezing cellular proteins, we are able to bombard the structure with electrons and capture thousands of 2-D images, which are then computationally combined to produce 3-D structures of molecular complexes, viruses and even whole cells at high resolution,” said Subramaniam. “This type of visualization and the ability to understand how cells work at molecular resolution is the ‘holy grail’ for meaningfully predicting the occurrence of infectious disease or cancer.”

In a panel discussion following Subramaniam’s presentation, Georgia Tourassi, director of ORNL’s Health Data Sciences Institute, and Belinda Seto, deputy director for the National Eye Institute and member of the NIH Health Scientific Data Council, agreed it can be very powerful when researchers have the ability to follow disease at the single-cell level. The two expanded their discussion to also include some of the more complex issues surrounding medical applications of big data.

Using ORNL’s high performance computing resources to collect public healthcare data from sources like the Internet and smart phones, Tourassi and her team are conducting epidemiology studies to provide the cancer community with information for developing new treatments, policies and procedures. Tourassi referred to the practice as “info-demiology” and explained that while the fully automated process allows for almost real-time discovery, researchers still must be mindful of potential sampling biases.

“Drawing conclusions from big data is still the wild west of scientific research,” said Tourassi. “The technology is a mechanism for accelerating knowledge discovery, but it does not replace traditional methods of research.”

Tourassi’s co-panelist, Seto, is working to address this and other problems by providing researchers with better tools and training to deal with big data through the NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative. She announced that as part of BD2K, NIH is planning to launch this May the NCI Genomic Commons, a cancer knowledge network already seeded with biomedical research from four separate repositories. The goal of the NCI Genomic Commons is to serve as a virtual lab space where collaborators can share data and discuss community-driven, data-sharing standards.

The question of just how to standardize the sharing of big data across academic, government and private-sector entities was a common theme expressed at the ORAU meeting.

Director of the National Science Foundation’s Physics Division Denise Caldwell provided neuroscience—the scientific study of the nervous system and brain—as an example for how some areas of study are becoming increasingly computational and data-intensive. She explained that the traditional approach to science, where researchers rarely communicate across disciplines, is problematic for optimizing big data.

“There’s a tremendous scientific payoff when you have well-developed mechanisms for sharing data among groups. We can push the science harder and faster,” said Caldwell. “Getting to that point—where scientific results are optimized in a shorter amount of time—really requires a team approach.”

One example of collaboration already working to bridge the gap between industry and government is the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Cyber Security for Energy Delivery Systems program. Fowad Muneer, a program manager with DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, described the agency’s partnership with the energy sector to strengthen the cybersecurity posture of the nation’s power grid. Muneer explained that to develop an informed strategy they have to first evaluate and understand the current posture of the grid—a daunting task considering the size, type and number of industries connected to the energy sector.

ORAU President and CEO Andy Page echoed the same theme of collaboration expressed by many of the leading experts who spoke at the meeting.

“Partnerships are a big deal for big data,” said Page. “Translating data into actionable information involves making sure the data can be found, that it’s accessible and it’s useable. While the discussion will need to be ongoing, this meeting has served as a catalyst for laying the foundation of collaboration among our university consortium members, the government and industry partners.”

The complete list of speakers, topics, panelists and links to presentations provided during ORAU’s annual meeting can be found with the agenda at

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).

Media Contacts

Pam Bonee
Work: 865.576.3146
Cell: 865.603.5142

Wendy West
Work: 865.576.0028
Cell: 865.207.7953