Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Sunday, June 20, 2010

If Only Climate Scientists Operated The Same Way

Today, data sharing in astronomy isn't just among professors. Amateurs are invited into the data sets through friendly Web interfaces, and a schoolteacher in Holland recently made a major discovery, of an unusual gas cloud that might help explain the life cycle of quasars—bright centers of distant galaxies—after spending part of her summer vacation gazing at the objects on her computer screen.

Crowd Science, as it might be called, is taking hold in several other disciplines, such as biology, and is rising rapidly in oceanography and a range of environmental sciences. "Crowdsourcing is a natural solution to many of the problems that scientists are dealing with that involve massive amounts of data," says Haym Hirsh, director of the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation. Findings have just grown too voluminous and complex for traditional methods, which consisted of storing numbers in spreadsheets to be read by one person, says Edward Lazowska, a computer scientist and director of the University of Washington eScience Institute. So vast data-storage warehouses, accessible to many researchers, are going up in several scholarly fields to try to keep track of the wealth of information.

Persuading scientists to fully embrace the age of big data, though, will require a change in academic reward structures to give new currency to papers with more authors than ever and to scientists who spend their careers crunching other peoples' numbers.

"The culture shift is the sharing of data," says Mr. Lazowska. "And the astronomers have led the way."


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