Tycho Brahe was perhaps one of the greatest observational astronomers in history. He amassed a tremendous amount of absolutely critical data on the motion of bodies within our solar system. Interestingly, Brahe never accepted the Copernican heliocentric view of the solar system. For years, he was incredibly protective of the data, refusing to share it with anyone. Given that he (with historical hindsight) was wedded to a dead-end view of the solar system, his data was not initially valuable.
It was not until Keppler, and later Newton and others, were able to get access to his data that the data was truly useful, and it became the foundation of one of the greatest revolutions in thinking and understanding in human history. Had Brahe insisted on the confidentiality of his data to his death, developed as it were with significant financial contributions from the state and various universities, his work would have been irrelevant, applied narrowly to support a failed theory.
I am reminded of this story when I read this:
In a landmark ruling, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled that Queen’s University Belfast must hand over data obtained during 40 years of research into 7,000 years of Irish tree rings to a City banker and part-time climate analyst, Doug Keenan.
This week, the Belfast ecologist who collected most of the data, Professor Mike Baillie, described the ruling as “a staggering injustice … We are the ones who trudged miles over bogs and fields carrying chain saws. We prepared the samples and – using quite a lot of expertise and judgment – we measured the ring patterns. Each ring pattern therefore has strong claims to be our copyright. Now, for the price of a stamp, Keenan feels he is entitled to be given all this data.”
I guess I am confused as to what the point of a public university is, if its not to contribute knowledge to the public domain. Had Mike Baillie formed his own company with private investors to gather and monetize tree ring data, he would be absolutely correct, and I would be the first to defend him. I would love to see the grant application or funding proposal he submitted for this work. “We would like public funds in the amount of X to gather tree ring data and keep this data absolutely secret so that no one can check or replicate our results.” Actively fighting replication is not a very positive indicator of confidence in one’s scientific results.