Following up on a federal commitment to ensure publicly funded agricultural research is easily accessible, a team of faculty members from the Purdue University agriculture and library sciences departments this week organized a conference in Washington, D.C., to further discuss a program that would collect and organize such data.
The workshop, called Smarter Agriculture, promoted greater and easier access to data that could be used to help drive innovative breakthroughs in areas including health, energy, the environment, national security and agriculture.
Though the government shutdown hindered federal participation, funding was previously provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and allowed the conference to continue. The workshop attracted scientists, librarians, modelers, educators, publishers, leaders of professional societies and partners from the private sector who focused on identifying the key challenges and opportunities to developing a digital sharing program from their perspectives.
"The workshop format was designed to brainstorm, identify and foster beneficial linkages toward the broad goal of developing a functional data infrastructure for agriculture," said Sylvie Brouder, a professor of agronomy at Purdue. "We want to make research data useful to the agricultural community and policymakers. This infrastructure is critically necessary."
Brouder likened the need for greater access to agricultural research data to how the medical profession has used findings from numerous studies conducted over many years to help people determine whether and when they should be screened for various cancers. She said data from her research on crop nitrogen responses could be repurposed to enable modelers to project how nitrogen applications would affect the environment of an entire watershed without conducting a full series of their own field experiments.
"The theory is that my data is more useful in aggregate with your data rather than as stand-alone," Brouder said. "Traditionally, data in agricultural research have no purpose beyond the current research. But it really does have value beyond that one experiment."
She also said the agriculture industry today would know much more about carbon loss from soil if data from experiments decades ago had been preserved.
"If we had kept certain benchmark pieces of data, we would have had that historical data context in which to conduct our experiments today," she said.
There are many issues to resolve, such as determining ownership of the information and where it would be stored – with so much data to preserve, multiple sites most likely would be needed. Additionally, developing a "common language" for data would be a challenge. Brouder noted that even a seemingly simple term as "yield" would need a precise definition so the data could be analyzed correctly.
Farmers, she explained, typically refer to corn yield with the grain having 15.5% moisture content, while modelers predicting global yields perform their calculations presuming grain contains no moisture.
"If we are going to move to open-access data in a meaningful way, we need to label the data in a meaningful, standardized way," she said.