Science and the Digital Divide

Science  21 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5747, pp. 405
DOI: 10.1126/science.1119500

At the launch of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva in December 2003, the world community strongly affirmed the central role of science in developing an information society and affirmed the principle of “universal access with equal opportunities for all scientific knowledge and the creation and dissemination of scientific and technical information.” The WSIS Declaration of Principles recognized the essential role of the public domain and public institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums in supporting the growth of the Information Society and providing free and equitable access to information.* The WSIS Plan of Action suggested numerous approaches to implement these principles, including “e-science” as a key application of information and communication technologies in support of sustainable development.

The international scientific community succeeded in raising these issues at WSIS and securing widespread support from participating governments. Now, with the second phase of WSIS taking place in Tunis in November 2005, the scientific community needs to take the lead in demonstrating how science—and universal access to scientific data, information, and knowledge—can make a critical difference in sustainable development and overcoming the “digital divide.”

The deadly South Asian tsunami in December 2004 and what many have called the “silent tsunamis” of millions of unnecessary deaths and untold suffering from malnutrition, disease, and poverty remind us that science has far to go. Scientists must work not only to predict future hazards and develop new medicines and vaccines, but also to make scientific data and information much more accessible and useful for real-world decision-making. These disasters underscore the need to better understand how societies can best organize themselves to address pressing problems posed by limited resources, conflict, poor infrastructure, and inadequate skills and knowledge. Scientists, the original developers of information and communication technologies, often take for granted their ready access to data and information, software and hardware, and networks of colleagues. But for billions of people, even the most rudimentary access to life-saving scientific expertise and knowledge, such as an early warning or a new cropping method, is a major challenge.


How can the international scientific community help reduce the digital divide? Already, many scientists and scientific institutions are working to improve the reach and effectiveness of science through information and communication technologies. The International Council for Science (ICSU) and its Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) are collaborating with WSIS to collect and document such efforts (www.wsis-online.net/science/home_EN/). But more needs to be done.

Scientists can support distance education and training; improve the accessibility of information and communication technologies to disadvantaged, marginalized, and vulnerable groups; communicate technical knowledge to the general public; and establish digital libraries, data archives, and other mechanisms to increase access to scientific information. We urge the scientific community to come up with more creative ideas and outcomes. Noteworthy examples on this front include the efforts by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide electronic access to its course materials (http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html) and by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to make primary scientific biodiversity data openly available (http://www.gbif.org/). The scientific community should also consider new approaches to open electronic access, such as the Science Commons (http://sciencecommons.org/), that, among other things, address the complex issue of licensing structures.

Immediately after the South Asian tsunami, critical data on elevation, population location, administrative boundaries, and damage could not be shared because of intellectual property and national security constraints. Even now, the 30-meter-resolution data from the Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) flown by NASA in the year 2000 is not publicly available, although it could potentially provide the best available elevation information regarding most of the world's coasts. The pending decision by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to prohibit public access to various aeronautical products would be another step in the wrong direction. The scientific community needs to press governments not only to release specific data sets that are vital to disaster management and planning, but also to establish a “good Samaritan” principle for the use of data and information in humanitarian emergencies.

Science helped to create the Information Society—it can now help extend that society to all.

  • * WSIS, Declaration of Principles (document WSIS-03/GENEVA/DOC/4-E, 12 December 2003).

  • WSIS, Plan of Action (document WSIS-03/GENEVA/DOC/5-E, 12 December 2003).

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