Closing big-data R&D gaps

The federal government's big-data initiative fills key research and development gaps where industry fears to tread.

In late March, the Obama administration announced plans to spend $200 million a year funding “big data” research and development projects, to be divided among the National Institutes of Health, the Defense and Energy departments, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In announcing the program, Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, compared the plan to past “federal investments in Internet technology R&D, which led to dramatic advances in the supercomputing and the creation of the Internet.”

In fact, the funding should hasten advances in key sources of big-data creation, sharing and analysis, especially in areas where private firms lack the civic interest, financial incentives or pure scale to invest.


Related coverage:

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Key to big data in the brain, not computer


That's because although commercial investment in big data will lead to discoveries that carry significant benefit in health care treatment effectiveness, for example the big payoffs of publicly funded big data research and development will be in areas where industry’s attention often starts to wander.

One of these areas is the protection of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The recent resistance of industry groups to legislation specifying cybersecurity measures to protect the nation’s power grid is a glaring example of why public investment in big data is important.

Big data will be vital to areas, such as infrastructure protection, where the public interest comes first. In this issue, we profile research efforts at the Oak Ridge National Lab one of the beneficiaries of the federal funding on ways to provide “actionable intelligence” on security threats by sifting data streaming from network sensors.

Although Oak Ridge also receives some private funding, only the public purse can provide the financial muscle and organizational focus to speed the outcomes of such research. And for industry, it’s a win-win: Tech developed from the funding can be licensed to companies for commercialization.

Elsewhere, the Energy Department’s Argonne National Labs, another recent recipient of public big-data funding, is taking on a project in an area where private firms would be hard pressed to invest: pure research into developing high-performance big-data extraction and management tools.

Robert Ross, deputy director of the lab’s new Scalable Data Management, Analysis and Visualization Institute, which is taking on the project, said the demands of big data are such that scientists spend much of their time developing the tools to handle data and less time with the data science. The new institute “will develop the necessary tools and software so scientists can use their time more effectively for scientific investigation and discovery,” he said.

Like the public funding that helped turn a military research network into today’s Internet, the administration’s big-data investment could help fill in commercial investment gaps and defend the public interest long enough to make big data a big deal.

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