State secretary Sander Dekker about Open Access

Staatssecretaris Dekker schreef een opinieartikel over het belang van het delen van wetenschappelijke kennis en data. In dit artikel roept hij, als voorzitter van de Raad voor Concurrentievermogen, zijn Europese collega’s op om samen te kiezen voor Open Access,  het vrij toegankelijk maken van wetenschappelijke publicaties. Dit artikel is in het Nederlands verschenen in De Volkskrant van 27 mei 2016.

For Europe’s fifth freedom

In all the turmoil about a euro crisis, a migrant crisis and a potential Brexit, one could almost forget the main objective underlying collaboration in Europe more than sixty years ago. It was the creation of a single European market which boosted trade and created jobs – effectively laying fertile ground for decades of peace and prosperity. Today, Europe has the world’s largest internal market, seeking to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. But these ‘four freedoms’ are insufficient for facing tomorrow’s economic challenges. Although our economy is driven increasingly by knowledge, information and data, the circulation and application of new ideas is still hampered enormously by old-fashioned institutions and regulation. Ministers in Europe concerned with science and innovation should thus bring a ‘fifth freedom’ into play: the free movement of knowledge and data.
We like to think of ourselves as knowledge economies. And yes, increasingly we are. The European Union may have originated in coal and steel, but its future lies in knowledge-intensive industries such as personalised medicine, quantum computing and sustainable energy. Companies invest billions of euros in research and development, knowing that the best new ideas will determine their long-term success. Governments also make their own contributions. Every smart country invests in a sound infrastructure of universities and knowledge institutions. And with a scope of some 70 billion euros the European Horizon 2020 research programme is one of the largest in the world.
The returns on these investments, however, are far from optimal. Too much knowledge and research remains unused, because of the outdated methods of sharing scholarly work. The high subscription charges levied by major scientific publishers effectively makes the work of researchers inaccessible to outsiders. Teachers, for instance. In contrast to staff and students in universities, they have no direct access to journals and books in their specialist fields. If a teacher in a secondary school wants to read the Oxford Review of Education, he will hit a paywall. The same applies to a start-up entrepreneur looking for relevant state-of-the-art research for his product design. Or the patient wanting to know more about his illness. Research funded with public money is simply not open to that very same public.
Things are perhaps even worse when it comes to the raw data in scientific research. Not only is this data out of reach for people outside the academic world, but even inside universities the data is often handled in the most amateur way. In the corporate world, data is increasingly supplanting oil as the main economic asset. But the research data from our smartest people too often lies gathering dust on easily-misplaced USB sticks. The central storage of data and tools to consult and re-use it, are often lacking. In an era when big data technology and services are expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 40 per cent, this is nothing less than full-blown capital destruction.
If we all believe that we secure our future by investing in knowledge and data, we also need to ensure that this knowledge and data is used optimally. This imposes demands on universities, on publishers and on governments. After tough negotiations with several major publishing houses, universities in the Netherlands have insisted on their articles being available to everyone under the ‘open access’ principle. And the national scientific funder has introduced new conditions, whereby it will only fund research of which results and data are made public immediately. But if we really want to make progress, we need to raise our ambitions, scaling them up. If we want to make public knowledge and data available to every European teacher, doctor and entrepreneur, then we need to combine our strengths as one Europe.
Today, Europe’s Ministers of Innovation and Science will gather in Brussels to discuss the steps needed to promote ‘open science’. I call on my colleagues to show that they too believe in a strong Europe where knowledge and data also form part of the free traffic alongside goods, people, capital and services. This will provide a major impetus to the dissemination of new ideas and revolutionary insights which will strengthen our economies for decades ahead. It will be a clear message that freedom and prosperity are at the core of Europe, and that here, we actually get things done.