Clinical & Regulatory

Clinical & Regulatory

Open access to research data – a game-changing legacy from the Dutch EU presidency?



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On 1 July 2016, after a six-month presidency, the Netherlands handed over the reins of the Council of the European Union to Slovakia. The Dutch government claims to have done a lot during that time, but what did it really achieve during its EU presidency? Lorenz van Gool finds out

EU presidency

The Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers) is charged with adopting EU laws, mediating between member states and coordinating policies. During its EU presidency, the Dutch government considers its three chief accomplishments to have been: the measures it put in place to tackle the migrant crisis; its commitment to legislation for a robust ‘mingle market’ and, last but not least, its fight against antimicrobial resistance in health and agriculture.

The Netherlands brought together European health and agricultural ministers to discuss this biological threat, calling it a ‘silent killer’. One of the solutions urged by Edith Schippers, Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, was a reduction in the use of antibiotics while, at the same time, encouraging the development of new varieties and alternatives.

In terms of medtech, this obviously paves the way for the creation of better diagnostic techniques that enable drugs to be used more effectively. And while the Dutch government prepared Europe for a silent killer, it also lobbied for a very promising disruptor: Open Science.

The kindness of disruption

Open Science, in short, changes how the scientific world collaborates. Full open access to all scientific publications means that research findings will become free of charge to any reader. Therefore it has the potential to shake up – or even disrupt – an academic world where being published in journals such as Nature or Science is still considered better than sharing your insights with the rest of the world. Now the emphasis would be on contributing to the greater good.

EU presidency

Sander Dekker

Under the chairmanship of the Dutch Secretary of State for Education, Culture and Science, Sander Dekker, EU member states adopted the Amsterdam Call for Action on Open Science. This means that all EU member states have agreed on full access for all government-funded scientific publications so that the reuse and sharing of data from publicly funded research becomes the norm by 2020.

The Amsterdam report claims that Open Science allows science to become faster and more responsive to societal challenges. An example would be in the response to antimicrobial resistance, but it also means acting more swiftly against viral diseases such as Ebola and Zika.

Data-driven decisions

To say Open Science will have some impact on the medical sector is an understatement. The speed at which medical products and services are being developed is so fast that government institutions – in their current form – can’t keep up. The report acknowledges the crucial role of sharing: ‘Only companies (notably SMEs), entrepreneurs and innovative young people that have access to the latest scientific knowledge are able to apply this knowledge and to develop new market possibilities.’ The Open Science movement provides a powerful resource for such progress.

EU presidency

Margreet Bloemers

For medtech businesses in Europe, open access to research data will eventually pave the way for more personalised medical treatments based on data-driven decisions, says Margreet Bloemers, Secretary of the open access policy at ZonMw (the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development). ZonMw funds health research through multiple subsidy programmes and has backed several initiatives to stimulate the use of open access. Since June 2016, the organisation has required scientists to offer a management plan for the use and reuse of their data in order to get funded.

Bloemers has high hopes for the Big Data promise of Open Science. Access to a larger volume of and more kinds of data – providing that the data is ‘well tagged’ – will eventually lead to very detailed health profiles of whole swathes of people. ‘Think data on their genetic profile, phenotype and behaviour,’ she explains. ‘This means you can develop specific treatments more easily – with the guarantee of privacy, of course. It will allow the medical world to answer particular questions.’

But Bloemers also acknowledges Open Science is still in its infancy. ‘It’s certainly promising, but the scientific world isn’t quite ready for it yet – research success is still measured by publications that aren’t open to all. The EU Open Science Conference held by the Dutch government this year was a good start, it will guide us to the right direction.’

No more exclusivity

Jos Engelen, Chairman of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), also sees a scientific world that isn’t ready for Open Science. But, according to him, people in the field are willing to embrace it.

EU presidency

Jos Engelen

The only possible problem is the tradition of publishing research findings in esteemed journals. ‘It is tempting to publish in those magazines. At the same time, it’s disadvantageous to access because these publications want the “scoop” and the exclusivity. We have to respect that business model as they maintain their reputations through that system. We will have to see how sustainable that is.’

But despite this Engelen thinks times are changing: ‘At NWO, we spend public money on research, so we have other standards for quality research data. Open access is just as good as an exclusive judgment. Exclusivity of research data will eventually disappear but it will take time. It’s probably best to look at the situation two years from now, when the effects of our current policy should become visible.’

According to Engelen, smaller medtech companies will benefit especially from Open Science. ‘No more high subscription costs, easier access to data and a bigger medtech community. Needless to say, it will have a beneficial influence on progress in healthcare.’

Later this year, the Dutch Secretary of State for Education, Culture and Science, Sander Dekker, will report back to the Dutch parliament about the progress of the Netherlands EU presidency’s Open Science revolution. Time will tell if Open Science will be fully adopted and if it fulfils its promise.

About the author

Utrecht-based Lorenz van Gool is co-editor-in-chief of the Dutch blog StartupJuncture, as well as being a startup mentor.

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