National Data Service Should be Created Within the National Science Foundation, Data Foundation Says

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The service could serve a central point for agencies—and state governments—to share data.

A new hub for sharing data should be built within the National Science Foundation, according to a Data Foundation report released Tuesday. The report calls for the establishment of a National Secure Data Service that would coordinate and centralize the federal government’s data infrastructure. 

The recommendation comes as the Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building is set to have its first meeting in coming weeks. The committee, in keeping with the Federal Data Strategy, is tasked with reviewing how the federal government can best use data to make evidence-based policy decisions. 

“Increasingly, researchers need capabilities to link together data collected through formal surveys, federal program administration, and non-governmental data sources,” the report states. “However, the lack of coordination throughout the federal government’s decentralized data infrastructure and statistical system limits the ability to generate the relevant, timely information demanded by policymakers.”

Co-authors Nick Hart and Nancy Potok proposed four potential options for how to create a national data service that serves as a linkage point for various agencies as well as state governments to share data—without sacrificing privacy for American citizens. Hart is the president of the Data Foundation and Potok is a board member as well as the former chief statistician for the U.S., a position within the Office of Management and Budget. 

The solution the authors prefer is a public-private partnership model at NSF, chosen for its strong record of research oversight and independence. Other options included creating or re-tasking an agency within the Commerce Department or relying on university partnerships. 

The NSF solution calls for a federally funded research and development center, or FFRDC, to serve as a national data service. Hart said there are several benefits to this model: It leverages the clout and oversight regulations of the federal government to create a trusted hub of information while leaning on industry to be able to scale and innovate at a rapid pace. 

“In the near term, the value of having a public-private partnership, specifically an FFRDC, is it allows for very rapid adoption in the sense that we could construct the service and have it operational in short order,” Hart said. 

Hart added that the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession demonstrate the immediate need for a national data service. For example, Hart said a centralized data service could help researchers, agencies and the public better understand health information related to the pandemic, thereby allowing for a more informed response.

The report and its recommendations builds on ideas originally born out of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which released a final study in 2017 floating the idea of a national data service. The 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a bill sponsored by former House Speaker Paul Ryan and signed into law in 2019, moved the ball forward on creating a national data service by establishing the advisory committee.

“We can’t wait for something like this to materialize,” Hart said. “So our intent in producing this paper and laying out the strategy was really to create the starting point for the next step, while also acknowledging that the world has changed a lot since 2017, when the commission made its recommendations.”

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