Good morning, everyone!
For those of you who attended yesterday’s sessions — welcome back! And for those of you beginning your conference experience this morning — welcome to the University of Kansas!
Over the coming days, you’ll have the chance to visit with fellow data professionals from across the nation and the world who focus on social science research and teaching. Attendees come from institutions such as universities, social science data archives, libraries, national statistical agencies, and other government organizations and NGOs. So I have no doubt you’ll leave here with new ideas, and new colleagues with whom to collaborate.
I suspect the University of Kansas shares a common mission with many of your organizations. That is, to discover information, evaluate it, and share it with the public for the betterment of society. At KU, that includes conducting research that leads to new knowledge and ideas, and helps us better understand the world. It includes a commitment to open access for scholarly articles. And it includes providing students a broad-based education and empowering them to assess sources, evaluate data, and think critically and logically.
The reality is, our society doesn’t function well without educated citizens who understand and respect accurate information and have the ability to access it. This is why your work is so important.
This year’s conference is of special significance because it comes at a time when there is increased focus on ensuring the availability of data. Much of that has to do with changes in technology and new patterns of information seeking and sharing — which is a theme at this conference each year.
But this year in particular, there are some truly unprecedented factors at play. I don’t have to tell this group that data matter … Facts matter … Objective measures of reality matter … and that these data and facts are the building blocks of knowledge, good decisions and sound policymaking.
But for various technological, social and political reasons, data and information professionals like you — and the institutions and society that rely on you — face unprecedented challenges today.
First, there is a growing element of our society that is increasingly distrustful of – or immune to? – expertise, data and facts. This has immense implications for higher education, as well as for journalism, libraries, and any organization involved in collecting, preserving and sharing data. After all, how do we fulfill our obligation to the public when our data and the scientists who collect them are written off as untrustworthy?
Institutions like ours also face extreme competition today from other uncurated information sources. Nowadays, professionals must face the reality that anyone with an email address or a website is a potential competing source of information. “Why research a topic on the Library of Congress website when I can just go to this guy’s blog page?”
Second, data professionals today are struggling to manage an unusual political environment, and an administration that appears to have scant regard for — and is often outright hostile to — factual information. This administration has an unprecedented level of comfort saying and repeating things that are not supported by facts — or in some instances, are directly disproven!
Third, and equally concerning, our continued reliance on the integrity and comprehensiveness of existing national data collections, such as the National Center for Education Statistics, or for health statistics, or NOAA, may be threatened for political and financial reasons.
There are challenges beyond data collection and protection, however. For example, at KU, our faculty work through the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets to track the accelerating melting of Arctic ice sheets and the attendant rise in sea levels. But this kind of research is now imperiled by lawmakers set on defunding, discrediting, or disavowing climate change research altogether.
The same threats exist for gun policy research. Every year, more than 30,000 people die from gun violence in the United States, which is why we need the University of California-Davis Gun Violence Research Center, and a similar center at Johns Hopkins to continue their work in this area. Yet, after the Charleston shootings, Congress renewed a ban on funding research on gun violence.
While it is understood that elected officials will make policy decisions, we should be concerned when we are handicapped in making research-based discoveries that are relevant to the policymaking process.
The reality is, data — and the professionals who mine and interpret it — are essential to shaping complex societal topics. And in this type of environment, the work you do is perhaps more challenging than ever, but also more important than ever.
I rely on what you do.
We all rely on what you do.
So you have my sincere thanks and best wishes for an enjoyable and productive conference.
Again, it is my pleasure to welcome you and thank you for making this conference an opportunity for the fruitful exchange of ideas.