ICSU Strategic Committee for Information and Data

A Briefing for the Astronomical Community


Ray Norris, 30 March 2008



The IAU has been invited to comment on the draft report of the ICSU Strategic Committee for Information and Data (SCID). If the strategies that result from SCID are successful, it has the potential to establish global infrastructure which can deliver real value to astronomical data centres such as CDS, NED, and ADS, to the Virtual Observatory, and to major data-intensive instruments of the near future (e.g. LSST, SKA, etc.).


The International Council for Science (ICSU – see http://www.icsu.org/index.php) is the peak body of world science, and is the parent body for the Scientific Unions such as the IAU. ICSU also has a cross-disciplinary organisation called CODATA (see http://www.codata.org/ ), of which IAU is a member, which promotes and coordinates data issues across all of science.

In astronomy, we are well aware of the changing nature, volume, and complexity of astronomical data. Most of us are aware that next generation instruments, with Terabyte databases, are going to present enormous challenges to the way that we process data, and our current ways of managing astronomical databases will probably no longer work. So there are a number of initiatives within the astronomical community, most notably the Virtual Observatory, which aim to address these. Many astronomers are not aware that similar challenges are being met in other disciplines (e.g. geosciences, life sciences, etc) and that similar solutions are being sought. Naturally, it would be sensible for us astronomers to see what we can learn from our fellow-scientists in other disciplines.


Within individual countries, governments and funding agencies are also aware of the changing nature of scientific data, and some countries are setting up infrastructure to handle these changes. Astronomers need to be part of these national initiatives if astronomy is to benefit from them. Similarly, astronomers’ interests need to be represented in global initiatives such as the Global Information Commons for Science Initiative, which is being promoted by CODATA.


ICSU has a brief to look after global issues that affect all of science, and so the ICSU Strategic Plan includes the following goal:

“To facilitate a new coordinated global approach to scientific data and information that ensures equitable access to quality data and information for research, education and informed decision-making.”

In order to achieve this it proposes, amongst other things, that ICSU should establish a Strategic Committee on Information and Data (SCID).

Strategic Committee on Information and Data (SCID)

SCID is a committee of 13 people drawn from all the sciences. Its membership is listed in Appendix A, and it includes three astronomers (Ray Norris, Peter Fox, Nicole Capitaine). Amongst its terms of reference (Appendix B) is a brief to examine ways to improve two other bodies of interest to astronomy: the World Data Centres (WDC), and the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Services (FAGS), which supports services such as the

  • Centre Données astronomiques de Strasbourg (CDS), one of the hubs of the Virtual Observatory,
  • International Earth Rotation and Reference system Services (IERS), which defines the parameters upon which our astronomical positioning is based, and
  • International VLBI service (IVS), which coordinates global Very Long Baseline Interferometry.


The draft SCID report proposes to merge and re-energise these two bodies (WDC and FAGS), and this recommendation is supported by the chairs of WDC and FAGS, who are members of SCID. It also proposes a number of measures to help CODATA achieve its goals of delivering greater value to the scientific community, including astronomy.


The major draft recommendations of SCID are that:

1)                  ICSU assert a much-needed strategic leadership role on behalf of the global scientific community in relation to the policies, management and stewardship of scientific data and information;

2)                  a new World Data Services system be created (as an ICSU Interdisciplinary Body), incorporating the WDCs and FAGS as well as other ‘state of the art’ data centres and services;

3)                  CODATA focus its activities on the three main initiatives identified in its draft strategy and extend its links to other organisations and networks to play a more prominent role within ICSU and within the wider scientific community;

4)                  a new ad hoc ICSU Strategic Coordinating Committee for Information and Data be established to provide broad expertise and advice to ICSU in this area;

5)                  ICSU National Members and Unions be strongly encouraged to establish committees or commissions, where these do not already exist, focussing on data and information issues.

Relevance to Astronomy

From the point of view of astronomy, a critical test of the success of this strategy is whether it can deliver real value to astronomical bodies such as CDS, NED, and ADS, to the Virtual Observatory, and to major data-intensive instruments of the near future (e.g. LSST, SKA, etc.)


While the current SCID report doesn’t yet set up infrastructure which will do this, it does propose to set up the bodies and processes which will do so. You are invited to read the draft report and send your comments on it to Ray.Norris(at)csiro.au by 9 April for passing on to Ian Corbett who will coordinate the IAU response.


Appendix A:   Members of SCID


Roberta Balstad

Earth Institute, Columbia University

New York



Nicole Capitaine

Observatoire de Paris



Michael Diepenbroek

Institute for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM)

University of Bremen



Kim Finney

Australian Antarctic Division, Department of Environment & Heritage




Peter Fox

High Altitude Observatory

Earth Sun Systems Lab, National Centre for Atmospheric Research




Alexei D. Gvishiani

Director, Geophysical Center, Russian Academy of Sciences




Ray Harris [Chair]

University College London, Department of Geography




Toshio Koike

Department of Civil Engineering,

University of Tokyo



Jean-Bernard Minster

Scripps Institution of Oceanography

University of California,



Ruth Neilan

Jet Propulsion Laboratory




Ray Norris

CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility,



*Alejandro Pisanty

Director General de Servicios de Computo

Academico, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM)



Daisy Selematsela

Knowledge Management & Strategy Directorate, National Research Foundation


South Africa

*Alejandro Pisanty was unable to attend the SCID meetings in person but provided extensive input and comments on the various issues under discussion and on the text of the final report.


Appendix B: SCID Terms of Reference  

Taking the report of the CSPR Assessment Panel on Scientific Data and Information as its starting point, and in the light of developments subsequent to that report:

  1. To guide and oversee the reform of the World Data Centre (WDC) system and Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical data analysis Services (FAGS);
  1. to liaise with CODATA in the development of its strategic plan;
  1. to advise CSPR on any other actions that might be appropriate for ICSU to consider in order to facilitate a coordinated global approach to scientific data and information, including the potential need for a Scientific Data and Information Forum (SciDIF).


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