Free and open access to research, both past and present, is vital to solving global issues

In science, as in other fields of enquiry, knowledge develops over time. Thus Newton's law of universal gravitation was re-examined by Einstein as a theory of general relativity, which was in turn used by Stephen Hawking on his journey to a theory of quantum gravity. But knowledge also grows as researchers work together here and now to achieve better results more quickly.

To ensure researchers can learn from the work of colleagues past and present and continue to break new ground, we at Research Councils UK believe that research discoveries must be made openly available and accessible for future generations. It is essential that research is stored and shared to influence the work of others and increase its potential for the future.

The great challenges facing our world today, including climate change, lifelong health, future energy supply, food security and economic uncertainty, often demand the expertise of more than one individual, or one team of researchers, or indeed one discipline. Sharing research findings is essential.

For example, the first draft of the wheat genome was produced by a team from the universities of Liverpool and Bristol working with researchers from the John Innes Centre, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Their findings were made freely available online and are now accessible to other researchers and plant breeders who are developing practical applications to tackle the challenges of global food security. Sharing research outcomes is essential to progress in any area of science and is something for which all researchers and research organisations have responsibility.

Understandably there will always be a concern when researchers part with the results of their hard work, so it is crucial that they have confidence in the systems they use to share findings. The integrity of their work, and the value of their intellectual property, must be protected – and, of course, they must receive the recognition they deserve.

A new, independent working group chaired by Dame Janet Finch has recently been set up to examine how UK-funded research can be made more accessible, bearing in mind the needs of researchers and users. We need to devise a system whereby our research base can be open to the world to influence progress, change and development. The benefits to researchers of sharing research outcomes include gaining recognition from peers globally and the possibility of developing further academic and commercial partnerships, which may bring in additional investment and so push forward the work.

Research is never static. It constantly evolves and changes in direction and momentum. Excellent research draws on the findings of those who have gone before and on the achievements of contemporary researchers. And it must be carried out with an eye to the future and the knowledge our descendants will inherit.

Only by sharing our knowledge can solutions be discovered to the challenges that face the world today and are likely to face it tomorrow. Following in the footsteps of Newton, Einstein and Hawking, and of research communities across time, we can be confident that their peers today will continue this great collective endeavour.

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