UC Davis students and faculty save public research data before it vanishes
Hammad Zahid marched into the library room, planted his laptop computer on the table and cracked his knuckles before launching a program that would extract data from a federal website and save it to an online archive.
The computer science engineer joined more than 100 other UC Davis students and professors Thursday crammed into three rooms at Shields Library eager to join a nationwide effort to back up scientific data produced with public funds.
The one-day #DataRescueDavis event was part of the nationwide DataRefuge project, spearheaded by the University of Pennsylvania. DataRefuge was started after the election of President Donald Trump to ensure that federally funded scientific research remains available to the public “under an administration that denies the fact of ongoing climate change,” according to the website.
DataRefuge has held similar events across the nation, supplying lists of priority websites to be archived. The data is then kept in various locations on the Amazon cloud, according to organizers.
“They did a survey of researchers and asked what data is the most important to your work and what data do you think is most vulnerable,” said Nick Santos, a researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis and one of the event’s organizers. “Whether it is some small program that could be defunded or whether it is hot and political, they worry it may be intentionally tampered with. They sent us a list of what they think we need to archive now.”
Zahid, a computer engineering major, said he was prompted to take part in the DataRescue event because of his experience working at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville.
“I know how important data is,” he said.
The room was filled with researchers.
Essam Abdelfattah, a postdoctoral scholar in animal sciences, is researching the effects of climate change on wild quail. Graduate student Anna O’Brien studies the role that climate adaptation plays in how plants and root-associated microbes interact. Graduate student Marisa Donnelly conducts research in epidemiology.
“I feel like climate change has been under attack at a federal level,” said Rich Pauloo, a graduate student in hydrology. “I think it’s just important to protect those data sets for ourselves, for the present generation and for future generations.”
Martin Burger, a researcher at the university, has a personal stake in safekeeping scientific information.
“I’m looking for projects where I can be useful, so this made a lot of sense,” he said. “I use these federal websites sometimes, especially the EPA website, which is like the gold standard in research. It is a sound science. So if some of this disappears, that would be terrible.”
On Thursday, Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was confirmed by a Senate committee and will next face a vote of the full Senate. The committee vote occurred despite a protest by Democrats. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt frequently sued the EPA over Obama administration regulations related to climate change and water quality.
At UC Davis, the data group was divided into two rooms. One held the “nominators” – people without programming experience. Their job was to search federal websites to determine whether data is searchable and could be downloaded or would need the help of a person with programming experience, called a “scraper.”
The “scraper” would then attempt to extract the information from the site. Seventy scrapers showed up, many squeezing into the classroom by sitting on the floors or standing along the back wall. Some sat in nearby rooms leaning into the doorway to hear instructions.
The number of experienced programmers who showed up was unexpected, said Kevin Miller, university archivist. He said organizers thought they would get more novices and fewer experts.
Santos said he doesn’t believe the scientific data will disappear.
“It’s a low-risk event, but if it happened we would have a huge problem,” he said.
The event came on the heels of a letter to Trump from California scientists, most from the University of California system, including UC Davis. The letter asks the administration to uphold commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The scientists cite the Paris climate agreement signed by 127 countries to slow global warming. Former Trump adviser Myron Ebell told reporters this week that the president would back out of the climate agreement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.