Published Online First and Open Access as of 02 November 2018.
The Bermuda Principles for DNA sequence data sharing are an enduring legacy of the Human Genome Project (HGP). They were adopted by the HGP at a strategy meeting in Bermuda in February of 1996 and implemented in formal policies by early 1998, mandating daily release of HGP-funded DNA sequences into the public domain. The idea of daily sharing, we argue, emanated directly from strategies for large, goal-directed molecular biology projects first tested within the “community” of C. elegans researchers, and were introduced and defended for the HGP by the nematode biologists John Sulston and Robert Waterston. In the C. elegans community, and subsequently in the HGP, daily sharing served the pragmatic goals of quality control and project coordination. Yet in the HGP human genome, we also argue, the Bermuda Principles addressed concerns about gene patents impeding scientific advancement, and were aspirational and flexible in implementation and justification. They endured as an archetype for how rapid data sharing could be realized and rationalized, and permitted adaptation to the needs of various scientific communities. Yet in addition to the support of Sulston and Waterston, their adoption also depended on the clout of administrators at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the UK nonprofit charity the Wellcome Trust, which together funded 90% of the HGP human sequencing effort. The other nations wishing to remain in the HGP consortium had to accommodate to the Bermuda Principles, requiring exceptions from incompatible existing or pending data access policies for publicly funded research in Germany, Japan, and France. We begin this story in 1963, with the biologist Sydney Brenner’s proposal for a nematode research program at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) at the University of Cambridge. We continue through 2003, with the completion of the HGP human reference genome, and conclude with observations about policy and the historiography of molecular biology.
The Human Genome Project modeled its open science ethos on nematode biology, most famously through daily release of DNA sequence data based on the 1996 Bermuda Principles. That open science philosophy persists, but daily, unfettered release of data has had to adapt to constraints occasioned by the use of data from individual people, broader use of data not only by scientists but also by clinicians and individuals, the global reach of genomic applications and diverse national privacy and research ethics laws, and the rising prominence of a diverse commercial genomics sector. The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health was established to enable the data sharing that is essential for making meaning of genomic variation. Data-sharing policies and practices will continue to evolve as researchers, health professionals, and individuals strive to construct a global medical and scientific information commons.
In February 1996, the genome community met in Bermuda to formulate principles for circulating genomic data. Although it is now 20 years since the Bermuda Principles were formulated, they continue to play a central role in shaping genomic and data-sharing practices. However, since 1996, “openness” has become an increasingly complex issue. This commentary seeks to articulate three core challenges data-sharing faces today.