Scientists Lobby For Network of Networks

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2003 (ENS) - Advances in scientific observation and measurement over the past century have provided far reaching knowledge about individual species and local ecological processes, but scientists are quick to point out that there is still far more to be discovered about how ecosystems interact and change.

"Ecosystem models are more constrained by lack of accurate input data than by lack of basic understanding," said John Aber, professor at the University of New Hampshire's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space.

To remedy this, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is calling for a new scientific infrastructure - a "network of networks" - that standardizes measurements, affords instant data sharing and facilitates cooperation between the nation's variety of field stations and environmental observatories.

NSF has been discussing its vision of a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for several years, but lack of funding has stalled its progress.

Still, a new white paper that offers a blueprint for NEON, released Tuesday by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), could help provide momentum for a dramatic overhaul of how the nation observes and measures the environment. antenna

Shared access to ecological measurements could greatly aid ecologists and researchers. (Photo courtesy High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network)
"The forefront of ecological research is headed evermore toward a focus on questions and concepts that are relevant over large geographical regions," according to the Infrastructure for Biology at Regional to Continental Scales (IBRCS) working group that put together the white paper.

"This highlights the need for coordinated scientific infrastructure that is itself spread out over large regions."

The IBRCS project was launched by AIBS with support from NSF, in particular to focus on the NEON initiative.

The IBRCS working group contends that NEON should encompass a minimum of 17 primary observatories, 16 in the United States and one in Antarctica. The 17 observatories would include both a core site that has extensive and highly specialized research equipment and a number of satellite observatories that are less instrumented.

Each of these regional observatories will include its own network of biological field stations, long term ecological research sites, national parks, academic institutions, marine laboratories, government agency field stations and nature preserves.

It will not replace existing facilities, rather build upon them.

The "network of networks" would be connected by high speed data links to integrate these myriad observatories into one single, functional research tool. fire

Better ecological data could help predict and curtail forest fires. (Photo by Bob Nichols courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)

NEON is envisioned as a common science facility open to all qualified users and a vital tool for engaging and involving students, scientific and nonscientific groups and the general public.

Compatible data sets and analytical capability will be integral to the success of NEON, according to the white paper. It calls for comprehensive measurements of climate and hydrology, biodiversity dynamics, biogeochemistry, biosphere-atmosphere coupling, and spatial analysis and remote sensing.

Scientists and researchers "need measurements of the same phenomena from a broad range of ecosystems," University of Connecticut biology professor Kent Holsinger told attendees at a public discussion in Washington DC on Tuesday.

"This infrastructure is needed for ground breaking research and it will enhance our ability to manage ecosystems for long term human welfare," said Holsinger, who served as chair of the working group that produced the white paper. cranecanopy

Field research stations come in all shapes and sizes. (Photo courtesy Wind River Canopy Crane Research Facility)
NEON, Holsinger explained, will integrate and synthesize data across large temporal and geographic scales.

The availability of these measurements can provide the foundation for "addressing questions of biodiversity and ecosystem function, carbon dynamics, invasive species, coupling of human and natural systems, ecology of infectious diseases and biogeochemical imbalance."

The need for such a broad range of measurements, across large temporal and geographic scales, reflects a core change in ecology, said O.J. Reichman, director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and ecological professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"The scope of ecology has changed quite dramatically - it now encompass molecules to the biosphere."

Such a network could be invaluable for scientists trying to tackle the growing concern of invasive species, explained Cythnia Kolar, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Kolar, who represented the Ecological Society of America at the discussion, authored a paper last year that offered key insights into predicting fish invaders, based on research and data on invasive fish species in the Great Lakes.

The economic cost of invasive species in the United States is estimated at some $130 billion, and the threat is considered the biggest risk to biodiversity in lakes, Kolar said.

Her work was on possible because the Great Lakes is a highly studied ecosystem, she said. zebramap

This map documents the spread of the invasive Zebra Mussel. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
"There was available data," Kolar explained. "But we do not have enough data on most ecosystems to do this."

Measurements across disciplines can provide ready answers to difficult questions, according to Reichman, representing the Organization of Biological Field Stations, an association of some 180 field stations and associated professionals.

He cited study of the Hanta virus Pulmonary Syndrome outbreak in the American Southwest at the Sevilleta Field Station in New Mexico. Increased precipitation from El Nino prompted increase vegetation, which increased the reproductive success of deer mice that carry and spread the disease.

Long term data storage is a component of NEON that should not be overlooked, said Aber, who spoke on behalf of the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, a consortium of 40 centers across the United States.

"Existing data sets increase in value every year," he said. "We need this long term information. The more accurate the information, the more accurate the prediction."

The scientific case for NEON is one thing, but finding the money for it has proven another. Funding was stripped from NSF's budget last year.

NSF has asked for $18 million to put towards developing at least one NEON observatory in its fiscal year 2004 budget. Congress has yet to discuss the request.

"The time is right for [NEON] now," Reichman said. "We are on the cusp of so many new technologies and this infrastructure could spur groundbreaking research." To access the white paper, see: http://ibrcs.aibs.org/core/index.asp For additional information about NEON, see: http://www.nsf.gov/bio/neon/start.htm