Network of Ecological Researchers

Center is model for collaboration.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

In virtually every part of the United States, foreign pests have become a danger to national forests and other scenic areas, and to delicate ecosystems.

In Georgia, for example, laurel wilt disease is wiping out redbay trees, which are important to wildlife, especially certain butterflies that need them to survive. In California, where oak trees are a state treasure, sudden oak death is killing them.  The Asian long-horned beetle is attacking many trees in New York City and Chicago, while the emerald ash borer is destroying trees in the Midwest.

Each region is fighting these insects on its own turf, at a cost of millions. Recently, however, a working group of scientists sat down to examine the big picture, among other things: What is happening overall with species invasion? How significant is the problem? What do experts know about it?  What can be done to combat it on a large scale? What will happen if the country fails to act?

Scientists analyzed everything available about the importation and impact of foreign insects. They concluded that the country is dealing with the destructive effects of more than 455 bugs and 16 pathogens, and predicted that a new and voracious pest will sneak into the country every two years unless the United States steps up its efforts to prevent it.

The working group was convened by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a unique research forum that brings together scientists and other experts from wide-ranging disciplines, including disparate voices, to examine important ecological issues with a fresh eye. The goal is to analyze existing science on a wide-ranging array of important issues and assess their impact on health, the economy and society. The goal, ultimately, is to encourage the development of sound policy and management decisions.

“Let’s say you have a general problem, such as species invasion, which can have a big impact on the way in which ecosystems function. We provide the neutral ground where people can bring alternative viewpoints and ideas for solving a particular problem,” says Ed McCauley, director of the center.  “We host these people for a series of face-to-face meetings—many don’t even know each other except by professional reputation—for the first time, to sit down and debate, and hammer out the issues. We provide the environment for them to synthesize all the available data that might never have been pulled together before.”

The center, which was established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1996, and is funded by NSF with $3.26 million annually, has become a model for ecological collaboration, inspiring the creation of at least 18 other centers that employ similar methodology, according to McCauley.

“We have been a game changer,” he says. “We do research very differently from the classical ‘I’m-going-to-get-into-the-lab-or-out-in-the-field’ approach. To be sure, the traditional approach is very important. But what we do, given the amount already generated by research, is look at big questions that can be answered using existing data combined with critical analysis.”

The center uses four different approaches to do this. These include the working groups, which involve between 700-800 scientists annually;  resident postdoctoral researchers, who number about 20 and conduct new research, although not in the traditional lab setting, and also participate in the working groups; “distributed” graduate seminars, often on topics already under study by the working groups, in which grad students from numerous universities collaborate; and visiting scholars-in-residence, academics interested in exploring some of these “big picture” questions, who often also serve as mentors for the post-doctoral researchers.

Together, they are tackling a vast universe of ecological issues.

Jennifer Balch, a postdoctoral associate, for example, is studying the impact of fire on global ecosystems and climate change, an area she believes has been under-appreciated until now. In 2009, she was one of 22 scientists writing in Science who concluded that intentional deforestation fires alone contribute up to one-fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming. The paper was cited in a Congressional Research Report last year.