Solving the Biocomplexity Puzzle
Studying only one piece of the environmenteven one as big as an LTER siteprovides only partial understanding of how the world works. Such is the nature of what NSF Director Rita Colwell calls "biocomplexity." Eventually, all the pieces will need to conjoin in order to solve the puzzle.
One would-be puzzle master is the NSF-funded National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California in Santa Barbara. NSF helped create NCEAS to organize and analyze ecological information from all over the globe, including sites within NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research Program (LTER). The center does not collect new data itself; instead, NCEAS' job is to integrate existing information so that the information is more useful for researchers, resource managers, and policymakers who are tackling environmental issues.
"Natural systems are complex, and humans are altering these systems at an unprecedented rate," says NCEAS deputy director Sandy Andelman. "We need to do a better job of harnessing the scientific information that's relevant to those systems and putting it in a useable form."
But gathering and integrating such information is a daunting task. There is no central repository in which ecological scientists can store their data. Most studies are conducted by individual researchers or small teams working on specific small, short-term projects. Since each project is slightly different, each data set is slightly different.
"Ecological data come in all kinds of shapes and forms," Andelman says. She adds that, in ecology, "There is not a strong culture of multi-investigator, integrated planning of research.
Ecology and other related disciplines have amassed vast stores of relevant information, but because this information is in so many different forms and formats and many different places, it is not accessible or useful."
Hence the need for something like the NCEAS, which is collaborating with the San Diego Supercomputing Center and the LTER program to come up with the necessary advanced computing tools. NCEAS is also developing a set of desktop computer tools that will allow researchers to enter and catalog their data into the network using standardized data dictionaries. Eventually, researchers thousands of miles apart will be able to look at each other's data with just a few clicks of the mouse.
"If people knew that their data could contribute to a larger question, most would happily make a little extra effort to put their data into a more useful format," Andelman says. "But there hasn't been that framework in place." And now, thanks to NSF, there will be.