C1. Research on Biological Diversity

Biological diversity, or simply biodiversity, is the sum of life on Earth – plants, animals and microbes – encompassing all levels of biological organization from genomes to species to ecosystems. Approximately 1.8 million species are known as a result of 300 years of the biological exploration of the planet. Astonishingly, an estimated 15-50 million species await discovery and basic description.  A grand challenge for the 21st century science is to expand and harness knowledge of Earth's biological diversity and to understand how it shapes the global environmental systems on which all of life depends. This knowledge is critical to science and society for rational policy for managing natural systems, sustaining human health, maintaining economic stability, and improving the quality of human life. The urgency for this knowledge increases daily as the conversion of natural systems to human-managed systems accelerates the decline of biological diversity at all levels of organization.

The importance of biodiversity research and education has been established by a series of landmark reports: U.S. NSF’s Task Force on Global Biodiversity (Black et al., 1989), the systematics and biological collections community’s Systematics Agenda 2000 (1994), the Australian government’s The Darwin Declaration (Environment Australia, 1998), Biodiversity II: Understanding and Protecting Our Biological Resources (Reaka-Kudla et al., 1997), and the U. S. President’s Committee on Science and Technology’s Teaming with Life (Lane, 1998).

Ecological and systematics research, which is aimed at elucidating the evolutionary history, geospatial pattern, community structure and ecosystem processes involved in the creation and maintenance of biological diversity, is becoming increasingly data-driven (Bisby, 2000; Bisby et al. 2002; Causey et al. 2004).  Cyberinfrastructure is enabling this transformation, and as more primary sources of historic and real-time environmental data streams come on-line, the role of networked information services and collaboration technologies will continue to expand (Edwards, et al. 2000; Withey, et al. 2002). Biodiversity data is increasing at the rate 107 new records per year. Libraries, museums and research centers are grappling with the issues of dealing with the deluge of data in a stable, online and integrative way (Berman and Brady, 2005). 

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Research on biological diversity is a global and cyberinfrastructure-enabled science.  The evolutionary origin of biological diversity and ecological processes that maintain it are active areas of research involving thousands of scientists worldwide. The outputs of those systematics and ecological investigations inform conservation management, government policy and civil society on the most important environmental phenomena in the history of mankind—the impacts resulting from the transformation of speciose natural systems into species-poor, managed ones.  

While profound changes are affecting earth’s biosphere and climate, networked cyberinfrastructure is changing the pace and methods of biodiversity research. Global- and continental-scale environmental issues demand accelerated research strategies, and rapid progress requires timely, global- and continental-scale collaboration. International collaboration with biodiversity and ecological informatics will build the common network protocols for taking on 21st century environmental science challenges. Biodiversity informatics training will be critical to develop the proficiencies needed to build and sustain that shared cyberinfrastructure.

The PIs propose a Pan-American Advanced Studies Institute (PASI), to be held in early 2007 in Costa Rica, on the theme of: Cyberinfrastructure for International, Collaborative Biodiversity and Ecological Informatics. The PASI will emphasize the development and application of Internet-based cyberinfrastructure tools for environmental research collaboration.  The geographical focus area for the PASI is the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and the other countries of Central America.  The PASI is a follow-on activity to a successful international workshop the PIs organized on “Cyberinfrastructure for International Biodiversity Research Collaboration,” held in Panama City on January 10-13, 2006.

The PASI will be a two-week training workshop held at the University of Costa Rica. Twelve lecturers will develop a curriculum of classes comprising several dimensions of leading-edge cyberinfrastructure for biodiversity research. The course will expose 15 graduate-level students from the U.S. and 15 students from the other focus countries to state-of-the-art network and informatics technologies, and will provide hands-on lab exercises for training in the utilization of cyber tools for biodiversity research.
Intellectual Merit: The PASI will address biodiversity and ecological informatics, a research discipline that is building the cyberinfrastructure foundations for environmental research in the 21st century.  CI-based research collaboration will likely be a predominant mechanism for investigations in the environmental sciences in the future.

Broader Impacts: The PASI we propose is focused precisely on the broader impacts of engaging biodiversity informatics researchers in the U.S. and Central America to deliver an intensive training exercise in technologies related to research collaboration for Master and Ph.D. students, post docs and junior faculty. The PASI is seen as a next step in a set of international activities aimed at establishing new research and training collaborations among the participating nations.