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Influential Ecology Think Tank Survives With New Focus

Few institutions have had as big an impact on ecology in recent years as the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) of the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara. Its innovative model of collaboration and pulling together existing data sets has helped shape perceptions of a wide range of issues, including overfishing and climate change. So it was a shock to many researchers when they learned in 2011 that core funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) was ending. Now, with a new lease on life thanks to philanthropic grants, NCEAS has refocused on applied ecology and conservation. But how much it can continue to serve basic research is not clear.

It is a question “that keeps me up at night,” says Frank Davis, an ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, who became director of NCEAS in July 2011.

When NCEAS began in 1995, it was the first national center of its kind. Researchers could propose questions in a range of areas, such as infectious disease and marine ecology. Then a dozen or more colleagues from around the world would gather in Santa Barbara for working group meetings to assemble often disparate data sets and search for answers. The collegial approach paid off. NCEAS created a critical mass of researchers with resident postdocs and visiting academics, and technical staff members who developed new informatic approaches to support data synthesis. More than 500 working groups produced a long list of highly cited papers, often putting NCEAS in the top 1% of institutions cited for their work in ecology. And the model was duplicated elsewhere, with centers that focus on evolution and mathematical biology, for example. The latest is the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis.

For 17 years, NCEAS was funded as an NSF center, providing about 70% of its operating budget. After an exceptional third renewal, the last of the NSF money ran out on 30 September. “We're really are in the post-NSF era,” Davis says.

Thanks to a $2.4 million grant from the Moore Foundation, announced in June, the center has secure funding through 2015. The grant will cover about 70% of operations for a slimmed-down NCEAS. But the budget is about one-half of what it was during NCEAS’ heyday, when it reached $3.7 million.

Another change is that NCEAS is focusing more of its efforts on applied conservation work. The flagship effort is called Science for Nature and People (SNAP), a partnership with the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which began in July. The overall model is the same—request proposals for working groups that synthesize data—but the focus is on the role of nature in supplying food, energy, and water, especially in developing countries. “We're still asking people for their best ideas, but in a narrower span of ecological research,” Davis says. And rather than communicating to policymakers after the fact, SNAP aims to have them involved from the start.

The first two working groups, announced on 24 September, focus on using natural defenses to reduce the risk of coastal disasters and balancing infrastructure development and conservation in the western Amazon. The emphasis on influencing conservation managers and policymakers will make measuring success harder. “We're doing this with eyes wide open,” Davis says. “It's not that easy to make important and durable changes to policy just by doing science.”

Despite the new direction, NCEAS will try to serve the broader ecological community as before, Davis says. NSF still funds some NCEAS informatics research, mainly the Data Observation Network for Earth. And the center continues to train young scientists in data synthesis. This summer, a 3-week session funded by the Packard Foundation hosted 22 students out of 400 applicants. “There really is a training gap,” Davis says.

But Davis still hasn't cracked the toughest nut: how to finance the broad, basic science projects that made NCEAS famous as a center essentially owned and operated by ecologists. Davis is also puzzling over how to ensure that NCEAS remains neutral and nonpartisan while moving into the world of serving clients outside the scientific community who may have strong opinions on issues of the day.

“It's great that [SNAP] is allowing NCEAS to continue,” says Sandy Andelman, a chief scientist for Conservation International, who was deputy director of NCEAS from 1999 to 2005. But she points out a key difference: SNAP has its own board, whereas NCEAS used to operate with a science advisory panel. So it will largely be TNC and WCS that will decide which projects to fund. “That's not the same sort of community-driven model as NCEAS,” she says. 

“NCEAS has finished its first life,” says Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont in Burlington, who served on its board for 3 years. In its place, he sees three similar efforts at using working groups to synthesize data for applied ecology. In addition to SNAP and SESYNC, the World Wide Fund for Nature is creating the $20 million Luc Hoffmann Institute in Gland, Switzerland. “I don't understand how they consider their niches to be different, but there's a lot of work to be done” with integrating science into conservation, Ricketts says. “It's heartening.”