Thursday, September 06, 2007

"That's life" - is it?

Via Biodivcontext (Donat Agosti):

In my last blog The dismal terrestrial biodiversity survey record I complained about our leaders inability to kick start a global project to survey terrestrial life.

By coincidence, in todays New York Time (Sept 6) you can read an Op-Ed contribution by EO Wilson, "That's life".

Compare this with what's written in the article about the new oceanographic campaign mentioned above.

Is this science he talks about? Is this something new? Isn't this sort of announcement of 'we create something great ... but you have to do it' exactly the recipe of disaster?

The Encyclopedia of Life is a very secretive initiative administering data collected by third parties. There is no substantial budget, nor are science plans there, to create new data. In fact, the proposed support for the affiliated Biodiversity Heritage Library has been cut - the only place, where EOL could have helped to convert existing data into a digital, all accessible and open form.

Wilson's own commitment to open access is dubious, and his credentials to develop new ways to provide access to biodiversity data are non existent.

Clearly, systematics is big science. More than 6,000 taxonomist work on describing the world in such magnificient institutions like the Natural History Museums in almost any capital of the world and hundreds of smaller insitutions. The raise of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (an off-shoot of a OECD meagscience program) as a catalyst to make this information accesible is ongoing. But there is also a certain fatigue in the murals of these institutions, that money is not spend on creating new insights but rather to administer these data by third parties and thus siphoning the money from where it better is spent. Taxonomic aata providers which are not the large institution such as Harvard, but individuals working with very little to no support are anxious not to provide data to support institutions like EOL from which they see no return.

The faltering Countdown 2010 is just a most typical symbol. There is an international commitment to halt the loss of species by 2010. But there are not tools to measure this, because we still launch new IT initiatives and do not work on the ground, and continue talking about the terrible loss of species.

There are ways to be more efficient at very little cost.
  • Open Acccess: Assure, that all the forthcoming taxonomic and ecological literature is open access, either by the green or the gold road.

  • Commit the publishers to insert taxonomic specific tags (such as provided by taxonx the schema), so new names and descriptions can automatically be harvested.

  • Support by our government of Name Registries for all the world orgasnisms, such as IPNI and Zoobank.

  • Provide targeted access to legacy publications, digitize and mark them up, so that they can be harvested, their names, descriptions and distribution records, and provide doi or handles for all of these records.

  • Commit the members of the Conservation Commons to deliver: provide access to their data.

  • Bridge the gap between the conservation, industry and sytematics community, so that a link between data exists.

  • Implement the OECD guidelines to provide access to publicly funded scientific data.
We do not need new institutions, we need to strengthen existing one - the US unilaterist attempt in climate change is as much detrimental to the rest of the world's approach (Kyoto protocol) as is EOL to GBIF and its activities. And we really need to go out and collect data - because of empiric evidence climate change and ozone, to name a few, are on the politicians palate, and not anecdotal accounts.
I mostly agree with the sentiments expressed here, especially the frustration that is felt by taxonomists (and me) when we see all these press statements and news reports about new initiatives and new conferences and new foundations, all dedicated to identifying all the species of the world, but see nothing actually being accomplished and no actual help to scientists (like me) who are doing this work.

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