Thursday, October 18, 2012

Conservation Commons

Is the Conservation Commons dead? A review document submitted by the current secretariat of the Conservation Commons at WCMC regarding its principles is currently being discussed at the 11th Conference of the Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity in Hyderabad in document cop-11-wg-02-crp-01. The relevant paragraph is 14 and has the following language:
14.    Notes the recommendations made by the Conservation Commons in document UNEP/CBD/COP/11/INF/8 and calls upon Parties and other stakeholders to consider how they can most effectively address barriers to data access that are under their direct control with a view to contributing to the achievement of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and Targets 1 and 19 in particular, and requests SBSTTA to develop further guidance thereon;
This is extremely lame: "address barriers to data" seems to be all but what has been at the core of the CBD, that is Access and Benefit Sharing. But those at the meeting selling the CC, and most likely the recipients of such a service, obviously did not, do not want to understand the relevance of the notion to have a Commons. If so, the sentence would have at least be written "REMOVE barriers to data"

In my view this just resonates the partnership of the conservation community with the private industry that is all but for open access to data, and of ignorance by the respective policy makers at this policy making forum.

But it also means, that we have to be more alert of these not easily understandable processes and participate more actively. It is always easier to complain afterwards.

To be afraid of the future or not to be

John Wilbank's talk at TED is a highlight and stimualting at the same time, and puts the ongoing debate about privay rights, right now in the EU, into a very different light, if not makes it very questionable. Are we really all so much afraid about the future?

This reminds me of the ongoing discussion on Open Access in the scientific world. Similar to the debate on privacy rights, where a central point is to deny Google the right to federate all their different databases and even more, break down restrictions to re-use data - data can only be used for the purpose it has been collected according to EU privacy law, scientists debate about access to single PDFs. Neubauer, as an example,  misses in his column the point, that there is new emerging power in a federation of all the content that we scientists produce, and that this is the really new character the Internet is all about. 

Why are we so defensive in a world that we all enjoy, where we have no experience with this new tools that already make our lives completely transformed? We all look back to the totalitarian regimes that where spying on us, and at the same time just accept that we are spied on by our on democratic states in the name of our protection against terrorism. We have no control on that - so why are we worried about data that we in many case produce ourselves, deliberately because we use Facebook, Twitter or not so deliberately, because we do not understand our gadgets well enough to stop recording out actions?

As John states, we should rather adhere, as an example to the principle of consent to research , be proactive by putting our data out with the foresight, that a federation of many data sets together with the ingenuity of people doing things with it, like analyzing medical data in John's case,  will save our lives, not the pricacy policy restricting the use of our medical records.

The consequences of non-access we have been living so far and seem to increasingly promote should also  be a warning to us:
Back in 2002, governments around the world agreed that they would achieve a significant reduction in biodiversity loss by 2010. But the deadline came and went and the rate of loss increased BBC News, Oct 12, 2012.
We scientists are one of the culprits because, and this is not just since 2002 but in fact 1992 when the Convention on Biological Diversity has been born, we just hide our information and at best give it up on pdf at once.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Conservation Commons

It looks like as if the Conservation Commons is dead. The possible culprit: WCMC. The reason: conflict of interest between sharing, but more vitally own data to sell to commercial entities like the big mining and oil companies.

Or has it to do, that WCMC, the current host of CC is too much of a corporation that has no funds to spend on this case?

It could also be, that this is completely wrong.

In any case, CC has to be revitalized and an analysis done to understand how to not just make it works, but its ideas spread.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Citizien Scientists: A Positive View

Volunteers play a vital role in ensuring that a range of valuable long-term datasets continue to survive, a team of scientists will say. [BBC online, March 15]

I am critical against the trend to engulf increasingly citizen scientists in projects and tasks traditionally scientists can not do anymore, or simple don't have the resources. A very typical example is the effort by GBIF or EOL to enlisten volunteers to help to create content (data) for there services.

It is not so much the notion that they there are not many very skillful and dedicated people out there. It is more two elements that concern me. To know, whether something is relevant or not that needs to understand the topic in a wider sense, and the reliability of the data generation in terms of commitment. A commitment that is purely driven by interest and makes these volunteers very dedicated, but at the same time certain tasks are not being done, because they are less attractive or at times that are not convenient.
This is especially of concern for long term monitoring studies, such as birders do. For collaborations, these needs its own skills to manage a crowd that you can not promise a financial reward but motivation.

The story reported in BBC and mainly reflects the work done by Earthwatch makes just the opposite point, that many of the long term observation studies only work because of the volunteers.

This is a very positive note, similar to the fact that very many taxonomists are amateurs and produce a huge wealth of knowledge.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The African Wolf: no data accessible

The discovery that there is a wolf and not a jackal in Africa has recently been widely published in the news. This is based on a publication in PLoSOne by Rueness et al. There has been some older morphological evidence for the long kept secret that, despite the saying that there is no wolf in Africa, and there was always the insight from egyptian zoologist that there is a wolf population in Fayoum, that is distinct from the jackals in other places. Furthermore, the jackals also seeemed to be small relative to the rest of the population, especially those from the Qattara depression.

When I read through the article by Rueness et al., it was striking that it is impossible to find what specimens they used and from they originate. The citation leads to the master thesis by Nassef (Nassef M (2003) The Ecology and Evolution of the golden jackal (Canis aureus) Investigating a cryptid species. Master thesis. The university of Leeds.), where I can not get any further. I fist search on Google doesn't reveal the whereabout of Nassef, so I will contact the authors.

I think it is not a good policy for both PLoS-One and the authors to keep back all the observation data in a case that is clearly very important and far reaching. It is a very small data set, and I wonder, how well the samples kept in Egypt have been used to figure out that there might actually a jackal AND a wolf species living close to each other.

ICZN and Open Access, or ICZN's self-inflicted no-role

This is probably the most unbelievable discussion on a thematic list serve I have come across for a long time:

I suspect you are both missing the point here. Please read the abstract once again:

unfortunately, I don't have access to the whole article, only the abstract (can anyone send me the PDF, please?), but, as I understand it:

Cyclodina aenea Girard, 1857 has been found to be a junior subjective synonym of Tiliqua ornata Gray, 1843, but *both names* are in current usage (as Oligosoma aenea and O. ornata, respectively). What the authors want is to retain the usage of *both names*. Suppression of Tiliqua ornata Gray, 1843 is not going to help! The *only way* is to designate a neotype for Tiliqua ornata Gray, 1843 ...

Stephen [ICZN-list listserve, Mon 3/14/2011 11:41PM]

Here is the ICZN who faces an uphill battle to loose nomenclatorial control over the scientific names of animals, who is unable to provide lists of available names so they could offer a service to judge whether a name has already been used, and who wants to sort out errors in the naming of species. And here are the way discussions are led on their list serve, because their cases and opinions are not open access.

One of the main reasons why ICZN can not produce a list of available names is copyright. If there is no copyright for taxonomic material we could provide at least today instant access to all the nomenclatorial acts that are currently published. There are many barriers in a world where such acts are published in over 1,200 journals and books annually, but those are decreasing with the change from print only to print/electronic publishing, and especially those from non-western countries becoming open access. This process could even go faster, if the Biodiversity Heritage Library wouldn't have to run against to copyright wall.

But here is the ICZN that uses copyright and bars even those seriously interested but not attached to an institution with a subsription from reading their material. This policy is a sign far beyond nomenclature that all the discussions we lead about open access, not to speak developing technology to provide machines access to harvest its content automatically (so for example Zoobank could become more efficiently if it ever sees the light of the day), is null and void, because we believe in copyright.

Thorpe's comment is the best example how detrimental such a policy is to the discussion of internal affairs, but to the enforcement of open access. But luckily, there is an increasing move to provide and request open access from our funding bodies, so that ICZN with its publishing policies is once again maneuvered into the offside.

I wonder why ICZN can afford to add to the their loosing battle of controlling names in the electronic world another policy to play at the no role in the important nomenclatorial control of scientific names. But may be better, why it takes so long to realize what that open access is the only way out of the dark.

I am sure the reason for this business policy is that those revenues from the sale of the Bulletin is needed. If this barrier of non-access is detrimental to ICZN, I wonder whether this is the right business model to adhere to. What is clear though, is that a no-access policy is not very attractive for any funding agency.

P.S. If you are interested in reading the Bulletin, you can purchase it here

Monday, March 07, 2011

Politics Meets Conservation at Ramsar Wetland Memorial Conference

UK charge d’affaires, Swedish ambassador impolite. The British charge d’affaires and the Swedish ambassador participating in the world forum on wetland in Tehran did not stand up upon the arrival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Everyone stood up as a sign of politeness when the president entered the hall except the British charge d’affaires and the Swedish ambassador. "(Shargh, March 7, 2011)
This happened at the Global Forum on Wetlands for the Future on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in Teheran, March 5-6, 2011.

There is another side of the story from insiders. When the president arrived, everybody got up, including the ambassador (not chargé d'affaires) of Britain and Sweden as was protocol. After the president moved to the lecture desk, everybody sat down. However when he left his position, most people tended to stand up and then sit down again, although not the two ambassadors who wondered why everybody was standing and sitting again at regular intervals. Since the speaker wasn't the biggest in stature, the explanation of this up and down movement was just because people wanted to see him.

Switzerland, the host country of the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, was not involved. The Swiss government decided not even to send a delegation or representative to this celebration.

From the sidelines, I wonder about the very passive attitude regarding biodiversity conservation of the Swiss government. Though there was some movement from within the Swiss science community to host the secretariat of the IPBES in Switzerland, which would complement not only Swiss science activities but profit from synergies with other similar organizations in and around Geneva, the respective federal agency took a very passive stand. This follows the absence of Switzerland in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), where a membership so far has been considered too costly. Switzerland is a center of global biodiversity when the importance of its scientific collections are considered, and should be a leader in opening up this extremely valuable resource.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Iranian scientists at work: an observation

Yesterday, I was invited to present a lecture at the Faculty of Biological Sciences, Sharif Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran. The goal was to present the students some ideas of what I think are relevant issues regarding biodiversity. Since I had the experience of mentoring two students through their masters thesis during the last 1.5 year, I thought not to complement what I learned from them: Instead of talking about fieldwork, monitoring design and analyzes, to show them what the big, global issues in this domain are. Why is biodiversity monitoring important. The lecture "Monitoring and Measuring Biodiversity: Some Thoughts" has been attended by a large crowd in a full lecture lecture hall, including a delegation from the Tehran University.

There where interesting questions afterward and some time for catch-up in various settings.

One issue that came, and is always coming up in discussions, is the increasingly difficult situation active scientists are here in Tehran. One typical issue are deteriorating relationships between the Iranian scientists and their former, often close counterparts abroad. What they tell is, that for the last 4-6 years, their colleagues hardly reply to their emails, even in cases where the Iranian supplied tissue or other biological materials for analyses.

Similarly, local scientists complain, that publishers in the West would not even reply to submissions of their manuscripts, something that these colleagues have not been aware of until few years ago.

The feeling is that the foreign scientists complement the sanctions imposed as well as the very negative reports coming out of this country. This attitude is astonishing, since, like in the Bush-years, there were a lot of objections against an evil US government, which was always seen as something different than the US citizen or scientist. In the case of Iran, this seems not to work this way.

This is actually an observation by almost all the visitors that visit Iran for the first time: They are all very astonished how different the experience with the people they meet is, institutions they collaborate with, and in fact leave with a very positive experience.

It my humble view it would be wise to continue the relationships rather than punishing the colleagues for something they have in most cases nothing to do with; this especially in a place where those colleagues have a very high esteem for the West, very often with part of their career spent there and thus very familiar with that region of the world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Open Data in Ecology

The current Science Magazine special issue on data on Open Data in Ecology.

Ecology is a synthetic discipline benefiting from open access to data from the earth, life, and social sciences. Technological challenges exist, however, due to the dispersed and heterogeneous nature of these data. Standardization of methods and development of robust metadata can increase data access but are not sufficient. Reproducibility of analyses is also important, and executable workflows are addressing this issue by capturing data provenance. Sociological challenges, including inadequate rewards for sharing data, must also be resolved. The establishment of well-curated, federated data repositories will provide a means to preserve data while promoting attribution and acknowledgement of its use.

This opens again the question of the illusion of adding up heterogenous data set. What can be done, what can not be done with the legacy data - data that we are going to produce for the next decennium if we do not have incentives to overcome existing research practices: to be very parsimonious on metadata and especially studying what it would need to collect data to be able to build up a larger dataset that can be used well beyond the scientists' own particular interest.