Thursday, May 10, 2007

Launch of the Encylopedia of Life

Yesterday, May 9, 2007 Jonathan D. Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, announced the launch of the Encyclopedia of Life initiative here in DC by , which clearly will affect taxonomy and provide much better access to our well hidden knowledge about our species. The project as such is supported by USD50M for the next five years, with a likely extension for another 5 years. It is great, that the money could be raised from MacArthur Foundation (with the lion0s share), the Sloan Foundation and support from the five core institutions, Harvard, The Field Museum, Smithsonian, Marin Biological Lab and Missouri Botanical Garden. The idea is to have within these 10 years for each of the 1.8M species its specific page.

In an interesting way, the participants at the official launch represent – at least for me – the main challenge of this the project: Getting content. I could hardly figure out any active scientist in the crowd. These are the people who actually are building up content, like fishbase or antbase. Populating the database is so far generally a truly bottom up movement, done by individuals and with little support from the respective institutions.

From a different angle, and also in a different time with much more digital tools at hand, the commitment from the core institutions could signal a longlasting shift in this policy, that they became aware, that building up species databases, their underlying catalogues, etc. are a quintessential element in modern research environment, and need be supported similarily to maintaining libraries, GenBank, etc.

This in turn reflects a new development, such as the OECD declaration to provide open access to publicly funded research data. This is again an initiative at top level (Governments).

What is needed now is that we define the needs for our work. We need to talk to the responsibles in these initiatives so that their decisions really reflect what we need, reflect the way we operate, so part of the outcome the EOL or OECD initiatives help us to work more efficiently, as much as it provides a much higher profile for our work. We need to assure, that the initiatives not only reflects the idea of the current core US institutions, but the needs of our colleagues in Europe or the developing world. We also need to assure, that initiatives such as GBIF, IABIN, are not being outcompeted but rather form together a superstructure. These initiatives are global, and thus affect all of us.

For example, a really important part of the project will be the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Clearly, not all the works can be digitized at once, so selection of bodies of literature should happen, to support ongoing research projects and show the benefit of it. Why not propose to scan all the journals with content on Madagascar, reef fishes or other topics, where there is a strong research and conservation community behind?

Don’t sit around, read, be pro-active and voice your concerns and wishes, use your blogs…. It is clear, that even the 100M will not suffice to satisfy all of our dreams, but it is clearly a jumping board into a new age.


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