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Report calls for better ecological data management by US agencies

Wetland-habitat-260.jpgBiodiversity and ecosystem data gathered by US environmental monitoring programs need to be better centralized, according to Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy, a report released today by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an independent council of scientists and engineers that advises the president on science and technology matters.

The report represents an update of a 1998 document called Teaming With Life, which urged President Bill Clinton to step up how the US assesses, monitors and studies its wealth of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The new report suggests ways to better document the threatened biological wealth of the US, from species to ecosystems, as well as the impacts of climate change.

“It is difficult to stem degradation and the loss of environmental capital if we don’t have an accounting of what’s out there, what condition it’s in and what its real value is,” said Rosina Biermaum, PCAST member and co-chair of the working group that led the study, at a press briefing. “Right now, not all the data that come from [monitoring] efforts is available in usable formats, but if it were, both the private and the public sectors could use the information to manage their businesses, fisheries, farms and forests, and be cognizant of environmental change.”

But in the current report, PCAST members found data centralization on natural resources to be in a dismal state. They surveyed 55 national monitoring programs and found that only 11 publish their data in, the federal government’s data clearinghouse. Some simply link to their own Web sites rather than making their data centrally available. Some efforts, notably the USGS National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) have made strides toward the goals set out in 1998, but the new report makes clear that further improvement is needed.

PCAST members recommend the creation of a new online database, called EcoINFORMA (Ecoinformatics-based Open Resources and Machine Accessibility), that would make federal data on environmental health and ecosystem value readily accessible. It would use the new software and cloud computing to create a searchable, integrated database of such things as ground monitoring of wetland species and remote sensing data on vegetation. The database would be available to researchers, businesses and public policy officials and could help guide decision-making while streamlining the monitoring efforts of multiple agencies.

EcoINFORMA could be designed from scratch or built with NBII as a foundation, the report suggests. It estimates that a US$10 million dollar investment could make the endeavor possible.

“We think that a small investment by the federal government is enough to leverage the good work that is already in progress in many of the agencies and develop a whole that is great than the sum of its parts,” says Barbara Schaal, PCAST member and co-chair of the working group.

The report also calls for better use of the more than US$10 billion already invested in ecological restoration and biodiversity-preservation activities and filling in of gaps in biodiversity data. In addition, it proposes quadrennial assessments of US ecosystem trends, where officials take stock of the current monitoring data, identify problems, propose new management practices for improvement, and predict trends in ecosystem changes.

“We need to better understand the biodiversity that currently exists in our ecosystems,” says Schaal. “As we undergo climate change, it’s going to be very difficult to understand the specific effects if we don’t know what the baseline is.”


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    Lewis E. Gilbert said:

    I could not agree more that elements of the NBII could, and should, serve as a foundation for such an effort. Unfortunately the NBII has been defunded in FY11. The result of this is that efforts such as the Wildlife Disease Information Node (WDIN,) which has developed a strong data integration / citizen science infrastructure, are now scrambling to find funds to keep talented staff on board. If funds are not secured in the next few months years of effort will be lost.

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