Recognizing the value of field stations, marine laboratories, and nature reserves for research, education, and public outreach and in light of their current challenges, the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the National Research Council to address the following tasks: to summarize—on the basis of previous reports—field stations’ value to science, education, and outreach; to outline strategies to meet future research, education, outreach, infrastructure, and logistical needs of field stations; to explore ways in which field stations could network more broadly; to evaluate field stations’ contributions to research, innovation, and education; and to suggest long-term financial strategies to sustain field stations’ missions (see Statement of Task in Appendix A).
For over a century, field stations1 have been important entryways for scientists to study and make important discoveries about the natural world. They are centers of research, conservation, education, and public outreach often embedded in natural environments that range from remote to densely populated urban locations. Field stations vary greatly in size and sophistication of infrastructure. Long-term research at field stations produces baseline and sentinel data that can be used to study ecosystems at a time when human activities are altering nature at an unprecedented rate.
Most field stations are affiliated with universities.2 Because they lack traditional departmental boundaries, researchers at field stations have the opportunity to converge their science disciplines in ways that can change careers and entire fields of inquiry. Field stations provide physical space for immersive research, hands-on learning, and new collaborations that are otherwise hard to achieve in the everyday bustle of research and teaching lives on campus. But the separation from university campuses that allows creativity to flourish also creates challenges. Sometimes, field stations are viewed as remote outposts and are overlooked because they tend to be away from population centers and their home institutions. This view is exacerbated by the lack of empirical evidence that can be used to demonstrate their value to science and society. Today’s technologies—such as streaming data, remote sensing, robot-driven monitoring, automated DNA sequencing, and nanoparticle environmental sensors—provide means for field stations to retain their special connection to nature and still interact with the rest of the world in ways that can fuel breakthroughs in the environmental, physical, natural, and social sciences. The intellectual and natural capital of today’s field stations present a solid platform, but many need enhancements of infrastructure and dynamic leadership if they are to meet the challenges of the complex
1In this report, for the sake of brevity, the committee refers to field stations, marine laboratories, and nature reserves as field stations.
2Seventy-five percent of field stations are university affiliated according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Organization of Biological Field Stations and the National Association of Marine Laboratories (NAML-OBFS 2013b).
problems facing the world. This report focuses on the capability of field stations to address societal needs today and in the future.
Science for an Unpredictable World
The rapid environmental changes that are taking place globally raise basic research questions and present major societal challenges. Evidence is mounting that the growing human footprint is stressing natural and social systems. Climate change, biodiversity loss, natural resource extraction, and pollution pose considerable threats to ecosystems, economies, and human well-being. Coping with the challenges will require improved knowledge about the social–ecological system. Field observations have played and will continue to play critical roles in the physical, natural, and social sciences.
Field stations are national assets formed by the unique merger of natural capital, intellectual capital, social fabric, and infrastructure that leads to the important scientific endeavors required if we are to understand our rapidly changing natural world. Field stations, either inadvertently or by design, are repositories of long-term observations and datasets of natural history necessary for documenting global changes. A greater emphasis on integrated, multidisciplinary research that includes the physical sciences, geosciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts will enhance scientists’ use of historical datasets to address global challenges. The recognition of the importance of this portfolio of activities in what is now called “convergence”3 is a strength of many field stations.
Recommendations: Field station leaders should identify and support the development of scientific and educational assets that harness their stations’ unique qualities to address local, regional, national, and global challenges by bringing together scientists from a number of disciplines, including the social sciences, through what is now called convergence.
Preparing Our Next Generation of Scientists
Recruiting students into fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has been identified as having high priority in many nations, given the importance of STEM fields for innovation and economic growth. Field stations are venues for discovery-based learning,4 and they offer rich opportunities for other types of active learning, which have been shown to promote diversity and
3Convergence is an approach to problem solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from life and health sciences, physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, engineering disciplines, and beyond to form a comprehensive synthetic framework for tackling scientific and societal challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields (NRC 2014a)
4Discovery-based learning, also called inquiry-based learning, requires students to pose their own questions and develop hypotheses and to design experiments to address their questions (Johnson and Lawson 1998). It is a type of active learning, a student-centered approach to instruction, which requires students to engage in meaningful learning activities (Dirks 2011).
persistence in STEM fields. Integration of research into formal and informal education and into public outreach activities provides engaging learning opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Recommendation: Universities and other host institutions should expand opportunities at field stations to conduct independent and collaborative research and active learning activities to increase interest and persistence in STEM fields.
Empowerment Through Engagement
Public understanding and participation in science is important in increasing human connectedness to the natural world and empowers citizen decision making and involvement in public policy. Field stations support a wide range of public outreach and engagement programs—public lectures and workshops, science cafes, field trips, and nature walks, among other informal education opportunities—to enhance public understanding of science. The committee applauds these public outreach efforts because they break the mold of traditional science communication and more actively involve public audiences in science. However, field station engagement programs are often disconnected from empirically based approaches to develop and evaluate effective science communication and informal education activities.
Recommendation: Field stations should continue to explore a wide range of approaches to engage the public in science, and select and tailor their activities in a manner that best leverages a field station’s location, personnel, infrastructure, and other available resources. Empirically based approaches in science communication and informal education should be used to guide the development and assessment of engagement activities to promote public understanding of science effectively.
Citizen science is an emerging channel through which field stations can advance science and empower people interested in science by engaging them actively in data collection and research, particularly in science issues that affect their communities. There is a broad spectrum of citizen science initiatives, from simple observational programs to coordinated, training-intensive environmental monitoring programs. Citizen science initiatives enable people to learn about science and the ecosystem dynamics of natural communities in which their field stations are embedded. Citizen science initiatives also can enable coordinated networks of volunteers to collect data that can inform our understanding of how human activities may be altering ecosystems. Much of citizen science is facilitated through advances in Web-based technologies that allow citizens to collect and analyze data through accessible platforms, such as smart phones and personal computers. A few field stations have developed sustained outreach programs that include citizen science, but citizen science initiatives are not yet widespread among field stations.
Recommendation: Field stations should collaborate in, connect with, and formalize citizen science programs by using the latest technologies and networking initiatives throughout the U.S. and global system of stations and thus offer a coordinated infrastructure for interested members of the public to engage in, learn about, and contribute to science.
Networking for Discovery and Innovation
Most field stations operate independently of one another. Greater networking with other field stations and with research centers would be beneficial because it could leverage resources to facilitate discovery and spark innovation. Networking would also allow field stations to share best practices, protocols, and platforms for data archiving and retrieval. Such networking has the potential to open new arenas of scientific inquiry, education, and outreach. It can capture social and intellectual capital to tackle major questions and seize opportunities as no single field station can, and it enhances creativity and innovation by attracting a wide range of scientists and promoting multidisciplinary collaboration. The most successful and sustainable networks start small and are self-defining; they encourage reciprocity among network members. Networking can facilitate the development and diffusion of knowledge and technology in a way that encourages innovations.
Recommendation: Field stations should seek opportunities for networking that make scientific, educational, and business sense. Universities and funding organizations should provide incentives for networking of field stations that meet those criteria. NSF and other funding agencies could encourage networking of field stations through the request-for-proposal process by giving preference to proposals that link multiple field stations.
Modern Infrastructure for a Networked World
Field stations vary in scope, size, and purpose; each contributes to the global portfolio in distinct ways. There is no single array of infrastructure that is applicable to all field stations, although there are some similar needs across field stations of differing sizes and complexity. Internet connectivity and cyberinfrastructure5 are two neglected and underdeveloped elements of field station infrastructure. Adequate Internet connectivity and cyberinfrastructure would facilitate the task of bringing dark data6 to light, extending the range of accessible natural history, and would improve networking for discovery. Installation of new cyberinfrastructure requires data-management and data-sharing plans and conformity of data with widely used metadata standards. Such infrastructure also requires a long-term
5Cyberinfrastructure refers to the assortment of information technologies that enable data storage, management, integration, and analysis.
6Data that are not systematically indexed or stored in a manner that is accessible to the broader scientific community, such as biological specimen collections, analogue data (e.g., observations recorded in laboratory notebooks), and data found only in research publications (Heidorn 2008).
funding commitment for repair, upgrades, and technical support.
Recommendation: Because of their wide variety in purpose, size, and scope, each field station should assess and define its own infrastructure needs. However, Internet connectivity and cyberinfrastructure should be included in all infrastructure-management plans to allow field stations to facilitate collaborative research and participate in broader networking efforts. The process of archiving dark data into digitally accessible formats is critical, and should begin with the most recent datasets and progress back in time so that field stations can expand their sets of continuous longitudinal data.
Financial Security for a Modern Infrastructure
Aging infrastructure, the need for advanced technology and cyberinfrastructure, and evolving safety regulations are increasing financial demands on field stations as they upgrade to meet emerging science and societal challenges. Sustainable funding for modern infrastructure will be possible only if field station leaders develop compelling value propositions, strategic plans, and business models for operations that can secure base funding support that in turn can be leveraged by support from diverse sources. However, field station leaders too often lack entrepreneurial skills. Effective business planning requires strong linkages to funding institutions and reaching out to diverse constituencies that can derive value from field stations.
Recommendation: Field stations and their host institutions should develop business plans that include clear value propositions and mechanisms to establish reliable base funding commitments that can be supplemented with funding from diverse sources. Business planning requires that station leaders be recruited not only for their scientific credentials, but also for their leadership, management, and entrepreneurial skills. Host institutions should provide mentoring of field station leaders in management, business planning, and fundraising when appropriate.
Measuring Performance and Impact
The value of field stations is widely but unevenly documented by scientists in anecdotal evidence and in qualitative and semi-quantitative data. Measures of effectiveness tfor example, the number of archived digital datasets, the number of students conducting independent research projects, and the award amounts of grants—that are aligned with a host institution’s science, education, and business plans can lead to improvement in performance and impact but these typically are lacking.
In the absence of metrics, it is impossible to manage for improved outcomes. Field stations would benefit from consistent, comparable metrics to modify, monitor, and assess their strategies for meeting goals in research, innovation, education, training, outreach, and engagement. Discovering, sharing, and
archiving such metrics from field stations are critical. The development of digital object identifiers for field stations is a potential starting point for collecting data that can be transformed into metrics and information. Metrics for quantifying the value of field stations to science and society are essential if field stations are to be justified to supporters.
Recommendation: Field stations should work together to develop a common set of metrics of performance and impact. The metrics should be designed so that they can be aggregated for regions and the entire nation. Universities and other host institutions and funding organizations should support the gathering and transparent reporting of field station performance metrics because such information will enhance the stations’ ability to document their contributions to the nation’s research and education enterprise.
Recommendation: New mechanisms and funding need to be developed to collect, aggregate, and synthesize performance data for field stations, and to translate these data into metrics and information that can be used to document the value of the community of field stations to science and society.