Self-organizing networks that span the globe are the most notable feature of science today. These networks constitute an invisible college of researchers who collaborate not because they are told to but because they want to, who work together not because they share a laboratory or even a discipline but because they can offer each other complementary insight, knowledge, or skills.
—Caroline Wagner, 2008
Field stations can enhance their contributions to research, education, and outreach through their research initiatives, linking their data-sharing portals, and partnering with similar institutions. The global distribution of field stations suggests enormous potential for them to become core components of an Earth-scale environmental neural network that contributes to monitoring, preparing for, adapting to, and training future generations to address environmental change. Such a neural network will require connections that go beyond membership affiliations with professional societies, although professional societies can play supporting organizational roles.
Existing field station networks and collaborative efforts range from informal associations among scientists, such as the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network17 and the Nutrient Network,18 to more formal consortia that collect data on a variety of ecological processes, such as the Long-Term Ecological Research Network19 (LTER) and the National Ecological Observatory Network20 (NEON). The National Estuarine Research Reserve, 21supported by partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coastal U.S. states and, is another example of an existing network. Some field stations form networks around common research efforts or to share resources, including research protocols, research equipment, or educational curricula. Examples of such networks are the University of California’s Natural Reserve
A network is a set of nodes (people, places, or institutions) connected via ties, such as exchange of information, resources, or activities (van Alstyne 1997, Borgatti and Foster 2003). Many different forms of networking can occur, from simply sharing information and data to far more formal, regionalized to international groups of field stations. Field stations tend to build innovative, unique networks of scientists from varying backgrounds who would otherwise rarely interact, except for the social and scientific exchange that goes on at field stations (Michener et al. 2009).
Networks of researchers result in communities of researchers, often from around the world, linked by virtual ties, whose desire to collaborate is fueled by shared interests to advance science, not institutional mandates. Such networks form, mutate, dissolve, and reform, bringing together scientists of diverse backgrounds who offer each other the benefits of their insights, knowledge, and skills (Wagner 2008). The LTER network is an example of a relatively stable research network with 27 sites, some of which are field stations that benefit from intranetwork coordination and comparison. The coordination and information sharing are facilitated greatly by a central network office, data management system, and scientist meetings at regular intervals.
Despite those examples, many field stations still operate independently and in isolation from one another. Field stations would benefit substantially from networking with each other and with national parks, wildlife refuges, estuarine research reserves, and other research centers. This would provide novel opportunities to enhance research capacity and financial efficiency while sparking innovation and opening new arenas of scientific inquiry, education, and outreach (Box 3-1).
The most effective networks are self-defining and self-organizing, where a reciprocal exchange of goods or services takes place (Wagner 2008). In this report, the committee considers a range of networks from informal to formal including the following:
- scientists sharing ideas, data, and best practices
- scientists collaborating on research efforts across multiple sites
- institutions sharing organizational efforts and resources
- collaborations and partnerships between field stations, public agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and industry
The desirability of connecting sites of long-term ecological research has been recognized broadly (Billick et al 2013). Networking offers the benefit of connecting place-based knowledge over larger geographic scales, which can be the impetus for establishing an increasing number of networks (Schimel et al. 2011). The need for and benefits of sharing and comparing discoveries and data among sites will continue to grow in the 21st century. For example, an important scientific question for the 21st century is: What changes must human societies make to adapt to rapid and unpredictable environmental changes while maintaining resilient systems? Adaptation, threshold, and resilience research have high national priorities. Addressing such applied-research questions would require a network of practitioners and scientists that can access long-term datasets, place-based information and knowledge, and resource management expertise (NRC 2010a). Field stations can contribute fundamentally to building such a network; much of the needed investment has already been made.
There is increasing evidence that well-designed networks spark innovation, spread ideas, lead to smarter decisions and greater efficiency, and even have measurable effects on local gross domestic product and the number of new patents (Pentland 2014). While networks of scientists and field stations may form organically, network theory and analyses suggest three principles that can enhance their value. First, if incentives for forming a network are offered, the results can be dramatic. The second principle is that networks need both local clusters and long-distance connections for leapfrogging ideas. In the field station context, this implies local clusters of field stations within regions with links to a broader national network. The third principle is that diversity of network nodes enhances innovation and scientific breakthroughs (Pentland 2014). Those principles support arguments against closing networks because of restrictive data requirements.
Networking offers other significant advantages: (1) networks can capture sufficient intellectual capital—a range of scientific and other knowledge—to tackle cutting-edge research questions and seize opportunities that no single field station could do alone; (2) networks can attract the intellectual capital that enhances creativity and innovation while creating opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration and convergence; (3) networks can facilitate resource pooling to make investments in large infrastructure more efficient, such as data and information management (including new tools for mining, analyzing, and visualizing data), cyberinfrastructure, and analytical laboratory equipment; and (4) networks can facilitate research coordination, reducing redundancies in research projects. Field stations and the resulting science would benefit greatly from coordinated and standardized data management protocols and data portals.
Field stations could become nodes for development of regional clusters that include other research centers or sites for particular environmental challenges and research. Gap analyses that assess whether particular ecosystems are well represented within a network could help guide selection of sites and partners. The common foundation provided by NEON sites creates data hubs that could be
expanded into a more extensive and comprehensive environmental sensing network (this more extensive vision is not currently part of NEON’s mandate, and incorporating additional nodes would come at a cost). For example, LTER sites—many of which are at field stations—could become additional nodes, thus adding a historical context and long-term datasets to extend NEON records in time and space. A robust, comprehensive environmental sensing network would require strategies to become more inclusive by supporting the web presence and data storage for field stations or other approaches that would accomplish regional data integration across NEON, LTER, field stations, and other research centers—particularly aquatic research that explores connectivity between terrestrial, coastal, and ocean ecosystems. Longitudinal data and natural-history observations collected at field stations are complementary to and could help explain and interpret the data collected at NEON. A more comprehensive network strategy that includes field stations would add richness and depth to large-scale environmental observation networks.
Global-change research requires infrastructure that includes
- long-term ecological and environmental datasets that allow detection of changes on a variety of spatial and temporal scales,
- a broad biogeographic sampling with replication of ecosystem types and disturbance gradients with which to track change and resilience (or lack thereof),
- a legacy of manipulative ecological experiments that can be repeated to assess how fundamental ecosystem properties are altered by controlled perturbations and how they recover once the disturbances are removed and;
- a flexible platform for multidisciplinary collaboration among scientists.
Networking is valuable not only for science but for education and outreach. Individual field stations and their K-12 audiences benefit from sharing K-12 curricula. Several networks have already been established for the purpose of sharing educational and outreach knowledge (e.g., Coastal America’s Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center Network (CELC), Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE), and Communicating Ocean Sciences—Reflecting on Practice) Indeed, once developed, innovative curricula and curricular modules and research projects that focus on societal priorities can be readily adapted to lectures and public interpretive programs among all the field stations in a regional network. By including other ocean- and land-management organizations (nongovernment organizations and local, state, and national government agencies), field stations could effectively develop and make available educational information on invasive species, wildland fire and fuel management, floods and droughts, and other perhaps region-specific research subjects that are not necessarily parts of the research portfolio of an individual field station, but that have broad public interest and importance.
Data from student projects and citizen science projects could be shared among stations in a network and with other research organizations that are engaged in
similar work. Linking would make it possible for field stations to distribute the costs and management of collaborative projects, and it would be much easier for all types of students and citizen scientists to learn and conduct research at any of the member field stations in a region or around the world. The concept is somewhat akin to the America the Beautiful—The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass,25 which allows entry into all national parks with just one card. For those field stations that are able and willing to participate, criteria could be established for field station access by K-12 students, high school faculty, citizen scientists, and other members of the public.
Although many field stations are not yet organized into science-based networks, respondents to a survey of the National Association of Marine Laboratories and the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS) ranked collaboration and networking as the two greatest public benefits that field stations could provide (NAML-OBFS 2013b). Over 40 percent of the respondents reported that their field station is involved in some type of public outreach or engagement activity—spanning traditional public outreach, consultation with industry, community mediation, and environmental policy mediation and advising. Comments indicate that those field stations are highly engaged in their communities and responsive to their communities’ needs and opportunities. Field stations often pursue formation of local and informal networks.
Networking can also help in raising funds from nontraditional sources. For example, foundations often have specific funding priorities for projects that either are topically or regionally based. Available grant funds vary from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars. The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust26 has expressed interest in funding large projects at field stations that will have national impacts. Other foundations might be convinced that a well-organized network of field stations dedicated to supporting research and training for future scientists is worthy of support.
Research and watershed and near-shore resource management could be improved by networks of field stations. Land management can be expensive and for many objectives can be effective only when all the stakeholder groups surrounding a field station participate. Exotic species, invasive plants, and nonnative fish, for example, can be effectively managed only when there is strong involvement by representatives of all groups in the local watershed. The same is true for wildland and prescribed fire management. Field stations can provide data on wildland fuel conditions, local weather, and historical fire regimes, and trained staff and training sites (such as the Archbold Biological Station27 and the Tall Timbers Research Station.28). Furthermore, shared best management practices, staff, and equipment can all improve the outcomes. For example, obtaining meaningful data on watersheds often requires many sampling points using a
FIGURE 3-1 Field stations within the Mississippi River Basin. The Mississippi River watershed spans many states and river systems, as indicated by the color blocks. Field stations located within the river basin are marked in red.
common methodology and data processing. Many field stations in the United States are strategically located within major watersheds. See, for example, the map of field station locations in the Mississippi River watershed shown in Figure 3-1. A network of these field stations could collaborate in designing and conducting a monitoring and research program to evaluate nutrient loading and eutrophication of the Gulf of Mexico and its dead zone. This network could serve as a model for assessing the influences of land use on coastal waters and the connectivity of freshwater and marine ecosystems.
For nearshore marine sites, the combined efforts of numerous marine laboratories produced useful research to guide fisheries and intertidal management.29 Networking has also improved the brick and mortar infrastructure of some field stations.
Sustainable and cost-effective construction at some field stations has benefited from the OBFS members who share their data on green buildings and energy efficiency.30 Networks also can help to distribute demand for access to provide protection of particularly sensitive natural areas.
Despite the benefits of networking, the challenges should not be underestimated (Wagner 2008). Introduction and implementation of new organizational structures and activities, such as networks, require effort and leadership to overcome hurdles such as resistance to change, vulnerability to participant withdrawal, and costs of maintaining a network. Most field stations operate at near capacity, and taking on a partnership in a network may require additional human or financial resources. The level of cyberinfrastructure at field stations, including cellular communication, adequate data transmission capabilities, computer resources, and video conferencing, varies significantly and is a barrier that needs to be addressed. In addition to having the infrastructure needed to enable connectivity and participation, care must be taken in designing and nurturing networks to ensure that field stations do not lose their individuality and core missions.
The most successful and sustainable networks tend to be those that are self-organizing and self-defining (Wagner 2008). Those that are introduced or implemented by leaders using a top-down approach often meet with resistance, are difficult to start, and are even more difficult to sustain. Network theory and analyses provide three strategies that can ameliorate those problems while enhancing the acceptance and overall value of networking: (1) offer incentives to institutions to form networks, (2) form networks with both local clusters and long-range connections for leapfrogging ideas, and (3) include diversity among network nodes to enhance innovation and scientific breakthroughs (Pentland 2014).
In developing a network, each participating institution should identify the special value that it brings to the network and derives from it (Wagner 2008) (Box 3-2). Reciprocity among network members is essential for sustained success. Sometimes field stations affiliated with federal or state governments can share activities by simply providing access to protected lands.
Small informal networks often arise and persist for as long as their original defining needs exist. Such networks should be encouraged, advertised, and supported, perhaps through a “small-network” grant program. With the emergence of user-friendly online tools for networking and data sharing, the cost and effort of beginning the process of networking have been lowered. In contrast, larger, top-down networks that are developed by institutions may require substantial management effort and financial support and need to be developed carefully with particular goals and incentives in mind.
Financial incentives might be needed to prescribe network formation.. For example, less than a decade after its formation, the European Union (EU) managed to create cross-boundary, collective research endeavors called European Research Areas.31 Financial incentives were used to help remove the narrow, within-
Researchers and students at Lytle Ranch Preserve in Utah. Photo Credit: Bryan Adams, Brigham Young University.
The Utah consortium links field stations that are administered by universities and state and federal agencies. The consortium is “dedicated to promoting a deeper understanding of Utah’s diverse ecosystems and contributing to the sustainable, economic use of Utah’s natural resources.” Launched in 2010, an important first step for the consortium was to provide concise information on a publicly accessible website about each field station, including contact information, onsite resources, research focus, and links to the websites of the individual stations.a The UFSN website conveys an important educational message by emphasizing that gradients in elevation strongly influence the diverse natural ecosystems in Utah. Many of the individual field station websites also provide detailed information on the fauna and flora studied there.
The network has fostered integrated environmental research and education across the state. The educational value of connecting university and agency field stations is illustrated by the five-credit graduate field course that was organized in 2010. Students and three instructors followed a 16-day itinerary to field stations in three areas, learning field methods and meeting with resource managers. The topics included landscape patterns of vegetation, plant ecology and invasive species, range management, soils, microbes, wildlife, and natural history. It is now common for courses offered by one university to make use of multiple field sties in the network, and discounted user fees are granted to participating members.
boundary focus common to each member’s former national science agencies and build on the collective strengths of EU members’ science capacity. Funding was provided only to collaborations that involved two or more EU countries. As a result, the collaborating countries’ national science agencies expanded their horizons beyond national boundaries and started focusing on the collective strengths of every country’s science capacity.
Universities and funding agencies could provide incentives for networking of field stations but should eschew top-down control. Funding agencies could encourage networking of field stations by giving preference to proposals that link multiple field stations. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently incentivized collaborations through its Office of Education in an Aquarium Initiative that restricts funding to proposals that involve two or more aquariums. The program resulted in several new collaborations among aquariums. Similarly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence also required collaborations between an informal education institution, a formal education institution, and a research organization.
As a first step in developing a bottom-up, voluntary, and effective field station network, one might focus on efforts to promote sharing data and information. Indeed, for field stations to become core components of a network, it is imperative that their rich repositories of data be made available to the broader scientific community in a timely way. An added challenge, however, is to develop protocols for collecting and aggregating long-term, place-based biological and environmental data in a uniform manner. Once long time-series data and information are collected and shared in a uniform manner across field station sites, field stations can collectively become major contributors to assessing ecological change at a larger scale and contribute to environmental resilience and sustainability science.
In addition, bottom-up, voluntary field station networks could replicate benefits offered by NSF-sponsored research coordinating networks, such as the LTER networks, which funds regional opportunities for field stations to develop shared research questions, allow graduate students and faculty to interact beyond their normal extent as colleagues, and share outreach and teaching programs. An important part of the network would extend beyond academe to include potential government partners—such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, state and local parks and forests, and nongovernment organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and land trusts (Box 3-3). When possible, representatives of private industry, foundations, agricultural research stations, and others might be involved in bringing research and real-world needs together.
Communities surrounding field stations are important stakeholders. Involving local communities in establishing and growing a network of users could benefit the long-term viability of field stations. As discussed in previous chapters, local communities have helped stations avoid closure, and could play a role in identifying and contributing to research on locally important issues. By including a variety of local, state, and federal agencies and land-management agencies, a
State and national parks often have needs for research but insufficient research staff. Field stations and associated institutions can provide intellectual capital, but they need access to large, relatively undisturbed ecosystems, including terrestrial sites and state or federal marine protected areas. Field stations are in several U.S. national parks: Yosemite, Channel Islands, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Haleakala, Capitol Reef, Cuyahoga Valley, Santa Rosa Island, Lassen, and Grand Teton (see, e.g., http://www.uwyo.edu/uwnps/). Field stations also operate in national parks in Costa Rica (the Organization for Tropical Studies in Palo Verde and Sirena in Corovado) and Ecuador (the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos). Field stations in the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) are affiliated with a wide variety of institutions and in some cases work with the 19 NPS research learning centers (RLCs, http://www.nature.nps.gov/rlc/). RLCs are places where science and education come together to serve either one park or a network of parks. A standard policy at NPS sites requires data to be reported each year and in archived final reports. Products of the field stations include metrics on accommodations provided (person-nights) for researchers and students, peer-reviewed publications, reports based on park resources or managers’ needs for information, and workshops, seminars, symposia, and partnerships with K-12 schools that involve thousands of students in programs related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These activities can conflict with NPS goals and policies. However, all the field stations have been able eventually to develop working protocols to avoid such conflicts.
working group could develop strategies to share facilities, equipment, knowledge, and outreach capacity. Field stations could bring science to government land-management agencies, and in return, government land-management agencies could encourage research on government lands. Facilities and land are expensive and can often be shared for research and teaching. Interactions between the agencies and academic institutions could help answer important questions about real-world societal needs.
Developing networks at various levels will require new uses of resources and perhaps some reorganization and reallocation of existing resources. Energizing a “critical mass” of these institutions in collaborative observational programs could provide new insights into global change. For example, a network of field stations might offer data and information on regional damage, resilience, and recovery responses to extreme weather events, such as Superstorm Sandy, that would not be possible with data from a single station (Figure 3-2). Ideally, the networking would include terrestrial and marine field stations so that air–sea–land interactions could be studied and better understood. Developing networks will also require leadership at field stations to carefully evaluate their resources and policies (e.g., data management and sharing, tenure and promotion, and business development) to determine how to best incentivize collaborations and leverage each station’s resources. Core sets of institutions could be established to demonstrate the power of networked observations, and additional networks could be developed in response to societal needs for Earth observations.
FIGURE 3-2 Field stations within the impact range of Superstorm Sandy. The map depicts the rainfall totals associated with Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Red triangles indicate the locations of field stations.
Many field stations operate independently. Greater networking of the nation’s field stations would offer many benefits and improve their ability to address important emerging environmental and societal issues. If the nation is to realize the benefits of its investment in field stations, the stations need to participate in multiple levels of networks and be integrated (at least virtually) into a nested set of interactive systems.
Greater networking would offer opportunities to save money, leverage resources, reduce redundancy, and increase effectiveness by sharing data and information, infrastructure, staff, and programs. Through networking, the field stations would reduce redundancy by sharing best practices, monitoring protocols, and platforms for data archiving and retrieval. Shared cyberinfrastructure will become increasingly important as the sizes of datasets grow. Sharing information and networking scientists could open new areas of scientific inquiry, education, and outreach. Networking can facilitate the development and diffusion of knowledge and technology in a way that nurtures innovation. It can capture social and intellectual capital to tackle major questions and seize opportunities as no
single field station can, and it can enhance creativity and innovation by attracting the best people and promoting multidisciplinary collaboration. As a result, networking would improve the ability of participating field stations to document environmental change on a variety of scales both spatial and temporal. The most successful and sustainable networks start small and are self-defining; they encourage reciprocity among network members.
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.