The major element of NCEAS' mission is "to advance the state of ecological knowledge through the search for general patterns and principles". To achieve this goal, scientists at NCEAS must frequently use existing data from a number of different sources. This reliance on thematically and structurally diverse data to advance synthesis and analyses generates a number of challenging issues with regard to accessing, organizing, and understanding these data. NCEAS researchers confront these issues regularly, as indeed do all scientists hoping to extend the scope and scale of their analyses through collaboration with other researchers, and concomitantly to extend and enrich data sources for addressing scientific questions.
Another important element of NCEAS' mission is "to organize and synthesize ecological information in a manner useful to researchers, students, resource managers, and policy makers". Aside from the convention of reporting research findings in peer-reviewed publications, emerging advances in informatics and Internet technologies are promising new ways of enabling the organization and synthesis of ecological information to a broad range of stakeholders. NCEAS informatics team focuses on identifying and deploying and, when necessary, developing and testing innovative approaches to organizating ecological information. These approaches facilitate synthetic analyses, and advance more effective communication of scientific results.
The final element of NCEAS' mission also resonates with technological implications-- "to influence the way ecological research is conducted and promote a culture of synthesis, collaboration, and data sharing". When NCEAS opened its doors a little over a decade ago, there was a fair bit of skepticism regarding the value of participating in collaborative Working Groups that aimed to accomplish synthetic and integrative ecological research based on existing data. However, the outstanding productivity and high-level insights generated by NCEAS Working Groups, as well as other synthesis efforts over the past decade, have strongly validated the usefulness of striving for synthetic scientific insights via collaboration and data-sharing. New technology tools and approaches are helping to make these efforts more effective and efficient in pursuit of these goals.
The mission of NCEAS' Informatics Research Program, then, is to develop and deploy informatics solutions that facilitate synthetic research and are broadly useful to the ecological research community.
We believe that the informatics challenges we describe here constitute a major impediment to the advancement of synthesis in the ecological sciences. We also believe that with appropriate focus, these challenges are addressable due to recent advances in computing and technology. This has led NCEAS to initiate research programs to develop technology tools and approaches that facilitate access to and analysis of data pertinent to ecology and allied disciplines. This work, conducted with a number of collaborators, will have a major impact on the way ecological research is conducted, especially relative to synthesis and collaboration which depend so heavily on extending access to relevant data. Ultimately, we hope these informatics advances will have a large impact on our knowledge and understanding of natural environmental systems.
Developing effective data access tools is an extremely difficult task because ecologically relevant data can come from a broad array of disciplines, are often highly dispersed, profoundly heterogeneous, and typically, poorly documented. To facilitate this informatics research, NCEAS has formed an Informatics Center under the umbrella of the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara . NCEAS has also participated in the development of a multi-institution consortium, the Partnership for Biodiversity Informatics (PBI), whose members (LTER Network, San Diego Supercomputer Center , and the University of Kansas Biodiversity Research Center) combine their interests and skills to promote leading edge research in informatics and the development and implementation of data access tools. This consortium has generated several major projects, some of which involve major NCEAS participation, and include: Ecological Metadata Language (EML), the Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity (KNB), the Science Environment for Ecological Knowledge (SEEK), and the Resource Discovery Initiative for Field Stations (RDIFS) .
Describing, understanding, predicting, and managing ecological systems are major challenges in science. We need to understand the processes underlying natural patterns as both a scientific mission, and to make wise decisions about natural resource policies and management. Addressing these goals will not only require new collaborations among scientists of diverse backgrounds, but also the development and application of appropriate new tools and technologies. NCEAS' focus on ecological informatics research represents an attempt to overcome some critical technological impediments to accomplishing synthetic, integrative environmental science, while also promoting more open access to information and data-sharing.