In the early 1990's, leading ecologists began discussing a discipline-wide issue with scattered data. Not only was there a need to combine disparate existing data to seek new, bigger picture insights from them - to synthesize them - there was also a need for a place where the collaboration necessary for such research could occur.
Accompanying these discussions was the rise of the internet and the recognition of its potential to revolutionize information accessibility. In addition, there was an increasing involvement of disciplines outside of ecology in solving environmental questions and challenges.
These emerging notions - synthesis, data access, and collaboration - made the timing ripe for an approach that could integrate data, theories, and methods to deepen our understanding of the natural world.
These notions informed the eventual concrete idea put forth by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which solicited proposals for an institution to host a first-of-its-kind ecological synthesis research center. The University of California Santa Barbara submitted a bid and received the award, and in 1995 the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) was born. (Check out the original press release.)
Traditional scientific practices had typically consisted of solitary lab or fieldwork, and researchers were often protective of their data. The establishment of NCEAS radically altered these practices by promoting collaborative research that relied on sharing and re-using data, paving the way for modern ideas about open science and data stewardship ethics.
NSF supported NCEAS for the first 17 years of its existence. Though prescribed time limits on funding have ended our NSF support, many foundations, institutes, individuals, and partnerships now help NCEAS continue to thrive and innovate.
Community through collaboration
NCEAS has fostered a global community of ecologists and multidisciplinary environmental scientists eager to solve some of the toughest environmental questions through collaborative, synthesis research.
With no permanent faculty, we maintain our vitality through the dynamic nature of the resident and visiting scientists who come through our doors as working group participants, postdoctoral researchers, or fellows - they are collectively responsible for our success. By bringing their unique experiences to the table, they exchange critical insights that not only yield high-impact science but also seed further research and problem-solving around the world.
This network of innovators also helps promote a culture of collaboration in the scientific community at large.
Our accelerated approach to scientific discovery has helped us become one of the most productive science institutions in the world. NCEAS researchers have produced some of the most influential publications on a diversity of topics including climate change, infectious disease, ecosystem services, marine ecology and conservation - and these projects just scratch the surface of the many topics we explore at NCEAS.
In addition, over twenty other synthesis centers have replicated the NCEAS model, demonstrating the scientific culture shift we helped usher.
As leaders in environmental data science, we have led the development of technological solutions to improve data access and management and the efficiency of analyses, and we've helped set scientific standards in data ethics. This work has thus made us pioneers of another cultural shift: open science.
Our impact extends beyond scientific knowledge and practice and into the realms of public policy and resource management. With an increased focus on applying science to solutions, we partner with prominent organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society to bolster on-the-ground efforts to build a world in which people and nature thrive.
Here is a sampling of the ways our working groups have influenced science and society.