"is this a wake or revival?" Jim Brown
March 21-22, 2012, Santa Barbara, CA. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) symposium.
A special invitation- only symposium marking the end of NCEAS as we know it, saw a number of interesting talks and retrospectives about where NCEAS has been and where it is going. 170 people attended, including some former postdocs, working group participants and leaders in ecology. The reason for this introspective meeting is that NCEAS's core NSF funding is about to end, without renewel. Jim Brown's quote from his talk, whether we were here for a wake or a revival really captured the spirit of the meeting.
The goals were twofold. First was to look back and celebrate the accomplishments of NCEAS. University of California at Santa Barbara is globally one the top influential research institutions in the world, and this success has been driven in large part by the success of NCEAS. More than 5000 people have come to NCEAS and their efforts have resulted in thousands of publications, and many citation classics. The early visions of NCEAS were broad and fuzzy and by all accounts NCEAS has exceeded all expectations.
The second motivation for ts meeting was to think about the future. What can NCEAS be under different funding regimes, and how should it move forward? The is no doubt that it will be fundamentally different, but can there be a successful continuation of the NCEAS model, will it die, or will it give birth to a new enerprise, NCEAS 2.0?
The symposium saw great talks, from people like Jim Brown and Jane Lubchenco, and interesting panel discussions on numerous topics (see #treas2012 in twitter for synopsis of the meeting). There were a lot of past tense statements.
However, it was clear that there was much to celebrate. NCEAS clearly impacted ecology. Did its success simply coincide with cultural changes in the field or did it drive changes? The consensus was that it drove changes. It fostered large collaborations. Dave Tilman said that before NCEAS, ecology was largely local and lab-driven, but NCEAS offered a way to get people together to ask bigger questions. The postdoctoral fellows have been extremely successful, with the vast majority ending up in faculty positions in top institutions. It was acknowledged that many sub fields were created or coalesced at NCEAS, including disease ecology and metacommunity dynamics.
Why has it been so successful? NCEAS is a special inclusive place where people want to come, away from their responsibilities. The technical help here and expertise that made anything possible, any data challenges were overcome and analytical difficulties solved. Postdocs were given complete independence and were allowed to pursue collaboration and networking. Jim Brown remarked that NCEAS is the single greatest event in the history of ecology. Subfields now talk, lab projects are now geared towards collaboration and linkages with other work in ways that did not exist before.
So then, what will the future hold for NCEAS? The answer to this was left vague and uncertain. People argued for what NCEAS 2.0 should look like. For example, it was argued that NCEAS 2.0 should resurface something like science 2.0, making the focus data and data sharing, changing methods and philosophy of how science is done. Massive anonymous collaboration requires assumed standards and altruism. Other arguments focused on the need for NCEAS to reach out to new partners and to go global.
Peter Karieva said it well. NCEAS 2.0 should be interacting with major corporations, since they represent the drastic impacts on ecological systems around the world. 1.0 was about data accessability, 2.0 should about applicability and tools to affect change.
Whatever NCEAS 2.0 looks like, it will be different. There seems to be two ways forward. One is that it struggles to maintain its past activities or one that like the Phoenix rises from the ashes and boldly goes forward to again push the ecology in new directions.