November 28, 2006
International Long Term Ecological Research
Brown and OTS will jointly manage new ILTER network secretariat
Ecological disturbance drives many pressing global concerns but is often measured at the local scale. A newly established secretariat for the International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) network will support long-term multiscale ecological data collection and analysis. The secretariat will be managed jointly by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in San José, Costa Rica.
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) network has established its first secretariat, to be managed jointly by the Global Environment Program at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in San José, Costa Rica. The secretariat will provide organizational support to this international network of environmental monitoring sites, which generates data essential to detecting, interpreting and understanding environmental change.
Founded in 1993 and based on the success of the U.S. Long Term Ecological Research network, ILTER has functioned as a loosely organized association of country-based and regional research networks. Membership in ILTER now includes more than 34 countries; the need for independent long-term environmental research is more urgent than ever. At the 2006 network meeting in Namibia, members voted to establish a secretariat with the purpose of developing an organizational structure and budget to build a sustainable approach to supporting the organization.
Steve Hamburg, the Ittleson Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Brown, is co-directing the secretariat with Jorge Arturo Jiménez, director of OTS in Costa Rica. Describing the need for long-term monitoring and research, Hamburg says, “There’s lots of change occurring as a function of technology, affluence and population growth, but it becomes hard for individuals – whether they be researchers or laypeople – to understand the nature of that change. Just within our own lifetimes, we see things differently. We perceive a change or we perceive stability, when that is not necessarily what is happening. Even at well-known sites, long-term data is the key to identifying important environmental changes – changes that may require mitigation.”
Environmental processes can be quite variable from year to year and even decade to decade. Long-term research establishes how much variation is normal and how ecosystems function when they aren’t under stress, so that researchers can recognize significant changes when they occur. One of the most pressing applications of such data is in understanding global climate change, but it is also valuable in learning about invasive species, pollutants in the environment and the health of fisheries or other natural resources such as timber and wildlife.
Sharing the responsibilities of the secretariat between a developed and a developing country helps to meet the needs of all the members in this diverse association, whose member networks span a wide range of experience, resources and goals. In the United States and Western Europe, many long-term environmental research sites have been operating for more than 20 years with as much as $1 million in annual research funding. Such sites have some things to teach and some things to learn from networks in developing countries, which are often more closely tied to economic, resource and social development goals.
“Most of the developing countries are located in the tropics,” said Jiménez. “Long-term data in this region is crucial in order to understand mechanisms and processes in the future of tropical ecosystems, home to more of 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity.”
The U.S. Long Term Ecological Research network was established by the National Science Foundation in 1980 to provide both long-term environmental monitoring data and to create a stable base for basic scientific research programs that spanned decades, rather than the typical two or three year funding cycle. Researchers and policy-makers soon recognized that the need for such data was not limited to the United States, so the National Science Foundation funded organizational expenses for the budding international network.
The network has been extraordinarily successful – even in cash-strapped developing nations – because it fills a clear need for data to answer questions about environmental influences, threats and opportunities. For example, one of the first sites designated in South Africa was in Kruger National Park, a key link in South Africa’s tourist economy and a proud symbol of the country’s natural heritage. Data from the site has helped demonstrate to local communities the need for the natural resources of the park.
Each network has its own regional priorities. Some emphasize the collection of monitoring data to evaluate the health of a country’s natural resources. Others focus on asking basic questions about how ecosystems function across temporal and spatial scales. Educational and public outreach play important roles in all the networks, especially as scientists recognize the critical role of environmental science in sound policy-making at local, regional and global levels.
In addition to building a more sustainable organizational structure, the new secretariat will help to build network membership, facilitate data sharing and encourage the circulation of ideas and experience among existing networks, which represent a diverse set of cultures, economies and environments.
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