Email from Jorge Soberon to Richard Smith & John Pickering, 19 July, 2005

Date: Tue, 19 Jul 2005 10:39:47 -0700 (PDT)
From: Jorge Soberon
Subject: RE: Technology centers + search tool
To: Richard Smith , John Pickering
Dr S Soetikno ,,,,,,,,,,,,

Dear Pick and all,
I have been thinking very hard on
the proposal to create the eight regional centers for
biodiversity info and I have several comments. First,
on the concept of having regional centers of
biodiversity expertise. I more or less support this
idea. This represents a way, in the short term, for
many countries which lack the resources (human,
economical or in time) to develop a fully-grown
national capacity for biodiversity knowledge. So, on
the broad concept I believe we agree, although I also
think that there are already several initiatives that
have gone a long way towards that aim.

Now come the howevers, and there are several.
First on the form. Pick's approach is kind and decent
because he is a really decent person, but his approach
is upside down. Pickering is inviting us by saying:
"First, we're open to everyone
with something to offer joining us" Well, but what
about those institutions that already exist, have
spent years and years of work and a lot of money and
have already results to show? Why should CONABIO or
SABONET or IABIN "join" Discover Life?. Perhaps it
should be the other way around. Perhaps Discover Life
should approach those initiatives saying, hey! I have
some neat technology and a few succesful experiences,
what are you guys doing? Can I help? The "go get it"
feeling I am perceiving (and I know Pick and I know he
means well) is the old, tired "North will save the
South approach". If I am getting this feeling, despite
the fact that CONABIO has collaborations going on with
Discover Life and I know Pick personally, imagine some
government officer, full of CBD lore, in Brasilia, New
Delhi or Addis Abbeba. Pick, please reconsider the
approach. My feeling is that it simply wont do.

To make it very clear: I know that Pick is not meaning
to behave "imperialistic". He just IS acting
imperialistic by de facto ignoring what we do. The
feeling I get from the mails is that instead of being
asked what it is that we do anyway, I am invited to
join, or not, another new initiative. But not only the
developed world has plenty of initiatives (GBIF, NBII,
Canada's, Australia's, KU, California at Berkeley,
Texas at Austin, Berlin, Amsterdam,......... ).
Several developing world countries painfully have
developed projects and initiatives that are now
yielding fruits. Pick "diss us" even if he does not
intends to. And when I make a query for Dahlia
coccinea to the link he gave us and I get 184 records
from a single foreign herbarium, and then I repeat the
same query (excluding that foreign herbarium) using
Remib, our Mexican home-spun little search engine,
that took 10 years to assemble, and I get 576 records
from six Mexican institutions and one foreign, I
cannot but think: "WE shall join him? What in hell
for? How different this would have been if besides a
couple of mails we have been approached properly and
perhaps Remib could have been used as one of your
examples. I believe that InBio, von Humboldt, SABONET,
several Indian initiatives, CRIA in Brazil, the
Chinese Academy of Sciences etc. may have similar
feelings. Perhaps I am mistaken though.

2) Now to the substance. Would it be possible and
useful to create eight centers to:
" The mission of each center will be to provide the
technology and expertise to best study and monitor
species locally and to share knowledge freely
worldwide. We need to determine priorities, set
goals, and figure out how to staff, train, and support
each center. In addition to folks using Discover
Life's on-line tools, I envision that a function of
each center will be to produce very high-resolution
images of species. In this regard, Gary Alpert, who's
helping to spearhead the effort to photograph world
ants, has offered to lend his expertise and help train
folks to take and process top-quality images"

I will go one by one, trying to be positive.

a) "The mission of each center will be to provide the
technology and expertise to best study and monitor
species locally" I assume that you are proposing to
bypass the conventional approach that requires local
institutions. Trained taxonomists. Places where to
locate specimens. Microscopes, sequencers,
high-quality cameras, libraries, reactives,
binoculars, cabinets and so on. Go all the way
web-based. Fine. Ok. But web-based means a very few
(albeit important) groups. You need to say this very
clearly and define which taxonomical groups can be
"studied and monitored" using a web-based approach.
Many birds clearly (not the little brown ones),
several families of butterflies and moths (not all by
far) and so on. Be explicit about how limited this
still is.

b)"to share knowledge freely worldwide". Many of you
guys know about that scarecrow, biopiracy. Well, there
are countries, which I prefer not to name, that will
go ballistic with the thought of a foreign-funded
regional center distributing biodiversity info freely.
Crazy, right, but real. This battle will be fought in
international fora and by the local scientists
themselves but one ignore the issue at one's peril.
Still, Discover Life can play a good role here by
showing how citizen-science can be implemented in real

c)"We need to determine priorities, set goals, and
figure out how to staff, train, and support each
center." Sure thing. First step, find out who is who
in third world biodiversity science (NOT, mind you,
the BINGOs and the multilateral initiatives, but the
local university, research center and so on. I mean
the so-often ignored locals), and contact them and
find out what do THEY want and how. In many cases
(IABIN) this consult has more or less already taken
place, so there is no shortage of indices to local
needs. This is something in which Discover Life cannot
really be the leader. Too many things are already
taken place.

d) "In addition to folks using Discover Life's on-line
tools" Fine, Some of these tools are nice and work.
Remib also works. Digir also works. And Biota and
Biotica and Atta and Sampada and Precis and Linnaeus
and ..... See what I mean? The feeling I am getting is
one of thorough disregard for "others". "My thing
works, so hey! everybody should join me". Sure, I get
a mail inviting us, but to play your game, not to find
out what games we like and know how to play. Perhaps
your game is only one amongst many.

e) "I envision that a function of each center will be
to produce very high-resolution images of species".
Good. InBio has several tens of thousands of those.
Conabio around 80,000, at around 15 Megabytes each and
each new round of technology increases the size of the
files. There are initiatives for these at Smithsonian,
Texas at Austin, New York Botanical Gardens, MoBot,
Kew, and again, that I know, the little locals at
Mexico (IBUNAM, FC), Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina,
Brazil, for sure some institution in India, etc. And
what about barcoding? And what about sounds? And what
about casts of tracks? And what about smells (InBio
has been doing it for years) And what about automatic
pictures? By naming one single instance of a method,
with the name of the person that does it you very
clearly transmit the message that everything else
either does not exist, or it is undeserving of being
mentioned. But forget about the form. How expensive
this will be? And what kind of LOCAL bandwith do you
need? CONABIO does not yet distribute their huge
pictures collection due to the sheer size of the files
(you need servers, archiving technology, compacting
software, proper database architecture...). And for
how many species this would be feasible (taxonomically
I mean). This will not cost a few bucks per year.

I am about to finish now and I apologize to everyone
for copying you all, and for the long and
preching-like tone. I thought it was important to
share my view because I have been involved in this
kind of thing for years.

I know that Discovery of Life has some fine products
and expertise. Tried and proved. They work. Could be
quite useful for certain applications outside the US,
assuming you can escalate them and actually use a
distributed, interoperational approach (perhaps this
is possible or perhaps not. This is a key issue). Now,
how best to expand from the eastern US to the world?
In my view, NOT crashing other peoples' party
announcing that you have a fantastic new game and
everybody is welcome to leave what they were playing
and join you (please remember that this is the
*feeling* I get from the mails I have received).
Instead I would like to see Discover-Life having
serious talks with GBIF, IABIN, perhaps the CBD (GTI),
the African and Asian initiatives and so on. Perhaps
also CONABIO, InBio, von Humboldt, CRIA and Sabonet.
Find out what those people are doing and whether the
Discover-Life approach may be useful for certain
things and how to apply it. Old muleteers in Mexico
had a saying: "it is not important to arrive first and
alone, but to arrive on time and all together". I do
hope that my remarks will help to make Discover Life
another useful, welcome and enthusiastic partner to
the exceedingly important game of documenting and
monitoring biodiversity.

My best regards to everybody, especially to Pickering.

Jorge Soberon.

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