Biodiversity Science and Education Initiative

Overview of the BSEI

The Smithsonian Institution (SI) is hosting a ten-year Biodiversity Science and Education Initiative (BSEI). The primary goals of the BSEI are (i) to identify the critical knowledge gaps to fill and conceptual approaches to take for a better scientific understanding of biodiversity, i.e., what isn't known but needs to be known, (ii) to prioritize a science agenda to fill these gaps over the next decade, and based on this agenda, (iii) to make a stronger, more conceptually driven case for increased funding for biodiversity science.

To lead the BSEI, the Smithsonian is assembling a task force of expert biodiversity scientists and educators to form, in essence, a standing biodiversity science "think tank", but without bricks and mortar. Participants in the task force will work together mostly electronically but also meet periodically in workshop retreats. Although the Smithsonian is hosting the BSEI, the task force will take an inclusive and broad view of biodiversity science in which the Smithsonian is just one of the participants. For this reason, most of the task force will not be Smithsonian scientists. The assembly and work of the BSEI task force is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Although this grant is for the first two years of the 10-year BSEI, the Smithsonian hopes and anticipates that, if the task force is as successful as anticipated, support for the task force for the remainder of the decade will be forthcoming.

Rationale for the BSEI

There is a growing concern among scientists that a major anthropogenic loss of a significant fraction of the Earth's biodiversity may occur in the near future. Some estimates are that 20 percent or more of extant species may become extinct over the next several decades. Skeptics remain, however, because the scientific basis for these estimates is still inadequate. In the U.S. at least, nongovernmental conservation organizations have largely shaped our collective response to this issue, focusing on efforts to save particular charismatic species, inventorying "biodiversity hotspots" under the greatest apparent threat, and buying land to preserve habitat. However, these efforts have been largely piecemeal, ad hoc, and not adequately informed by conceptually driven science. This is not so much the fault of the conservation NGOs, but the failure of the scientific community to come together and develop a coherent and prioritized agenda for biodiversity science that can inform such efforts. The scientific questions concerning conservation are also imbedded in a larger question about the future direction of basic biodiversity science. What new theoretical approaches are promising in the field, and how can they help address practical biodiversity problems? What key empirical data, on which taxa and ecosystems, and on what spatial and temporal scales are needed to evaluate and test these theories, and improve the scientific basis for biodiversity conservation?

Objectives and Vision of the BSEI

The science objectives of the BSEI task force are (i) to identify the key gaps in the theoretical and empirical understanding of biodiversity, both pattern and process, and (ii) to prioritize a 10-year global biodiversity science agenda to fill these gaps, involving not only the Smithsonian but also the broader biodiversity science community. The educational objectives are (i) to inform the policy community about the importance of biodiversity, and the policy implications of biodiversity sustainability, (ii) to explain and justify the prioritized science agenda, to make the case for increased funding of biodiversity science, and (iii) to stimulate greater public awareness of biodiversity issues, and foster increased citizen participation in biodiversity science.

The vision of the BSEI initiative is ambitious: to rethink thoroughly and potentially transform biodiversity science, attempting to identify the right questions to ask to achieve a better empirical basis and more secure theoretical foundation for biodiversity science. The goal is to generate a smarter, more conceptually driven, biodiversity science agenda for the next decade and beyond, and to use this agenda to articulate a more coherent and compelling case for increased federal, private, and international investment in biodiversity science and education. This case will be laid out in a series of technical articles in premier science journals as well as in non-technical magazine articles, books, and in the mass media, for policy makers, educators, and the general public.


The conveners of the BSEI believe that the best science is driven by bottom-up creativity, not top-down bureaucracy. There are two major challenges. The first challenge is to think openly, boldly and creatively as a group. This is a challenge because we must be willing to discuss openly the current limitations of our science, put forward our best ideas fearlessly for public scrutiny, and do so without grandstanding or scientific territoriality. The BSEI team must make as honest and as accurate an assessment of the critical knowledge gaps in biodiversity science as it can, and then make the best recommendations it can for the right questions to ask and the right approaches to asking them. Only if this assessment is perceived as honest and credible will the recommendations in the prioritized science agenda have any chance of adoption. The second major challenge is to have lasting impact. To have a long-term effect on directions in biodiversity science, the BSEI must generate ideas and approaches that are fresh, insightful, and exciting to the biodiversity science community. This is difficult enough, but to have long-term effect on raising public awareness of biodiversity and participation in biodiversity science, the BSEI must also excite and galvanize a much larger non-science audience. The reason for a ten-year time horizon for BSEI is to provide sufficient time to create both scientific momentum as well as public and policymaker support for a major increase in funding for biodiversity science, nationally and internationally. This momentum requires time to be successful, but one of the major factors in the success in such efforts is consistent, long-term presence and pressure in Washington and in international power venues, such as the European Union.

Fundamental biodiversity science questions

The first two years of the BSEI task force will be devoted to addressing knowledge gaps with regard to three broad but nevertheless fundamental questions about biodiversity science and education: (1) What biodiversity do we have? (taxonomy, biogeography, phylogeography, genetic diversity); (2) How does this biodiversity function? (ecological and evolutionary processes involved in the origin, maintenance, and loss of biodiversity); and (3) If biodiversity sustainability is our goal, then what are the best scientific strategies and technological tools, the best socioeconomic instruments, and the best educational approaches to improve the prospects for sustaining biodiversity?

It should be emphasized that the two-year goal of the BSEI is not to attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions, but rather, to identify the critical biodiversity knowledge gaps and to prioritize the science to fill these gaps. Not all aspects of these questions will need the same level of new analysis. For example, some parts of the first question have already been fairly thoroughly addressed. Nevertheless, although the BSEI should not reinvent wheels, the task force does need to evaluate the quality of current information, even in situations in which the "facts" are apparently well-established.

BSEI Task Forces and Advisory Board

About 45 biodiversity scientists representing a wide spectrum of fields and with empirical and/or theoretical expertise have been invited to participate in the task force, and an additional 45 distinguished scientists and educators have been asked to serve on an advisory board. To make this relatively large group function well, the task force will be divided into three working groups of approximately 15 people. The advisory board will provide reviews and advice to the task force. Because the number of participants is limited for financial and logistic reasons, it is inevitable that coverage of topics in biodiversity science and education will be thin in many areas.

Work Plan

Overview. In order to facilitate the work of the BSEI task force, the three fundamental questions will be addressed sequentially in their natural order, which is first to ask what biodiversity we have, then how it works, and finally how we sustain it if that is our goal. As mentioned, the BSEI task force consists of three working groups, each having about 15 people. Each working group will have primary responsibility for addressing one of the three fundamental questions. However, all members of the full task force will have the opportunity to review at various stages the draft report(s) of each working group, and the final series of reports and papers.

Opening plenary meeting. We will convene an initial two-day meeting in October 2005 to launch the BSEI. The purpose of this meeting is to review and discuss the objectives of the BSEI, to plan the subsequent work agenda, and to provide an opportunity for task force participants to get to know one another better.

Working groups. Each of the fundamental questions will have an assigned working group, representing a third of the whole task force. The participants of each working group will begin work at a 3-day retreat attended only by members of the working group, not the whole task force. The objective of this retreat is to identify the key derivative questions that flow from the broad question assigned to the working group, and divide up the work of analysis and synthesis. At this retreat, the working group will elect a chairperson. After the retreat, there will be a 6-month period of long-distance discussions (vial mail, e-mail, and conference calls). For the first 4 months, there will be internal discussion among the working group members. At the end of this 4-month period, the working group will produce a draft report for review by all members of the entire task force, and by the advisory board members. After a 2-month review period, and 6 months after the initial retreat, a smaller meeting of 4 to 5 members of the working group will be held. This subcommittee will prepare the final report of the working group. This work cycle will be repeated for each of the three fundamental questions and their associated working groups. After all three working groups have completed their work, a meeting of the three subcommittees will be held to prepare a draft of the final papers and reports. These drafts will then go out for review by the entire task force and by the advisory board. At this time, BSEI will solicit outside reviews from scientists and educators not on the task force or the BSEI advisory board.

Work load and organization. Everyone invited to participate in the BSEI think tank is a very busy person, and this is why the task force will meet primarily electronically after each retreat. It is also the case that virtually every participant could serve equally well on any one of the three working groups. For this reason, all participants of the task force will have the opportunity to review the product of each working group. However, the primary responsibility for producing a response to each of the fundamental questions will fall on the working group assigned to that question. During the follow-up period of 4 months after each retreat, there will be at least two or three cycles of discussion, analysis, and synthesis by e-mail, electronic document exchange, and conference calls. The working group will divide up into smaller groups to review the literature, analyze the existing science, and develop the summary science recommendations and research priorities. Each discussion-analysis cycle will take approximately a month to six weeks to allow participants sufficient time to formulate questions, review the literature, and write responses. The BSEI has a small staff to make the operations of the working groups as smooth as possible, including communication via the BSEI web site.

BSEI secure web site. After the period of communication regarding participation, we request that all official communication be done online on the BSEI secure website. This site will allow very flexible forum-like exchanges using easy-to-learn WIKI freeware. We will inform you when the site is up and running. Although we expect that telephone conference calls will be necessary from time to time, BSEI would like to have as much of a written log of the development of the science agenda and the rationale for its prioritization as is possible. We will also record the discussions at the retreats. However, all of these records will remain confidential. Only the final reports will be made publicly available, and there will be no individual attribution.

Why confidentiality? To ensure that open, honest, and unvarnished discussion of the state of biodiversity science occurs, all deliberations of the task force will be confidential, and there will be no individual attribution of remarks. BSEI reports will be published under all the names of both the task force and the advisory board members. We ask that all task force and advisory members respect the privacy of fellow members and observe strict confidentiality. Confidentiality puts a special responsibility on each and every participant to exhibit fair and ethical behavior. Premature leaks of information will create distrust among BSEI members and harm the credibility and effectiveness of the BSEI effort. Leaks usually arise when there are strong disagreements. To discourage leaks, BSEI will air in its published reports the scientific arguments that frame major unresolved disagreements that arise during its deliberations. Scientific disagreements, which must remain civil at all times, will be viewed positively as barometers of scientific uncertainty and as indicators of knowledge gaps where new science needs to be done.

Timetable. The timetable below is subject to change. We will try to optimize the dates for meetings and retreats so that the largest number of task force and working group members can attend. To this end, we will solicit and periodically update the calendars of participants.

Apr 05 Assembly of task force completed
Oct 05 Plenary startup meeting of task force members
Nov 05 Retreat of Working Group 1: What biodiversity do we have?
Nov 05-Feb 06 Working Group 1 meets electronically, prepares draft for review
Mar 06-Apr 06 Review of draft of Working Group 1 by full Task Force
May 06 Subcommittee of Working Group 1 meets for final report
Jun 06 Retreat of working Group 2: How does biodiversity function?
Jun 06-Sept 06 Working Group 2 meets electronically, prepares draft for review
Oct 06-Nov 06 Review of draft of Working Group 2 by full Task Force
Dec 06 Subcommittee of Working Group 2 meets for final report
Jan 07 Retreat of Working Group 3: How do we sustain biodiversity?
Jan 07-Apr 07 Working Group 3 meets electronically, prepares draft for review
May 07 Review of draft of Working Group 3 by full Task Force
Jun 07-Oct 07 Writing of final reports, preparation for final workshop
Nov 07 Final retreat of subcommittees from each working group
Dec 07 Presentation of final report; publications submitted
Dec 07 Preparation of proposals for Phase II of BSEI (year 3 onward)

Importance and uniqueness

One of the important and unique features of the BSEI is the opportunity to develop a truly long-term perspective on biodiversity science and education, and the chance to make mid-course corrections on the science agenda over the next decade. There are other related projects in progress such as the planning effort for the National Environmental Observatory Network (NEON), and the Millennium Assessment of the United Nations. There are also a number of major efforts by nongovernmental organizations, such as Conservation International (CI). Many biodiversity databases exist that will make the work of the BSEI task force easier. However, there are many differences between these efforts and the objectives of the BSEI task force, and the efforts are not duplicative. Also the BSEI can serve as an independent body to evaluate the science of programs like NEON and CI.

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