The Polistes Foundation

Our mission is to assemble and share knowledge about nature
in order to improve education, health, agriculture, economic development,
and conservation throughout the world.

10-year Business Plan


John Pickering & Kevin Weick

September, 2002

How can we improve our interactions with nature? Our health, food supply, economic well-being, environmental security, and ultimately, our happiness, depend on how we manage the planet's vast diversity of life -- a double-edged sword. Beneficial species provide us with sustenance, fuel, shelter, medicine, and other natural products that better our lives. Harmful ones kill us, destroy our crops, and blight our forests. Pests and pathogens plague our farms; pollinators make our crops bountiful. Infectious diseases take their toll, but other microbes help purify our drinking water and provide other critical ecosystem services. What will it take to better manage the land and oceans for ourselves and for those species that we wish to prosper? Knowledge.

For the first time in history, empowered by Web-based technology, we can work together on a global scale. We can collect and disseminate the biological knowledge that society needs to reduce human disease, increase agricultural production, control destructive invasive species, protect endangered ones, and enjoy rather than struggle with nature.

Despite centuries of intense interest, science knows relatively little about life on Earth. Of the planet's estimated 5 -10 million or more species, only 1.7 million species are scientifically described and named. The biology, ecological interactions, and environmental requirements of most species, even the named ones, are largely unknown. Three great challenges impede assembling and sharing the information needed to improve public health and natural resource management: (1) our inability to identify things, (2) the magnitude of biological diversity and complexity, and (3) the inaccessibility of essential information to most people. Here we propose how to overcome these problems.

Discover Life showcases state-of-the-art technical solutions that provide users with powerful tools (for 4th grade and up) to overcome all such impediments. Among these, the IDnature Guides enable users to identify species, to map and report their observations, and to access and assemble information from across the Web. The Global Map Browser, developed in partnership with, allows users to build and display world maps and then overlay data, such as plant distributions from Missouri Botanical Garden's database. By expanding the capacity and content of Discover Life and our partners' Websites, our 10-year goals are

  • to enable Web users to identify one million species,
  • to provide the research protocols, K-16 curricula, training courses, and wherewithal to empower and encourage participants from all walks of life to discover, study, and monitor species,
  • to establish a network of one million long-term ecological study sites around the world that contribute sufficient real-time, high-quality data to help public health workers, farmers, foresters, conservation biologists, gardeners, and others protect desirable species and control unwanted ones, and
  • to provide an easy and freely available gateway to query an up-to-date electronic encyclopedia of life that includes everything from a network of virtual museums and herbaria to recommendations on how to control pests and disease vectors, diagnose and treat infections, and grow crops, trees, and flowers.

Discover Life is served from the University of Georgia, Athens, under the auspices of The Polistes Foundation, a non-profit think tank whose team of
advisors include world leaders in science, education, conservation, and technology. Through these advisors we are building a global network of partners that will provide the expertise, resources, and infrastructure to accomplish the above goals. This network already includes

  • African Pollinator Initiative
  • All Species Foundation
  • BioNet International
  • Buffalo Zoo
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • EcoPort
  • First Hand Learning/Buffalo Museum of Science
  • FishBase
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park's All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory
  • Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology and Peabody Museum
  • Jane Goodall Institute
  • Massachusetts' Biodiversity Days
  • Mexico's CONABIO
  • Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Nature Mapping
  • NatureServe
  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
  • Southern Africa's SAFRINET
  • Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Program
  • US Department of Agriculture's Bee Lab
  • US Forest Service in Georgia
  • US National Biological Information Infrastructure
  • US National Council for Science and the Environment
  • US Geological Survey
  • US National Park Service.
We continue to contact foundations, corporations, agencies, and individuals for financial and other support. For example, Sun Microsystems may sponsor our computing needs. Discover Life's software is licensed in perpetuity from The Polistes Corporation at no cost. If at some point we are unable to continue running the site, our contract with the USGS states that we will transfer it to a non-profit organization or government agency.

To achieve the above goals we propose to

  1. Establish 100 regional identification nodes that will build Web-based guides for 1,000,000 species by 2012. We intend to provide the computers, digital cameras, scanners and other equipment needed to allow an average of 10 taxonomic experts at each node to build and illustrate guides efficiently. We will staff each node with a computer expert who will give local technical support to the taxonomists. We will start each node by giving a local training course and provide technical support from our principal node at the University of Georgia. We will give additional training and get feedback during scientific meetings attended by the taxonomists.

    We will build guides to the most important and charismatic species first, as determined by our users, partners, and sponsors. Our 10-year goal is to produce guides that include all vascular plants, vertebrates, butterflies, bees and other pollinators, insect vectors, biological control agents, invasive species, endangered species, and disease causing agents of humans, crops, livestock, and other species we care about.

    In November, 2002, we will set up a node for SAFRINET in Pretoria, South Africa. In 2003, as funding permits, we propose to set up nodes in Costa Rica (INBio), Mexico (CONABIO), Panama (STRI), Philippines (FiseBase), The Netherlands (Zoological Museum Amsterdam), and the United States (Missouri Botanical Garden; University of California at Santa Barbara). BioNet International, the Global Taxonomic Initiative, and our other partners will determine when and where best to locate additional identification nodes.

  2. Develop, test, and evaluate Web-based research protocols and K-16 curricula to enable guide users to discover, study, and monitor species and report their findings. In addition to collecting data to improve our scientific understanding and management of nature, our mission is to encourage nature based learning and discovery research. Once our vision is implemented, students and teachers will learn science and information technology as they design and participate in studies of their schoolyards, gardens, parks, and other local areas. For examples of classroom activities see Training Guides & Protocols and Explore Your School Yard under Education. As funding permits, we will produce additional educational material and give training courses to increase participation by schools and outreach organizations. This year First Hand Learning and teachers in New York and Georgia propose to start developing and evaluating lesson plans for bees, butterflies, birds and trees. The Buffalo Zoo will help evaluate and improve our guides at a new Identification Center for the public run by docents.

  3. Establish a global network of one million long-term ecological study sites. There are simply not enough professional biologists and land managers to collect fine-grained, real-time, detailed information on life's diversity. We must involve schools and the general public in citizen science and monitoring. Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Biodiversity Days in Massachusetts, Cornell's Big Backyard Bird Count, FrogWatch, the GLOBE program, Journey North, Nature Mapping, and the USGS Breeding Bird Survey are all successful programs that serve as models of how to harness the energy of thousands of individuals to collect scientific information. As our IDnature Guides and research protocols come on-line, we propose to train teachers, park interpreters, land managers, and volunteers how to start study sites and involve others in discovery research and reporting. Our initial focus is to develop and evaluate our methods in the United States. We will work with the interpreters and scientists of the National Park Service to enable any park visitor to report their observations. We will set up sites run by the schools working with First Hand Learning, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Great Smokies' ATBI, Nature Mapping, and the US Forest Service in Georgia. We will work with the USGS to set up a system to report and map invasive species. As we develop guides for other countries, we will work with The Jane Goodall Institute's Roots and Shoots program and other organizations to expand the network globally. Eventually, we envision a network of sites that will be run by a wide array of individuals and organizations, ranging from farmers and gardeners to schools, nature centers, zoos, museums, herbaria, botanical gardens, libraries, cooperative extension, and other community groups.

    Our initial effort in the US is to enable users to report bees, birds, butterflies, caterpillars, invasive species, trees, and wildflowers. Except for the exact locations of some species, such as endangered ones, we will make all data globally available through the Web and also export them to databases used by land managers, scientists, and policy makers. For example, reports on rare and endangered species will be exported to NatureServe, invasive species to the USGS, and data collected within national parks to the NPS's central database to be distributed in turn to individual parks. Filtering algorithms will help ensure that we present only the highest quality information possible to users.

  4. Provide a gateway and query tools to a distributed encyclopedia of life. Our philosophy is to provide links to our partners' Websites and collect data for them, rather than to assemble a giant database at Discover Life. Experts at our partner sites maintain and update their information. The 20q software we use allows Discover Life to assemble and present data from multiple Websites into a single dynamic HTML page. For example, this link displays images served from Discover Life and Missouri Botanical Garden and a link to maps powered by Thus, we can provide information more rapidly than a centralized system by distributing computing and bandwidth across our partner sites. Use has been doubling about every 6 months. In August, 2002, we served 423,516 pages and images.

We seek support to expand the function of the central node in Georgia as a coordination, development, training, and technical support center. We propose to staff this node with a business manager (in Boston), a Ph.D. level biologist responsible for coordinating training and the development of research protocols and school curricula, a B.S/M.S. level biologist to coordinate building guides, a Webmaster/graphic designer to coordinate development and functionality across Websites, a computer programmer responsible for maintaining computer systems and linking databases across Websites, a map browser developer (at, a scientific illustrator, and teams of graduate and undergraduate students who will photograph specimens, build guides, and provide technical support.

Based on the following assumptions, costs and schedule, we can establish a total of 39 nodes in developed nations and 61 in developing nations and have guides to over 1,000,000 species completed in 2012 for a total direct cost of $22,965,000 as follows (dollar values in thousands):

Developed Nations
of nodes

Developing Nations:
of nodes



  • Annual cost per node in Developed Nations - $40,000
  • Annual cost per node in Developing Nations - $25,000
  • Initial cost of equipment/node - $10,000
  • Each node puts 1700 species annually into guide
  • Each node improves reporting capability 10% after first year
  • Principal node -- $500,000 annually as follows (dollar values in thousands):

Business manager$65
Ph.D. level biologist$40
BS/MS level biologist$28
Programmer/systems manager$45
Webmaster/graphic designer$38
Scientific illustrator$30
Map developer$30
Undergraduate students (hourly)$42
Graduate students (2)$32
Summer salary$20
Travel and Expenses$50
Staff benefits$80

Discover Life | All Living Things | IDnature guides | The Polistes Foundation | Business Plan