Biodiversity and ecosystem informatics
Journal of Intelligent Information Systems
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY In June 2000, a group of computer scientists, biologists, and natural resource managers met to examine the prospects for advancing computer science and information technology (CS/IT) research by focusing on the complex and often unique challenges found in the biodiversity and ecosystem domain. We refer to this emerging, interdisciplinary field of study as Biodiversity and Ecosystem Informatics (BDEI). This report synthesizes the discussions and recommendations made at the
... hop. It itemizes current BDEI challenges, lays out a national BDEI research agenda, and recommends actions to be taken within the national research agenda. It also proposes specific mechanisms to communicate and implement those actions. The following points summarize the conclusions of this forum: • The CS/IT research community plays a foundational role in creating the technological infrastructure from which advances in the environmental sciences evolve; • The next-generation CS/IT applications required by our expanding need to understand complex, ecosystem-scale processes will require solutions to significant, ground-breaking CS/IT research problems; • Important new research opportunities for the CS/IT community are provided by the urgency, complexity, scale, and uniqueness of the data, processes, and problems presented by work in the biodiversity and ecosystem domain; and ii Biodiversity and Ecosystem Sciences The most striking feature of Earth is the existence of life, and the most striking feature of life is its diversity. This biological diversity -or biodiversity -provides us with clean air, clean water, food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and aesthetic enjoyment. Biodiversity, and the ecosystems that support it, contribute trillions of dollars to national and global economies, directly through industries such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, and ecotourism and indirectly through biologically-mediated services such as plant pollination, seed dispersal, grazing land, carbon dioxide removal, nitrogen fixation, flood control, waste breakdown, and the biocontrol of crop pests. And biodiversity -the biological richness of ecosystems per se -is perhaps the single most important factor influencing the stability and health of our environment. Clearly, this is one of our most important knowledge domains, vital to a wide range of scientific, educational, commercial, and government activities. There is an increasing need to understand and respond to complex environmental problems. Just as we are developing a capacity to predict long-term climate events, we would now like to predict public health and ecological outcomes far into the future. Unfortunately, we currently lack the technologies to do this. The environmental sciences are "resource limited" by fundamental inadequacies in the CS/IT tools that can be applied to problems of this scale. If we are to keep pace with our need for quality information about the living systems of our planet, we must produce systems that can efficiently manage petabytes of a new generation of high-resolution, Earth-observing satellite data. We must understand how to integrate these new datasets with traditional biodiversity data, such as specimen data held in natural history collections, and genomic data from cellular-and molecularlevel work. We must be able to make correlations among data from these and even more disparate sources, such as ecosystem-scale global change and carbon cycle data, compile those data in new ways, analyze them, and present the results in an understandable and usable way. Despite encouraging advances in computation and communication performance in recent years, we are still unable to perform these activities on a large scale. It is only recently, for example, that IBM announced plans to build the world's fastest supercomputer -Blue Gene -which will attempt to compute the three-dimensional folding of human protein molecules. Given the thousands of proteins that are produced by the unknown millions of species on this planet, and given too that many of these molecules may have potentially significant economic value or environmental importance, we are clearly entering a new world of computer-mediated exploration. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Informatics Until recently, little attention has been paid to computer and information science and technology research in the biodiversity and ecosystem domain. The interdisciplinary field of biodiversity and ecosystem informatics (BDEI) is attempting to change that. We are pushing the boundaries in two directions by identifying research challenges that can simultaneously advance the environmental sciences and the computer and information sciences. The potential for such synergies is high because of the nature of work in the biodiversity and ecosystem domain. The single most important factor influencing work in this field is the problem of complexity. This complexity arises from several sources. First is the underlying biological complexity of the organisms themselves. There are millions of species, each of which is highly variable across individual organisms, populations, and time. Species have complex chemistries, physiologies, developmental cycles, and behaviors resulting from more than three billion years of evolution. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ecosystems, each comprising complex interactions among large numbers of species and between those species and multiple abiotic factors.