Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Editorial: The Encyclopedia of Life

Chicago's Field Museum, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, the Smithsonian Institution, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Missouri Botanical Garden have formed a consortium to document the world's 1.8 million named species in a massive new online "Encyclopedia of Life." The unprecedented effort aims to create separate Web pages on every known species within a decade. The pages housed at the Encyclopedia of Life will provide written information and, when available, photographs, video, sound, location maps, and other multimedia information on each species. Built on the scientific contributions of thousands of experts around the globe, the Encyclopedia will be a moderated wiki-style environment, freely available to all users everywhere.

The Washington Post quotes Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who helped initiate the project, estimating
that humans have cataloged just 10 percent of the world's species, and much of the information is fragmented. The encyclopedia will create a reservoir of knowledge akin to the Human Genome Project.
According to OneWorld.Net Dr. James Edwards, currently Executive Secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), has been named Executive Director of the Encyclopedia of Life. The GBIF is an international organization that is working to make the world's biodiversity data accessible anywhere in the world. GBIF members are countries and international organizations who have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that they will share biodiversity data and contribute to the development of increasingly effective mechanisms for making those data available via the Internet. The United States has sent the GBIF secretariat a letter of intent to sign the MOU.

The completion of an inventory of all of the species of animals, plants, and microbes on the earth will require a huge investment of time and resources in coming decades. Still the development of a coherent, online encyclopedic description of the 1.8 million currently known species should be done now in such a way as to not only provide a framework for the complete catalog in the future, but to make that information available now. By mid-century, if not earlier, the Encyclopedia could be completed.

How useful will that information be? I suspect no one knows at this point. It should of course have scientific benefits for all those involved in systematic biology and ecology. It should be a boon to those seeking to protect the environment and prevent the loss of biodiversity. It should help bioprospectors to discover species, genes, and natural products of benefit to medicine, agriculture and industry. It should be an invaluable resource for educators at all levels, for the media, and for those individuals seeking simply to better understand the world we live in. As with all great adventures of the human mind, we will discover the true value in the future as mankind explores and creates uses for the encyclopedia.

This effort has been initiated by some of America's greatest institutions of science and learning. However, this clearly must be a global effort, and must serve all of the nations and peoples of the world. It already appears to involve the GBIF as its platform. The Encyclopedia should be supported by the United Nations family of organizations.

UNESCO should give this initiative its full support. UNESCO's Man in the Biosphere Program (MAB) has long been stimulating the development of networks for systematic biology and ecology. UNESCO's Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems is a similar and complementary initiative to create an encyclopedic resource on the global systems. UNESCO's Microbial Resources Centers (MIRCEN) network already forms a global network for systematic biology of microorganisms, and the WFCC-MIRCEN World Data Center for Microorganisms (WDCM) provides a comprehensive directory of culture collections, databases on microbes and cell lines. UNESCO as the lead agency in the United Nations system for both the natural sciences and for communication and information should create a major, intersectoral program in support of this initiative.

I strongly recommend that the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, which is meeting this month, consider recommending a major U.S. initiative in conjunction with UNESCO in support of the Encyclopedia of Life. Only the United States among nations has the scientific and technological capacity to provide global leadership in support of this effort.

The National Commission might consider recommending that the United States offer to create and support an International Institute for the Encyclopedia of Life, to be based on the current consortium. The Institute might be distributed in form, taking advantage of Internet infrastructure to create a virtual organization distributed in centers of learning across the nation. Such an Institute might enjoy support of public and private donors. The National Science Foundation, USAID and the National Institutes of Health in the past jointly supported the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), which might serve as a model for the public sector support. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is already supporting the Encyclopedia of Life, and has in the past created consortia with other foundations, such as Ford and Rockefeller for support of major initiatives. So too is the Sloan Foundation already supporting the Encyclopedia of Life.

The United States could use this occasion to mark its return to UNESCO with a major initiative. The creation of a major Institute based in the United States would be of suitable magnitude. While the U.S. provides 22 percent of UNESCO's core funding, it provides much less than one percent of its extra-budgetary financing, and support for an Institute for the Encyclopedia of Life would redress the balance. The leadership provided by the current consortium would guarantee the scientific and technological quality of such an effort. A U.S. resolution at the upcoming UNESCO General Conference that the Conference support the creation of a study of such an Institute would symbolize the importance the United States gives to UNESCO, to the environment, to the natural sciences, and to multilateral cooperation.

A resolution by the National Council might be a good start on the creation of such an initiative from the United States as well as on the involvement of UNESCO in the Encyclopedia of Life effort.

1 comment:

Cliff said...

The news about the EOL is terribly exciting. It will an extraordinary addition to the EarthPortal Encyclopedia of Earth ( in which 700 scientists have contributed over 3000 articles over the past 18 months.

They've added the 800+ Ecoregions profiles of endangered species from the World Wildlife Fund.

Very cool.