Brazil to have a biodiversity synthesis center by the end of 2018
October 24, 2018
By André Julião | Agência FAPESP – A consortium of Brazilian federal and state research funding agencies, in collaboration with other organizations based in Brazil and abroad, will begin operating the Center for Synthesis in Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (SinBiose) before the end of this year. The initiative will be the first of its kind in the tropics. Biodiversity synthesis centers are already in operation in Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
The goal is to integrate the research findings of several different centers to advance scientific knowledge and address societal problems via the engagement of communities and government bodies.
Concepts of key significance for SinBiose were defined at a workshop held on September 24-26, 2018, at the University of São Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA-USP). According to Marcelo Morales, Vice President of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), 1 million Brazilian Reals in seed funding for SinBiose have been assured by the Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications Ministry (MCTIC).
“We have to get started, and we’ve decided to start virtually,” Morales said during the event. “But we need to show the results now. I’m confident this will persuade not just Congress but also the agencies and ministries [to invest more funds in the initiative].”
“The basic aim of setting up a biodiversity synthesis center is to assemble the data available from projects that are dealing with problems relating to a river basin, catchment area or city, and use this synthesis to improve public policies and implement them,” said Carlos Alfredo Joly, who organized the workshop. Joly is Full Professor at the University of Campinas’s Biology Institute (IB-UNICAMP) and a coordinator of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP).
Joly explained that these datasets are held by many different research groups across Brazil and that no institution is responsible for integrating them. “We plan to work transversally, building a network that integrates the best researchers in a given field to gather all the information on the specific subject-matter concerned and see how much we can advance toward solutions and answers to problems,” he told Agência FAPESP.
One of the first ideas for the creation of a biodiversity synthesis center in Brazil is said to have arisen from the recommendations of the 2015 scientific report on the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network Program (PELD).
“The Brazilian LTER report highlights the vital importance of creating strong links among stakeholders in order to build capacity to fill the gaps between science and practice,” said workshop speaker Jean Paul Metzger, Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP) and also a member of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee.
For Metzger, a center such as this would be the second in the southern hemisphere and the first in the tropics. It would permit wider collaboration, with a new generation of more collaborative researchers sharing data and creating new ideas, hypotheses and models using the existing data. In addition, it would promote an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach, facilitating synergies between science and public policy.
The initial structure of SinBiose would consist of a scientific committee supported by an international advisory committee. There would also be administrative staff and a technical team to take care of IT, communications and educational assistance.
The model also includes a full-time scientific director and full-time postdoctoral researchers, as well as experienced researchers who would be seconded to SinBiose for a certain period. The members of working groups would meet once or twice a year to take stock of work in progress and decide on next steps.
“We’re thinking of having a physical space where this interaction could occur, probably in Brasília [the capital of Brazil]. It would need a high-capacity IT infrastructure, which wouldn’t have to be on-site, as nowadays this can be done in the cloud. We also need a team of postdocs with two or three years of experience in postdoc research, as well as researchers from all over Brazil who would come to the center whenever they like,” Joly said.
“The center is also a means of including knowledge in the area of the humanities. It won’t be limited to biology and ecology. We’ll also focus on developing solutions for people, for communities, and to do this we’ll need professionals from these different areas.”
According to Joly, the results will take the form of scientific publications and, above all, solutions to practical problems faced by communities. “Scientific output will be a small part of the results. Science is necessary, but the main aim will be problem solving, such as addressing the problem of conflict over water in a river basin, for example, and interfacing with government and authorities,” he said.
Researchers attending the event delivered presentations on the functioning of synthesis centers in the US, Canada, the UK and Germany.
The Canadian Institute for Ecology and Evolution (CIEE) stands out as an institution without a physical structure. It is staffed by personnel from the universities with which its researchers are affiliated. The Brazilian center will initially operate according to this “virtual” model until a decision is made regarding a physical venue.
“Our center has a good cost-benefit ratio. It’s flexible and has a genuinely national program, given that it’s not located in a specific region. That’s one advantage of a virtual program,” said CIEE Director Diane Srivastava, a researcher at the University of British Columbia.
“There are limitations, however. The leaders of each group have more work in terms of logistics, and we don’t have staff, an IT infrastructure, or even personnel for financial administration. We gave up some things by espousing this model.”
CIEE’s biodiversity data synthesis focuses on problem solving, Srivastava explained, citing the example of a program that is rehabilitating commercial fish populations off the coast of Newfoundland in eastern Canada, where the local economy is struggling to bounce back from the adverse effects of Atlantic cod overfishing.
Another model presented at the workshop was Germany’s Synthesis Center for Biodiversity Sciences (sDiv). Unlike the Canadian center, sDiv has a physical home in Leipzig, and its working groups do not necessarily focus on research with societal benefits.
“However, proposals must address a particular topic in the broadest sense. A project on soil biota, for example, will include not just biologists and ecologists but also other researchers who will look at the geography and soil chemistry, or even bring in new data that hasn’t yet been used for this type of study,” said Marten Winter, sDiv’s scientific coordinator.
The event was also attended by Thomas Meagher, Chair of the UK’s Environmental Omics Synthesis Center (EOS), Emilio Bruna from the University of Florida, and Laura Meagher, a specialist in transdisciplinary studies. Jon Kramer, Director of Interdisciplinary Science at the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and Jerôme Chave from the Center for the Study of Biodiversity in Amazonia (LABEX-CEBA), located in French Guiana, also participated remotely by delivering presentations via the internet. All speakers described the synthesis centers they lead and addressed opportunities for collaboration.
Focus on solutions
One of the most pressing needs of Brazil’s environmental regulators is for reliable scientific data on which to base policy decisions, as stressed by Kátia Torres Ribeiro, representing Research and Monitoring at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), and Ana Paula Fioreze, Deputy Head of Operations and Critical Events at the National Water Agency (ANA), who spoke about the programs they lead and the main demands that can be met by a synthesis center.
“We expect a synthesis center to provide easier access to the latest and most advanced science. One advantage of this center will be the ability to address an issue that has yet to be resolved, which is the interaction between water management and environmental management,” Fioreze told Agência FAPESP.
“Information on these matters isn’t fully accessible and needs to be consolidated so that it can be effectively taken into account in decision making. Science is one layer of the decision-making process, and if it’s hard to access, it won’t be considered as it should be.”
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