Scientists at 27 institutions advocate new model for sharing of forest data
August 03, 2022
Luciana Constantino | Agência FAPESP – Considered vital to the monitoring of biodiversity and the formulation of policies for its conservation, open forest data requires “a radically new agreement” among forest data originators, users, and funders. This is one of the main points put forward in a comment article published in Nature Ecology and Evolution and signed by 25 researchers affiliated with 27 universities and other institutions in several countries, including four in Brazil.
Led by Renato Augusto Ferreira de Lima, a researcher at the University of São Paulo's Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP) in Brazil, and Oliver L. Phillips, Professor of Tropical Ecology at the University of Leeds (UoL) in the UK, the group wants open data but argues that unequal conditions for users and originators make it important to judge how and when to provide open access, advocating a more “just and equitable” process.
“Tropical field scientists are well aware of this question. By bringing this discussion front of the stage we aimed to reach funders, users who want to combine forest data with satellite data, and publishers, who sometimes demand open data.
It’s a warning that the working conditions in which the data originated aren’t the same for everyone,” Lima told Agência FAPESP.
Differences in research infrastructure, training, and funding are among the causes of what the group calls a “chasm” between the professionals and institutions that measure forests in the field and those who use the data collected, synthesizing it on a regional or global scale.
“In the article, we show that the originators of biological data in the tropics – botanists, ecologists, forest engineers, technicians, and local communities – don't have access to the same training, infrastructure, and resources,” Lima said. "This puts a burden on the people responsible for collecting data, who often need continuous investment to be able to monitor biodiversity.”
Unrestricted access to data with the possibility of sharing has been considered fundamental to keep up with the growing demand for information on forests for research, monitoring, and public policy-making.
This is because tropical forests such as the Amazon are seen as key to an integrated systems approach to the global crises relating to climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in Agenda 2030.
These systems are responsible for crucial environmental services such as absorption of greenhouse gases, water balance, and biodiversity, but they are constantly threatened by deforestation, burning, and other dangers.
With support from FAPESP, Lima was the first author of an article published in 2020 on a study showing that human activity has directly or indirectly caused biodiversity and biomass losses in over 80% of the remaining Atlantic Rainforest fragments (more at: https://agencia.fapesp.br/35241/).
On the other hand, collecting and generating long-term forest data entails physically measuring and identifying millions of trees in situ. This kind of research requires constant updating and monitoring so that changes are recorded over years, potentially involving decades of funding and researchers’ entire careers.
To guarantee the benefits of long-term forest data flows, the article presents eight recommendations based on what the authors call “an alternative model” that focuses on the needs of the data originators and ensures that users and funders contribute appropriately.
“An equitable and sustainable approach to measuring the world’s forests starts by recognizing the human challenge involved in long-term forest measurements. It puts people – not data – first. This means recognizing the true costs of forest data origination and supporting better-quality careers for those doing the fieldwork,” the article insists. Its authors, all of whom have vast experience in tropical forest ecology, represent Cameroon, DR Congo, and other African countries, Argentina, Peru, and other South American countries besides Brazil, Vietnam, and the United States, as well as other European countries besides the UK.
In their recommendations, the researchers suggest funding the direct and indirect costs of (1) fieldwork and essential laboratory work, including herbaria support; (2) training, safe working practices, and secure employment conditions for the professionals on whom forest data production depends; and (3) the overheads of institutions responsible for data delivery.
They also advocate long-term support of integrated forest data management, covering the costs of coordinated data curation and database infrastructure beyond the existing species records and DNA sequences.
About journals, the group suggests publishers support fair and open data by embracing holistic definitions of authorship to include the people involved in data collection and management, and by ensuring results are communicated in the originators’ languages. “This means recognizing the true costs of forest data origination and supporting better-quality careers for those doing the fieldwork,” the authors stress, adding that “international agreements and funding to support data origination, capacity building, stable and long-term careers are needed to empower subtropical and tropical institutions,” and that "it is essential to develop deep, long-term and equitable collaborations, which should be the stated aim of funders, producers and users alike”.
In December 2020, in an article published in Scientific Data, Jingjing Liang, a researcher at Purdue University in the US, and Javier Gamarra, a member of the National Forest Monitoring Team at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), argued that the quantity and quality of shared forest data measured in situ (on the ground) was insufficient, despite progress, to “meet the urgency of our global crises”, and in particular to help combat pandemics and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, especially in the tropics.
In the same year, Brazil’s Forest and Agriculture Management and Certification Institute (Imaflora), an environmental nonprofit, published a survey analyzing the use of open forest data in 11 initiatives by corporations, government agencies, civil society organizations, etc. to monitor, control and prevent deforestation.
Interviews with representatives of the initiatives analyzed showed that the main problems encountered by users of the relevant databases were the low quality of the data, which was incomplete and/or out of date, and lack of database integration or centralization.
For Lima, Phillips et al., the benefits of forest data sharing will flow better when those who make forest measurements become truly valued, the careers of the originators are prioritized, and funding for the entire chain of data collection, production, and analysis is guaranteed. In short, for tropical forest data to be open, it must be supported fairly.
The article "Making forest data fair and open” is at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01738-7.Republish
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