Since the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) was established in 1995, it has hosted researchers from 49 states and 40 nations.

For nearly a decade, the NCEAS has been working to encourage and facilitate data sharing and analytical collaboration among ecologists. NCEAS resident researchers, who work at the center for periods of three years, are given the opportunity to work together and compare data from their respective research efforts. They take existing scientific data and work to develop comprehensive models of ecological systems. And now, with the help of a recent $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, plans to create a standardized, international network of ecological data are steadily being put into action.

This network, called the Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity (KNB), will allow researchers to create and store data that can not only be accessed, but also be easily understood by other ecologists. The purpose of the KNB is to allow for the creation and compilation of this metadata – data standardized to include descriptions and explanations.

“Now scientists can start talking using the same vocabulary,” NCEAS Director of Computing Mark Schildhauer said.

The tools and servers that will allow the KNB to function have already been developed, and the grant, which the NCEAS received in February, will go toward operating and maintaining the system.

“We’ve now developed this technology,” Schildhauer said. “We want it to be used and adopted by the community.”

Once the KNB is functional, it will not only allow interested ecologists to share data with one another, but will also provide a comprehensive storage system that aims to lessen the quantity of data that is lost or simply cannot be understood.

“If we don’t make this [data] available,” NCEAS Director Jim Reichman said, “when we die, our life’s work essentially disappears.”

“The impact [the KNB] will have will be to provide access to a much broader range of types of data, and also to a much broader geographic and time scale coverage,” NCEAS Deputy Director Sandy Andelman said.

Convincing scientists to contribute to the network may prove to be a problem, at least initially. However, those working on the KNB are hopeful that the benefits offered by a comprehensive data collection and storage system will outweigh doubts that individual researchers may have about sharing the results of their research efforts.

“Our bigger ambition is a social change,” Schildhauer said, “to get ecologists collecting data to automatically consider the metadata necessary.”

The NCEAS is funded by the National Science Foundation, the state of California and UCSB.