The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last week approved plans aimed at creating the world's largest biodiversity databank. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) will be launched later this year.

Giving science a hand, clockwise from top left: ministers from Japan, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Israel, Germany, Ireland and Iceland. Credit: OECD

Science ministers from the OECD's 29 member states also decided to redirect its Megascience Forum, a group set up seven years ago to coordinate large scientific projects among member countries. Now called the Global Science Forum, it will emphasize international cooperation to develop global science infrastructures of any dimension.

GBIF is to be launched by an interim steering committee with members from ten countries, with a permanent secretariat to be formed by mid-2000. It will knit together existing databases on biodiversity, to serve as a one-stop information resource. The multi-million dollar project will largely be funded by existing national programmes, such as the effort by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to digitize natural history data.

Some databases that will contribute to GBIF are already running on websites, including Species 2000, a UK project aimed at indexing all species names. One of GBIF's most important tasks will be to create a comprehensive list of species names, solving problems caused by double references to organisms or misnamed species.

“Sometimes an inappropriate name is used and we find out we've been protecting the wrong organism,” says James Edwards, deputy assistant director of the NSF's directorate for biological sciences and chairman of the Megascience Forum bioinformation working group. “Or two countries use different names, so they can't communicate about an endangered species.”

GBIF, which is intended to go online in three to four years, will contain scores of databases — including geospatial, chemical, molecular and genetic collections — plus a catalogue of names of known organisms, digitization of natural history data, literature resources, and a bank dedicated to the discovery of new species. It will also include training and outreach programmes to help scientists to use it. Specialists say that GBIF will change the study of biodiversity.

“Because of distance, it is humanly impossible to get a real vision of biodiversity. A few years down the road we will think ‘How could we talk about biodiversity when we couldn't even see it?’,” says Frank Bisby, professor of botany at the University of Reading in Britain and chairman of Species 2000.

The idea for GBIF originated three years ago in the Megascience Forum. The new Global Science Forum will tackle such issues as the rivalry between the US Superconducting Collider and Europe's proposed Large Hadron Collider. But it will also consider smaller projects, in the hope of bringing policy-makers and scientists together to resolve international issues.

“We thought, ‘Why not extend the mandate so that virtually every project in science can be considered?’,” says Michael Oborne, deputy director of the OECD's science, technology and industry directorate. “This will be a significant tool for the scientific community worldwide.”

Particle physics and next-generation accelerators could emerge as a hot topic, says Oborne, as could nuclear waste disposal, which the Megascience Forum looked at without drawing up any solutions.

Last week's meeting also decided to form a year-long task force on radioastronomy to sort out conflicts between telecommunications companies and radioastronomers over sharing wavebands (see Nature 399, 513; 1999). Radioastronomers have been fighting to prevent mobile phones polluting their designated wavebands.