Published online 17 May 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.299


Huge marine census under scrutiny

Independent review finds great achievements, but questions over legacy remain.

dumboThe Census of Marine Life catalogued thousands of species, such as this finned octopod, nicknamed 'Dumbo'.Photo courtesy of David Shale

Despite its sterling scientific achievements, the largest marine-science project in history has failed to ensure a legacy of future leaders in marine science, according to a draft independent review.

The review's lead author, David Penman, former chairman of the governing board of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, praised the "enormous success" of the census, but told Nature that there were valuable lessons to be learned for future scientific endeavours in terms of the way the project was organized.

The decade-long, US$650-million Census of Marine Life saw marine scientists from across the world embark on an effort to determine the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life. It has been cited as an exemplar of 'big biology' in a discipline unused to the huge collaborative projects that are commonplace in fields such as physics (see feature Out of the blue).

"This is unique for biology. We've never been good at doing big science," says Penman. "The census showed biologists can work together."

By any measure, he adds, the census was a great success. His review — commissioned by census backers the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — was designed to tease out what organizational lessons could be learned for other projects. He will present his draft review at a public meeting at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington DC on 19 May.

Future planning

Penman's review notes that the census lacked procedures for bringing forward new leaders to continue the projects after completion of the census last year. It also reports that there was no plan to keep the census' scientific steering committee going.

And although the review finds that the census "evolved a governing structure that worked" — driven in large part by the enthusiasm and work ethic of Jesse Ausubel of the Sloan Foundation — it "lacked clarity in roles and responsibilities".

"There was very little impact on the work per se, but it was risky," Penman says. "I found it difficult to draw accountability lines."

Penman also highlights a general lack of attention to ensuring a sustainable legacy. The Sloan Foundation always made it clear that it was funding only the initial ten-year project. And although participants have cited the connections created between scientists as one of the great achievements of the census, it is not clear how long these frameworks will remain intact in the absence of overarching funding.

At least one crucial legacy of the census is facing financial problems: the main Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) data repository.

"I am very worried about the future of OBIS," admits Edward Vanden Berghe, the repository's executive director.

OBIS consists of a central secretariat and various regional 'nodes'. Some of the nodes could continue in the absence of a central secretariat. But much of the "value added" work performed specifically for the benefit of the marine community — such as combining biodiversity with physical oceanography data — would be jeopardized if the centralized project faltered, says Vanden Berghe.

At the moment, it is relying on contributions from member states to meet its $250,000-per-year running costs, but these will not see it all the way through to 2014, when Vanden Berghe hopes it will be fullyy funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The spirit of change

Kristen Yarincik, project manager at the census' international secretariat, says most of the census projects have secured ongoing funding and that the census secretariat is currently developing a programme "in the spirit of the census".

"The new programme is Life in a Changing Ocean, and we hope to formally launch it at the 2nd World Conference on Marine Biodiversity this September," says Yarincik. "Of course, funding must be secured for the administrative glue to hold the programme together."

Penman's points chime to some extent with other critiques of the census.

Rainer Froese, a marine biologist at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany, was a founding member of OBIS and participated in the early days of the census. He says that the project has been very successful and has had a positive impact on collaboration. However, he notes that it failed to provide a global census of current life, as although it notes which species live in the oceans, it doesn't detail where they live or their abundance.

Froese says that models for answering all three questions were available in existing scientific projects. "Adopting these models for the census would have required a degree of standardization and collaboration that the census leadership was not willing to enforce, and maybe the scientific community was not prepared to accept," he says. 

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