Thursday, January 23, 2014

Future Earth is a singles bar

It began at a restaurant. Six of us were halfway through dinner and were discussing climate change and biodiversity. I was trying to argue that one of the key things we need to know about organisms in a changing world is their movement ability. This realization starts from the fact that changing environments are expected to render organisms poorly suited for their current locations, which could cause population declines, extirpation, and extinction. It continues with the recognition that a potential solution to this problem is for organisms to simply move from their current “bad” location to a new “good” location. Indeed, past climate change is known to have caused massive changes in the geographical distributions of species. In the context of current climate change, then, we really need to know the ability of organisms to move to new places (including through seed dispersal). Of course, not all organisms will be able to move at the same rate and so we will end up with new mixed-up communities that vary from place to place, with some species in some places encountering species with which they have no previous experience – generating what are sometimes called “non-analog communities.” Immediately prior to this discussion about organisms moving with climate change, we had been talking about how “species” are rather porous entities – for instance, I argued (without any quantitative data) that most species hybridize successfully in nature with at least one other species. Then, nimbly linking these two ideas (non-analog communities and promiscuous species), Alan Mix observed: “So what you are saying is that climate change is a singles bar.”

Indeed. Climate change is a singles bar! What a cool phrase – I will have to use that in a blog post, I thought. The trouble was that I had just done a post about climate change and I didn’t want to be too obviously repetitive. Fortunately, I soon realized that the climate change as a singles bar metaphor extended to the entire endeavor in which we were engaged.

We were all in Washington, DC, at the first-ever meeting of all the core projects that are joining the new uber-NGO Future Earth. In the past, these core projects were divided amongst a number of independent environmental and sustainability NGOs, such as DIVERSITAS, IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme), IHDP (International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change), WCRP (World Climate Research Programme), and ESSP (Earth System Science Partnership). Governments and their national funding agencies, such as NSF and NERC, had been supporting these programs separately and had decided this was inefficient and that these “global change” NGOs should unite into one uber-NGO (Future Earth), which they would then fund. This meant that all of the 20+ individual core projects of the original NGOs would need to transition to Future Earth while their original parent organizations went extinct. For DIVERSITAS, the NGO with which I am associated, this included projects such as bioGENESIS, bioDISCOVERY, ecoSERVICES, ecoHealth, freshwaterBIODIVERSITY, and the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment.

Me spotting the world's largest Darwin's finch - on the wall at the Keck Centre, where the meeting was held. Photo by Dan Faith.
Quite understandably, each of the core projects from each of the NGOs was quite concerned about what would happen to them and their initiatives under the new governance and funding structure of Future Earth. The Washington meeting was intended to get all of these projects together for the first time (definitely a non-analog NGO community!) to interact with each other and with Future Earth. Two important themes were emphasized regarding how we should proceed in the future. First, different core projects were expected to work jointly toward shared goals and, second, projects within Future Earth should be “co-designed” with stakeholders, such as industry, governments, and other NGOs.

To facilitate this melting pot, the moderator immediately had us rotating among tables so as to meet as many people from as many projects as possible – partly to consider who might be profitable partners for endeavors with Future Earth. It was singles bar for core projects – and it could come with a payoff! In particular, Future Earth had recently secured a million dollars to fund approximately 10 Fast Track Initiatives that would bring the core projects together to develop initiatives that embraced the above ideals. 

After our initial singles bar experience, we were encouraged to quickly propose projects to the entire group and then break out onto different tables where interested individuals/projects could discuss the development of joint proposals. But not too long for any one table/proposal – we soon had to rotate to a new table and project. So the singles bar had morphed into a speed-dating game – but we didn’t have to pick only one core project to date. We were encouraged to be promiscuous!

It ended at a bar – a real one this time. On the last night, a group of us were talking about how several social scientists had (during the speed dating round) been listening to discussions about a particular proposal by natural scientists: a global georeferenced database of organismal traits. The social scientists were struck by how we seemed to have designed a proposal that allowed no room for social scientists. So they – partly in fun – went to another table and came up with a social science project that seemed to have no room for natural scientists. And yet here we now were on the last night together at the same table in the same bar: some natural scientists who had (obliviously) spurned social scientists who had then (intentionally) spurned them back. But it all had a happy ending – we spent the next hour figuring out how the spatial trait database could be integrated with a spatial human behavior database to simultaneously better predict both human endeavors and biodiversity. Singles bar becomes speed-dating game becomes swinger’s club.

It was a very interesting experience. I was introduced to several nice single core projects, became convinced during the speed dating round to set up future dates with several of them, and happily helped to form a swinger’s club. To increase the fun at our next meeting, let’s bring even more of our friends, and a bunch of stakeholders too. I can already think of a great analogy.

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