Apparently there was much talk at the closing NCEAS symposium about “NCEAS 2.0”–a successor institute and what it might look like. This is a really interesting conversation from which I’m far removed (I never had any involvement with NCEAS), so this post is basically me putting my hand up from the back row of the audience and asking questions of folks in a position to answer.
I find it interesting that no one at the NCEAS closing symposium seems to have suggested “there are already a bunch of NCEAS 2.0’s: NESCent, NIMBioS, CIEE, SESYNC…” I’m curious for folks who were there, or who know more about it than me, to chime in here. What’s the need for a successor to NCEAS that’s not being filled by all the various institutes (in ecology and related disciplines) inspired by NCEAS? In asking that question, I don’t mean to imply that I think the answer is “there is no need for NCEAS 2.0”; it’s a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.
I also find it interesting that visions for NCEAS 2.0 seem to vary rather widely, and that they often seem quite removed from NCEAS 1.0. For instance, Peter Kareiva apparently suggested some sort of institute that would reach out to big corporations and provide a neutral space in which corporations and ecologists could talk about pressing environmental issues (apologies if I’ve garbled what Peter said; I wasn’t there). Which sounds awfully far from NCEAS 1.0, which was basically “host a critical mass of postdocs and working groups doing whatever ‘synthetic’ ecology they propose to do” . Again, I have no answers here, just the question.
I’m also wondering if there was any discussion at the closing symposium of the extent to which NCEAS’s success was a product of good timing. Founding a center dedicated to synthesizing existing data and promoting collaborative work was a brilliant choice in the mid-1990s, when the internet and other computing advances had just gotten to the point of making data synthesis and collaborative work much easier. Had NCEAS been founded 10 years earlier, it would’ve been much less successful. So my question is, is the timing right for NCEAS 2.0? Are there any big new opportunities out there that, if we take advantage of them in the right way, will fundamentally change and improve how we do ecology? I don’t know that there are. The time is not always ripe for big advances or sea changes in how we do science. Perhaps sometimes the best we can do is just keep on keepin’ on with what we’ve been doing. But it’s a really hard question to answer, and honestly I have no idea what the answer is. I just think it’s a question we ought to ask. NCEAS’s success was partially due to being in the right place; everyone wants an excuse to go to somewhere with nice weather, beaches, and restaurants like Santa Barbera. I think we need to ask how much NCEAS’s success was also due to being in the right time. Maybe the only way to find out is to take the risk of founding a new center and see if it succeeds (which is kind of what NSF has already done by letting NCEAS wind down and founding SESYNC).