New strategic vision for field stations and marine labs

Field stations and marine labs take on the future of science

In this guest post, Ian Billick, PhD,  introduces the new strategic vision, released today, for the disparate network of field stations and marine labs. Recommendations include creating virtual access to historic data archives and streamlining physical access to field sites for extramural researchers. Billick  is Past President of the Organization of Biological Field Stations and current Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve. Credit, University of California Natural Reserve System

Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve. Credit, University of California Natural Reserve System.

AS a field station director, I’m often dealing with the present, negotiating access to research sites or managing construction projects. Recently I participated in a planning effort organized by field stations and marine labs (FSMLs) to figure out what field scientists will need in the future, and how FSMLs can help.

The Organization of Biological Field Stations and National Association of Marine Laboratories hosted a national workshop and conducted a survey of hundreds of place-based research sites. Perhaps the loudest call was for a stronger network among FSMLs. As research expands to more complex problems and greater spatial and temporal scales, integrating FSMLs into a coherent portfolio of national assets could help scientists take advantage of the available opportunities—from conducting research across multiple sites to integrating rich data streams.

FSMLs are a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure for field science. They serve as hosts for a number of large-scale initiatives, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network.

Furthermore, the FSML network, almost 90% of which is not involved in these national initiatives, represents a highly flexible, decentralized network that supports field research across a broad geographic scope. More than 400 FSMLs all across the country, with $1+ billion invested in them collectively, provide logistical support, access to field sites, critical contextual knowledge, and opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Not only did many of the ideas and technical expertise that support national initiatives largely emerge from individual FSMLs, but many of the insights generated by national initiatives will require complementary research at FSMLs outside the programs.

Each of these field stations and marine labs has historic data that is priceless. If we’re serious about understanding a changing world, we need to make these data accessible to scientists—not just the data that can be harmonized across large geographic areas, but also the idiosyncratic location-specific information that FSMLs tend to specialize in. It is precisely this incredible richness and diversity of knowledge about each site that offers the greatest potential for discovery.

One of the other issues that emerged was the increasing difficulty field scientists have in obtaining access to research sites and organisms. As permitting with federal agencies becomes more complex, from navigating NEPA to handling endangered species, FSMLs are stepping up to play an increasing role in ensuring that scientists have the access they need to conduct field research.

As environmental challenges become more pressing, from emerging diseases to invasive organisms, field stations and marine labs are on the frontlines of generating the knowledge society needs. You can find out more about the new strategic vision at