LTER Network Plans For The Future

Network News Fall 2004, Vol. 17 No. 2
Top Stories

As human-induced environmental change continues, society is facing an increasing array of pressing environmental challenges. Answers to these complex challenges will come from many avenues, one of which must include coordinated, long-term, interdisciplinary research. Following a very successful two decades of science, training and outreach, the LTER Network is now poised to pursue a set of new initiatives in response to a number of important "Grand Challenge" research areas (see Fig. 1 on p. 2). It is this background that has set the stage for an intensive Network-wide planning effort to develop a new set of multisite activities that integrate research and education. This planning effort started at the LTER All Scientist Meeting in September 2003 and will continue intensively over the next 24 months funded by an NSF grant. Participants will include a number of non-LTER scientists many of whom represent other existing or developing networks, such as the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUASHI), Collaborative Large-Scale Engineering Analysis Network for Environmental Research (CLEANER), Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS), and NEON. Indeed, the LTER planning process will be coordinated with NEON, which is undergoing a parallel and intensive development process over the same time period.

Fig. 1: Grand Challenge Conceptual Domains

  • Alterations in biodiversity are one of today‚Äôs most important global environmental challenges, profoundly affecting ecosystem processes and the services they provide. Of particular human and economic impact are the introductions and spread of exotic species and infectious diseases.
  • Altered biogeochemical cycles at multiple spatial scales are caused directly or indirectly by human perturbations. We must learn how to minimize future degradation and restore altered element cycles and ecosystem functioning where possible.
  • Climate change and climatic variability of anthropogenic and natural origin are now well documented. The ecological responses to these changes on generational time scales are as yet poorly understood. Of particular interest are the effects of long-term climate fluctuations and trends, as well as the impacts of sudden climate change on ecosystem structure and function.
  • Coupled human-natural ecosystems include interactions between patterns and processes in biophysical systems and among social groups in human systems which give rise to emergent behaviors within each system. Fundamental questions in coupled human-natural systems thus have evolved far beyond one-dimensional attention to human activity, to considerations of feedbacks, of human design and engineering of ecosystems, of ecosystem goods and services, and of emergent behavior and stability properties of coupled human-biophysical systems.

For a more detailed set of questions and objectives see

The LTER planning effort has three major objectives:

  • To develop a plan for new LTER network-level science, technology, and training. This effort will include
    1. New initiatives in long-term thematic, regional, and network-scale science
    2. Increasing the technological capabilities of scientists and sites
    3. Fully integrating graduate and undergraduate education into Network-level science and synthesis
    4. Integrating LTER and non-LTER sites and networks into a comprehensive international network of networks for ecological research.
  • To explore alternative governance, planning and evaluation structures for managing LTER Network science. LTER governance has remained unchanged even though the Network has grown to 26 sites plus a Network Office. Any LTER governance structure should include
    1. A structure to serve and support a more highly coordinated scientific network
    2. A structure for network-wide science planning and evaluation
    3. A process for seamless integration of new sites and collaborative networks
    4. A plan to implement our new integrated research and education objectives
  • To envision and plan for K-12 education, undergraduate and graduate student training, public outreach, and knowledge exchange activities to link LTER science with application needs. This activity includes
    1. Establishing priority areas and key targets for education and training activities
    2. Exploring mechanisms to facilitate collaborative activities and research across sites
    3. Enhancing the participation of groups underrepresented in the discipline
    4. Developing skills and mechanisms for better exchange of knowledge among scientists, policymakers, and resource managers.

By meeting these three objectives, our planning activity can create a framework to increase the scale and scope of activity needed to address a number of ecological Grand Research Challenges, achieve a higher level of coordination and complementarity among the research sites, incorporate new, enabling technologies into LTER research, broadly train the next generation of ecologists, and improve and increase the exchange of knowledge between scientists, managers, and policy makers. In doing so, the LTER Network will actively pursue a new level of collaboration, synthesis, and integration to address challenging ecological questions now and in the future.

We must achieve these goals while preserving the fundamental strength of the current LTER Network: long-term, site-based, integrated ecological research. We have been given the opportunity to add a new level of collaborative, cross site and synthesis research to that base, one that fully integrates graduate and undergraduate education. This is a highly ambitious activity, but it is vital that we successfully accomplish our objectives. We can only do that with your help. Please, participate when asked, get involved and help define the next two decades of Long-Term Ecological Research.

Scott Collins SEV LTER and Co-PI, Planning Grant