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Transition Plan Lays Out UW Commitment to Biodiversity Science

October 31, 2018

The University of Wyoming would establish a new “center of excellence” in biodiversity science based at UW’s Bob and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, under a plan presented to the UW community today.

The plan also calls for enhanced coordination of UW’s education and outreach activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, with continuing support of the university’s Program in Ecology and UW Museum of Vertebrates.

The plan is intended to guide the transition of the highest-priority functions of UW’s Biodiversity Institute (BI), which is on track to be closed later this year. At the same time, the document outlines a long-term vision for the university to become a national and global leader in biodiversity science.

“The unique potential of biodiversity research in Wyoming recognizes the power and potential of Wyoming as a state where faculty, staff and citizens are embedded in the study of the complex interactions in nature that drive the evolution of flora and fauna,” says the document, created by UW’s Office of Research and Economic Development. “As this transition of the Biodiversity Institute is managed, UW is committing to a vision for advancing a biodiversity enterprise that meets the needs of its citizens through world-leading biodiversity systems research.”

The transition plan was presented at a town-hall meeting today in the Berry Center auditorium, to which all members of the university community were invited. Following input from that meeting, the administration expects to present a final plan to the UW Board of Trustees at its November meeting.

The BI was established in 2012 with generous funding from Robert and Carol Berry through the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation. Their earlier donations -- matched by the Wyoming Legislature -- made possible construction of the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center on the UW campus.

“The generosity of Bob and Carol Berry … has been singularly important in elevating the profile and impact of biodiversity research, education and outreach performed at UW,” the transition plan says. “They have strengthened the foundation of a bright future for biodiversity research, education and outreach, despite the present challenges with the BI. Their contributions that led to the creation of the Bob and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, an endowed chair in biodiversity science, and the operations of the BI are among the most generous in the history of UW.”

While the BI -- currently with a staff of five -- is approaching the end of its available private operational funding, the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center remains the home of robust biodiversity-related activities. Those include UW’s Stable Isotope Facility; administrative support and students participating in UW’s Program in Ecology, the most productive interdisciplinary graduate program as measured by the number of graduates receiving Ph.D.s; the UW Museum of Vertebrates, which hosts a biological record of vertebrates dating back more than a century; and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.

“While noting that the BI is a minority occupant of the Berry Center building, and the Berry Center’s activities are only a small component of the vast biodiversity research programs across campus, this building has been a prominent and effective public stage for biodiversity activities and education, and a compelling, attractive venue for convening educators and citizens,” the transition plan says. “The Berry Center will continue to house many of the BI’s present activities and will retain its purpose as a public focal point, and its role in both research and education will be strengthened through partnership with the Science Initiative.”

However, continued funding of BI salaries and operations from a single private donor is not possible, and diversification of funding sources is an essential part of the transition plan.

In fact, the proposed Berry Biodiversity Center of Excellence (BBCE) would greatly diversify its funding base, eventually deriving most of its resources from state and federal grants, private industry and private donor contributions, with some added institutional funding. It would draw upon the wide array of biodiversity research elements across multiple UW departments.

The plan describes the BBCE as “a research enterprise that will pursue grand challenges in biodiversity research and yield a first-of-a-kind, experimentally validated predictive capability for the evolution of ecological systems to serve conservation efforts by informing policy and practice relevant to flora and fauna.”

The center “will have the potential to inform conservation efforts in a tremendously wide range of matters, including and beyond species protection efforts, water systems management, ecosystem restoration and reclamation practices, invasive species management, forest fire control, climate impacts on water supply, wildlife migrations and animal disease management,” the plan says.

The BBCE’s plans and activities would be informed by an external advisory committee, and the center would be based at the Berry Center.

“A goal of BBCE will be to develop practices that enable rapid, coordinated responses to time-sensitive challenges in biodiversity science that have economic and societal impact,” the plan says. “As UW leads, a successful BBCE will act on the recognition of requiring successful partnerships with Wyoming’s community colleges, other universities and national labs.”

Additionally, BBCE research “will form the basis for a vigorous education and outreach enterprise in biodiversity science that serves the state’s citizens, drawing on the BI’s practices as well as the best from other existing and planned STEM education and outreach activities.”

To begin developing the BBCE, the plan calls for a UW research faculty member to spend 30 percent of his or her time to lead a planning process for the rest of the current fiscal year and into the next. Resources to support the new BBCE director position would come from indirect cost recovery revenue in the Office of Research and Economic Development. The leader will convene a task force to revisit a previous biodiversity plan and otherwise inform the plan’s development, including identifying the great scientific challenges for which Wyoming is ideally suited to assert national and global leadership.

“UW financial support for this planning activity will be treated as an investment, contingent on the promise of success in growing externally supported research and outreach activities -- and on validation through a campuswide strategic planning process that biodiversity research indeed rises to the level of being a grand challenge,” the document says.

The plan also lays out four priorities for maintaining the BI’s most successful activities:

Education and outreach -- Viewed as the biggest strength of the BI, education and outreach activities undertaken between 2012 and 2017 reached over 14,000 people -- including 17 citizen science projects engaging over 1,000 people in field data collection, and 88 educational events engaging over 5,000 K-12 students.

The plan calls for leveraging the BI’s education and outreach activities, including coupling BI practices with Science Initiative and other outreach efforts.

“This transition and coupling should be done in parallel with a vigorous effort, already begun and to be led by (the university’s new Office of Education and Outreach), to survey existing UW outreach and engagement efforts in STEM field,” the plan says. “The overarching goal should include creating a new vision for UW’s outreach efforts in STEM education, including reducing duplication as experienced on campus and by state stakeholders.”

The plan calls for creation of an education and outreach coordinator position. This person would be responsible for developing and managing education and outreach programs that provide biodiversity expertise and experiences to a broad range of audiences -- and coordinating other existing STEM outreach programs at the university, including those associated with the Science Initiative, the Tier-1 Engineering Initiative and the Trustees Education Initiative.

“Together, these activities and the BI outreach work can inform each other, and can serve as a reservoir of experience from which each can draw,” the document says.

Administrative support for the Program in Ecology -- This would continue with a full-time employee housed in the Office of Graduate Education. Started in 2005, the Program in Ecology now has 51 students, 52 alumni, 42 faculty and 15 affiliates.

Support of the Museum of Vertebrates and its curation -- The BI has provided operational funds for this museum, whose profile is rising nationally. This would continue at a level of $35,000-$40,000 annually, administered by the Department of Zoology and Physiology.

Finally, the plan calls for a part-time position to develop an approach to assisting faculty “in developing plans for research that has an impact that is broader than the primary research itself.” The plan identifies biodiversity science as a “grand challenge” the university should tackle, as “it is ideally suited for pursuit by UW, by virtue of the unique nature of Wyoming and its capacity to serve as a research laboratory.”

The two full-time positions (outreach and graduate coordinators), two part-time positions (BBCE faculty leader and broader impacts assistance), and operational support for the BBCE and Museum of Vertebrates would require reallocation of funding within the current university budget. However, the plan notes that the new vision for biodiversity research, education and outreach would achieve financial stability “through capture of a wide range of grant support from state and federal agencies, as well as donor contributions.”

To read the complete transition plan, go here. To view a recording of today’s town-hall meeting, go here.

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