Becoming part of global, shoestring team requires researchers only to play fair, share

Nov 10, 2011
Members of Harpole's lab construct a fence around the test plot to keep animals from eating the plants. Credit: Harpole Lab

Asking a scientist to take part in research that has little budget, less infrastructure and almost no central bureaucracy would appear a lost cause.

However, one group that was founded in part by an Iowa State University researcher operates with almost no budget, and has grown to a substantial worldwide research force in just six years. And potential collaborators are still banging on the door to get in.

Already involving collaborators at more than 70 sites, on six continents, and having results published in several top professional journals, the Nutrient Network is taking a revolutionary, fresh, cooperative approach to . And it's getting results - and recognition with a recent edition of the journal Science highlighting its new style approach to research.

NutNet, as members call it, was born from an idea hatched during a coffee break at a professional conference in California in 2005 among several frustrated at their inability to globally compare ecosystems.

The group hoped to compare systems from different parts of the world by looking at results from previous studies from other research - a common method called meta-analysis.

When they looked at data, it was difficult to compare information from different studies because each used different methods and looked at different data.

So they thought they'd try to collect the data themselves.

"We had originally thought that we would do a study comparing different (ecological) systems on the west coast of North America," said Stanley Harpole, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology Evolution and Organismal Biology at Iowa State, and one of the group's founders.

The research was to be completed by scientists who volunteered their time, energy and expenses, and all would use the same methods and take the same measurements at each site.

"Here we were -- a bunch of young scientists, post-docs and grad students - people right out of school, and we weren't satisfied by the way things were going and so we said, 'What if we did this?'" he said.

Over time, word of mouth spread and volunteers came from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, China, England and other locales, and they still aren't done.

"People were calling us and saying, 'Can we be part of this? Can I get in on this?' It has been very exciting to the see the interest," said Harpole.

As with anything new, a plan was needed. As research started, the original group of six had to decide how to make this work.

"We had to decide how we can make the buy-in as cheap and easy as possible. We found a way to set up sites for as little as $200 each," said Harpole. "And it was important to keep costs down, especially in places where they don't have the resources to do research on a large scale."

The entire group includes more than 100 researchers spread around the globe, so many that Harpole hasn't even met them all, except through the Internet.

"We have just two ground rules, and they are really simple," said Harpole. "Basically they are kindergarten rules. 'Do you play well with others?' In other words, 'Are you a good colleague? And will you follow the protocol and share the data appropriately?'

"In return for that, they'll have the chance to be included as authors on these big-question papers, like the one we got in Science, and also on more specialized papers that we've gotten into other journals."

Harpole notes that the Internet is the reason this sort of research is now possible. With such easy access to colleagues, data and results, it is as easy to work with an ecologist in South America as it is in the next office.

The new research seems to have filled a niche.

Harpole thinks their method may not work for all research, but it may be a model for other disciplines.

"It may not be suited to every question," he said. "But it could be suited to aquatic systems - lakes, streams and coral reefs. Then maybe we could we have a network of networks to see how our planet works.

"We are hoping to inspire people."

Explore further: 'Subirdia' author urges appreciation of birds that co-exist where we work, live, play

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