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Understanding Biodiversity Synthesis: Insights from my visit to the iDiv centre in Germany

What is “Biodiversity Synthesis”?

This question was pondered and debated in a summer school I recently attended, hosted by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). Located in Leipzig, Germany, iDiv encompasses a wide range of research topics, predominantly focusing on environmental change caused by loss of species and habitats, sustainable development and bio-resource management. However, iDiv adopts a multidisciplinary approach to addressing these issues, and includes researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including molecular biology, economics, social science, ecology, chemistry and geography, working together to tackle these problems.

During the summer school I had a taste of this multidisciplinary research style with diverse lectures on plant chemical defence mechanisms, population modelling, measuring biodiversity, plant colonisation, citizen science, how to conduct a meta-analysis, re-wilding, and the effectiveness of intergovernmental platforms in protecting biodiversity. However, a common theme throughout all these lectures was the combining of information, thoughts and ideas to form news ideas and theories. In other words, the synthesis of diverse information to answer questions, create new ideas and find new questions.

How is this type of thinking beneficial to biodiversity research?

During the iDiv summer school we discussed this approach to biodiversity research and concluded that biodiversity synthesis, and its benefits, can be divided into two categories: the synthesis of people and the synthesis of data.

Synthesis of people

Sometimes biodiversity research can be big, really big. For example, how do you find the time or money tomonitor bird movements across all of Australia, or analyses changes in a wildlife population over a 20 year period? The solution could be through citizen science. Citizen science is the collection and analysis of scientific data by people who are not practicing biologists. Often it involves people downloading their data, observations or analyses to websites which the scientists can then access. As Professor Aletta Bonn at iDiv explained, this form of data synthesis has gained significant ground in recent years, and holds a lot of potential for biodiversity research.

Synthesis of people can also include creating multidisciplinary research groups consisting of researchers from a range of fields, such as economics, mathematics, chemistry, ecology and geography, all working together on biodiversity related research. This type of team enables the combining of different types of thinking, experiences, ideas and often fresh outlooks on the problem that can lead to breakthroughs and the formation of novel approaches to tackle the problem.

Intergovernmental platforms can also help enhance biodiversity research by helping to bridge the gap between researchers, policy makers and stakeholders. These include the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). As explained by Professor Henrique Pereira, these platforms enable different groups to work together, share ideas and collaborate.

Synthesis of data

Bringing together data from a wide range of sources and locations can be an ideal way of noticing local, regional and global patterns and problems relating to biodiversity, or looking at the problem in a new light. As Professor Nico Eisenhauer and his graduate students explained to us, meta-analyses are an ideal way of processing large amounts of data efficiently. A meta-analysis involves collating and analysing data from a variety of research projects. These analyses often have a high impact, as they can unveil large scale global and historical patterns that a single study alone cannot.

Comparing multiple methods can also identify new questions and ideas. As Professor Jonathan Chase explained to us, recent studies criticising the effectiveness of species richness and diversity metrics as tools to measure biodiversity have sparked new debates and questions among researchers.There is also the possibility of combining fields of research to solve a problem. For example, we spent one enjoyable morning at iDiv with Dr. Matthias Schröter debating whether the ecosystem service approach can be used to protect biodiversity (should we protect areas for biodiversity, based on the benefits humans receive from protecting these areas?).

So what is biodiversity synthesis?

Simply put, it is the combining of thoughts, ideas, people and data from diverse areas to answer questions, create novel approaches and new questions associated with biodiversity. This style of research is not only occurring at iDiv, but at a wide range of research institutions, including our own University of Queensland, and this number is increasing as people realise the benefits of this more integrative style of research.

As I learnt at iDiv, using a synthesis approach to biodiversity research allows us to increase the magnitude of our research, enabling us to have a greater impact, and also allows for more involvement from policy-makers, researchers in other fields and citizens from across the world. This in turn leads to increased education and awareness into biodiversity and conservation biology.

Images courtesy of Mari Bieri

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