It is always hard to follow Ed Wilson on a podium, but a pleasure to feel the power of his creative mind and eloquent voice.

Ed has been the champion and spokesman for a big idea whose time has come.  Just over a year ago, he suggested to us an endeavor that could advance science and our understanding of the world around us: the Encyclopedia of Life, the concept he has just described. 

Today, I am proud to announce that the MacArthur Foundation is taking the lead in providing $20 million to create the Encyclopedia of Life (or EOL).  We are joined by the Sloan Foundation and six founding partners in giving total start-up of funds of $50 million. 

Five great institutions and a leading international science information consortium have come together in partnership to launch the EOL.  They are: the Smithsonian, Harvard, the Field Museum of Chicago, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library — a group of ten leading international museums that is digitizing the scientific literature held by the five institutions.  The EOL Partnership will soon be joined by other museums and scientific institutions from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

Before going further, I want to acknowledge Jesse Ausubel, of Rockefeller University and the Sloan Foundation, who has taken the lead in assembling the people and institutions that are turning the dream of an Encyclopedia of Life into reality.

The Encyclopedia of Life can raise our sights and expand our view of life on Earth.  Just as a microscope reveals and helps us better understand the small and particular, the EOL can serve as a macroscope allowing us to discern patterns previously unseen, illuminating relationships, identifying gaps in our knowledge, and suggesting opportunities for new avenues of inquiry.  It can help track biodiversity as climate change and human activity put species under pressure.  It can add great value to the work of the scientist, the student, the conservationist, the policy maker, and the passionate amateur. 

The idea of the Encyclopedia of Life has been advanced before, but now the time is right to make it a reality.  Recent advances in information technology and software applications have opened new possibilities; a useful, dynamic online guide to information about Earth’s approximately 1.8 million known species is now achievable within a relatively short time.  A number of important database projects – such as the International Plant Name Index, the Barcode of Life, and the Ocean Biogeographic Information System – have made significant advances and can be linked to the EOL. 

In addition to its inherent scientific value, the EOL has clear utility for conservation, interdisciplinary research, and information sharing—especially in developing nations where access to advanced science is limited.  These are areas in which MacArthur is already active and committed.

The EOL will be based on principles of accuracy, with quality control provided by a credible review process; of accessibility, with free access to the information it provides; and inclusion, with participation invited from scientific organizations and individuals worldwide.

For the EOL to reach its full dimensions, it must be a global endeavor, a resource of knowledge that is created by all, maintained by all, and with benefit to all.  In addition to the international Steering Committee of the EOL, an Institutional Council with broad global participation is being formed to advise on the operation of EOL, its scientific applications, quality control, and outreach.  A Distinguished Advisory Board will also be an important international resource.  And the content of the EOL will depend on contributions from thousands of institutions and individuals throughout the world.

We are pleased to have attracted a distinguished scientist to head the EOL as Executive Director of the Secretariat (to be based at the Smithsonian). 

Jim Edwards comes to us from heading the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.  This important project has given him a deep understanding of the challenges ahead, and of the people and institutions that need to be involved.  Jim previously held senior roles at the Directorate for Biological Sciences at the U.S. National Science Foundation.

We will now hear from Dr Edwards about how the Encyclopedia will take shape and the challenges and immense possibilities ahead.

Conservation & Sustainable Development, Conservation, Science