LARAMIE — An ad hoc group focused on dismantling the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute met for its second time Tuesday and is scheduled to provide recommendations to President Laurie Nichols by October concerning the center’s planned disintegration.
The Biodiversity Institute was founded in 2012 and was primarily funded with private donations from Robert and Carol Berry.
As the Berrys’ initial funding began to dry up, UW announced July 27 the Biodiversity Institute would be closed in December.
Ed Synakowski, UW vice president for research and economic development, told the Laramie Boomerang it’s “too early to tell” which programs currently run by the Biodiversity Institute will be continued.
Many programs housed in the Berry Center, like the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and the Stable Isotope Facility, are not expected to be affected by the reorganization.
In 2007, the Berrys donated $10 million to UW and prompted the construction of the 40,000-square-foot Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, which opened in 2011.
The Biodiversity Institute was born out a biodiversity-focused task force created by then-UW President Tom Buchanan.
In 2011, the task force recommended the Biodiversity Institute be established to consolidate the biodiversity-related research that had been scattered among different areas of the university.
Early on, the task force acknowledged that fundraising was being done “without any official or strategic organization or planning.”
“A more formal approach to fundraising needs to be put into place to enhance cooperation between the fledgling (Biodiversity Institute) and the Foundation,” the task force reported in 2011.
However, funding for the Biodiversity Institute continued to rely on the Berrys, whom Carlos Martinez del Rio called an “incredibly generous funder.”
Martinez del Rio served as the Biodiversity Institute’s director from 2012-2017, when he resigned after being struck by lightning.
Martinez del Rio said there was an initial expectation that private donations would be used as seed funding that “would lead to an eventual transition in many areas to funding from the university.”
“That happened only in the case of the faculty positions that were obtained by the BI as a provider of start-up funds and that were appointed jointly with other departments,” he said.
Private funds were used to maintain the Berry Center’s grounds, including its art installations, gardens and “all the electronics and gadgets,” Martinez del Rio said.
“The (Berry Center) is an iconic place for visitors to UW and there is no wide recognition that it was not only privately funded, but that for a long time, it was maintained with private funds.”
Martinez del Rio said the interim director, Gary Beauvais, has done a “commendable, fantastic job” but thinks the university should have hired a permanent director — one with stronger fundraising and administrative skills than Martinez del Rio had — immediately after his resignation.
Once the Diversity Institute closes, Beauvais is expected to move back to working full-time as director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.
Four other UW employees are primarily connected to the Biodiversity Institute. Synakowski said the transition group will try to find other work for those employees.
Given the impending lack of funding for Biodiversity Institute, Synakowski said it was necessary to announce the center’s closure as soon as possible.
“We don’t have a stable source of funding and people who work for BI need to know that,” he said.
He said the announcement was the product of eight months of discussion about the Institute’s uncertain future.
Because it was known the Biodiversity Institute’s funding was “vulnerable for quite some time,” Synakowski said the closure provides a fundraising lesson for UW: Programming that’s reliant on a single funding source, especially “soft money,” is in constant jeopardy.
Before being hired by UW a year ago, Synakowski had worked for the Department of Energy. Through working for the federal government, he said he learned that “even the most stable source of funding is never a sure thing.”
He said the university can bring stability to programs like the Biodiversity Institute by diversifying funding sources.
“That also generally means you’ve been successful at building a strong political base of support by finding people that are able to fight for it when times get tough,” he said.
The Biodiversity Institute occupies just six of the Berry Center’s 45 offices. While it’s not yet known what new occupants could fill that space, Synakowski said administrators feel a “responsibility that the building needs to be occupied by biodiversity-related activities.”
During its five years of existence, the center became known for its community outreach and “citizen science” work, like the bi-annual moose count and an amphibian monitoring project.
While acknowledging those citizen science programs have value, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said the university’s new biodiversity focus the “very meaningful research that informs policy decisions across the state.”
Synakowski said the transition group is working to ensure some of the Biodiversity Institute’s “fantastically successful” work — like the doctoral program in ecology — will find a new home on campus.
Martinez del Rio said there’s a “misunderstanding that community engagement was the primary function” of the Biodiversity Institute.
“It was certainly important and central, but not its only focus,” he said in an email.
Martinez del Rio credited the Biodiversity Institute with training graduate students throughout the university on “how to communicate science.”
“This is important, not only because scientists must be able to explain to the public what they do and why they do it, but as importantly, because students will become scientists that compete for funding and must be able to make a compelling case to federal and state agencies and to other scientists,” he said. “The staff of the BI is well-poised to train students because they have been responsible for writing, in collaboration with scientists throughout the university, what is called ‘broader impacts’ for grant proposals. This is an essential ingredient for many funding agencies including the National Science Foundation. The innovative sections written by BI staff made these proposals successful because they leveraged the talent and expertise of artists, humanists and science educators.”
Martinez del Rio said the citizen science that’s particularly at risk under the reorganization did more than make UW feel accessible.
“It is a way to increase our capacity to do science by collaborating with the public. The BI rapidly became a leader in citizen science, and its activities not only communicated science but generated knowledge,” Martinez del Rio said.
Synakowski said biodiversity remains an ideal field for community engagement because it “provides a great platform for the connection between people and their world.”
“There is promise that some of this work related to outreach and engagement can be captured under the Science Initiative program,” he said.
Jean Garrison, who’s been tapped to lead UW’s Office of Engagement and Outreach, said the Institute’s closure should not be construed as UW reneging on its commitment to community engagement.
Garrison said community engagement programs, like the ones the Biodiversity Institute runs, happen across all programs on campus and are “a fundamental requirement from a land-grant university.”
The Biodiversity Institute “is just a snapshot of what we do,” she said.
Garrison is part of the center’s transition group and said it’s “a little bit premature” to know what Biodiversity Institute outreach initiatives can be salvaged.