Business and social science back French biodiversity research

Businesses, the social sciences and governments in France are getting behind an ambitious research and synthesis project that in four years has seen funding support double.

The initiative, the Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB), is forging a unified voice for ecology in France. Dr Xavier le Roux, who is part of it, described aspects of the foundation’s work and the ecological landscape of France in a keynote address at the third Annual National Symposium. A plant ecologist, he has many strings to his bow: he has established the French Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity (CESAB), and he is a senior scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, the team leader at the Microbial Ecology Laboratory in Lyon, the coordinator of the European network BiodivERsA and the coordinator of the biodiversity observatories network, Ecoscope.

FRB began in 2008 to develop national programs for biodiversity research. It does this by bringing together scientists from the natural sciences and a number of other disciplines – chemistry, economics, ethnology, sociology and philosophy. This expresses a fundamental tenet of the foundation, that everyone in a community has the right to help shape the environment they live in and depend on.

‘In Australia, you have such a huge amount of space, that you can see biodiversity in protected areas quite apart from other areas managed by humans. It is not the case in France and more generally in Europe. We have a mosaic of areas, of very small areas for you, and biodiversity is really very close to humans, and very often we have to cope with biodiversity within agricultural and forestry landscapes,’ Xavier said.

‘If you want to protect biodiversity on farms, for instance, you have to include the farmers. And also the people in nearby towns and cities. And, of course, there are roads through there [the rural landscapes], and people who use the roads; and so on. We have to involve them.’

‘Initially our main biodiversity issues in France were about conservation. At the end, everyone realised that trying to cope with biodiversity in protected areas doesn’t work. In parallel you have the concept of ecosystem services… People began to work a lot on these issues, NGOs I suspect because they saw it as a better way of doing things, of getting protections, other guys because they saw how it could work in an economic framework. Today, you have many actors playing in biodiversity, and some of them, for instance economists, are quite powerful. When you ask, “What is the value you are prepared to pay for these services?” I don’t think this is science any more.’

‘You know it’s a very fragmented domain in France. You have many, many actors having their own view on biodiversity working on the different objects of governments and in different disciplines, and there was a need for us to promote meetings between those actors. Attracting the social sciences is difficult, but really needed to cope with issues like biodiversity. Law and policy are also very important.’

One way of attracting involvement is through the stakeholder advisory council that guides the FRB and is its interface between science and broader society. The council involves more than 100 public, community and private organisations, including businesses such as Veolia and Total, in supporting biodiversity and research.

Xavier said FRB invest a lot of effort in getting stakeholders involved and keeping them active. It was paying off: in four years, FRB had not only doubled the amount of funding it received, it had also diversified the sources of its income, in particular funding from businesses.

‘FRB has to be seen as a body that promotes dialogue, co-construction and collective action between actors, and we are able to develop programs like BiodivERsA. It has only a small amount of money, but through it we are able to launch calls to support research projects for 10 million Euros a year. This allows us to amplify and support national programs,’ Xavier said.

He used three FRB initiatives to illustrate three of the four main problems that FRB is tackling. Ecoscope, which resembles TERN, is a response to the need for coordinated, long-term observation. CESAB, which is similar to the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and includes some similar functions as Eco-informatics, has been set up to solve the problem of the re-use, synthesis and analysis of the massive data resource that already exists. And the FRB flagship program Biodiversity Modelling and Scenarios, which has similarities with TERN’s e-MAST, will develop the capacity to project the fate of biodiversity, much needed by policy makers. (The fourth problem is biodiversity science’s lack of influence on policy, which the strategic use of knowledge brokers may turn around.) 


Ecoscope, a federation of networks, was drawn together in 2011 to develop and promote coherence among the main observatories in France. It will develop metadata for infrastructure and datasets that will be accessed from a national portal, and will pursue long-term funding of observatories.

‘There are so many observations that, for policy makers, it is just a mess. And there is little coordination,’ Xavier said. ‘Access to the huge volumes of stored data can be very difficult. Some of the observations are inadequate. The networks of observatories are a mess, and so is the scale. The observations from one study will say one thing about climate change, and the observations from a second something else. There is no common voice from our community. This is needed from a practical point of view and also from a strategic one.’

Like the facilities that make up the Multi-scale Plot Network, Ecoscope initiatives cover observations at different scales of time and space. One is Citoscope, an exciting citizen science program in which ordinary people from all over the country work with scientists using professional protocols to determine the status of biodiversity in France every year. In another, in five sites around France, a common approach is used to measure ecosystem services in agriculture, for example predation of aphids, predation of butterfly and moth eggs, the abundance of birds and insects, and pollination.

Ecoscope is also forging international relationships. It has been endorsed by Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network, GEO BON, and has links with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

‘International links allow us to capitalise on the experience of others, and to avoid being too French,’ Xavier said. 


The Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity is run by FRB to promote the synthesis of new ideas from ‘the massive data resource’ that already exists, something that was poorly done at the moment, Xavier said. Each year, CESAB funds four groups of 10–14 experts. Each group, which is awarded up to 200,000 euros for a three-year project, meets at CESAB twice a year. One of the ways in which it differs from ACEAS is that the funding includes the employment of a post-doc student to provide secretariat support for each project.

Describing the CESAB facilities, Xavier said: ‘Flexibility is very important for such a centre. We have a range of rooms. Also we have areas to meet around coffee, because the scientists work very well in the rooms but they work very well around the coffee where concepts can be exchanged.’ 

Biodiversity Modelling and Scenarios

Biodiversity Modelling and Scenarios was launched late in 2009 to give scientists a space to explore the interactions between human societies and ecological systems and ‘how they mutually determine each other’s trajectories’. The facility is particularly interested in climate change, land-use changes, social and economic development, and population growth because they have a major impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Modelling is expected to help identify tipping points for the fate of biodiversity, which Xavier sees as a crucial challenge for human societies.

 ‘We need a strong foundation for dialogue between the main actors — science, society, policy — because scenarios are a narrative way to explain things,’ Xavier said.

Again he highlighted the importance of seeking support from outside biodiversity.

‘Firms don’t influence at all the definition of the projects, or the selection of projects. At the end of our selection process we say, “Hey guys don’t you want to support some of these projects that we have selected?” And they do. 30% of the money comes from business. They like scenarios! You have to build stakeholders. In my experience this is very expensive, but we need the diversity of skills and you have to do it over a long term.’

You can watch a video recording of Xavier’s address, ‘National infrastructure and programs for biodiversity data collection, synthesis and analysis in France’.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter May 2012

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