EU backs giant natural history network

March 18, 2004

Brussels, 17 Mar 2004

A consortium of Europe's leading natural history institutions has joined forces to form 'Synthesys' which, thanks to EU research funding under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), will be the largest network of its kind in the world.

Up to 20 institutions from all over Europe have signed up to create a unique research source incorporating data and specimens from a wide cross-section of the natural sciences, including zoology, botany, entomology, geology and palaeontology. The project, set in motion by the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), will combine museum collections, institutions and facilities with shared expertise on natural history from 11 countries.

Once assembled, the collections will total more than 337 million specimens. Partners in the Synthesys project will create appropriate technology and systems to store and care for the huge collections, making a careful analysis of the best practices for handling and sampling specimens. Another aim of this project, according to its coordinator, Graham Highly of the UK's Natural History Museum (NHM), is to improve training and knowledge exchange among natural scientists.

"Synthesys will ensure that our collections and knowledge are shared and used to the maximum benefit of all," says Highly. He is confident that the network will set the standard in collaborative research in this often complex field, through improved communication and sharing of both collections and expertise.

Complementary goals

The project was awarded €13 million from the Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, the EU's main source of research funding. The money will come from the Research Infrastructures budget, one of four actions designed to help structure and breath life into the broader idea of a European Research Area.

The project competed for funding against 58 consortia to be one of 14 successful bids, according to the NHM. A large portion of the funds – around €9.5 million – will go towards funding research exchanges and visits among the 20 participating institutions in the EU-15 and enlargement countries in the consortium.

The project seeks to increase the quality of its partners' collections, equipment and facilities, notes Marian Ramos of CETAF. "Both the scientific community and society at large will benefit greatly from these… collective efforts," she adds.

In fact, the NHM website is already a valuable source of information to scientists and students of the natural sciences. For example, the 'Research science' section of the site covers a wide cross-section of fields, including biomedical science, environmental quality, earth materials, and fauna and flora. This part of the website also features a handy data search facility, accessed through its 'Collection navigator' button, as well as several 'Services', including consulting, post-graduate study and a specimen identification service.

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