Changing the Way We Think About the Tropics
September 2006 Download the entire document with appendices with preliminary implementation
activities ( 310 kb )
The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) is a not for profit consortium of more than 60 universities, colleges, and research institutions from the United States, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia. Founded in 1963, OTS develops and carries out graduate and undergraduate programs in the tropics in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. It also operates three premiere research field stations in different ecological systems in Costa Rica where thousands of international researchers and students have conducted long-term research projects. In addition, OTS provides training for policymakers and natural resource managers in the U.S. and Latin America. OTS works closely with its host governments in promoting environmental education and biological conservation activities.
If there is one constant in the story of the tropics it is change. Our previous knowledge about stability in the tropics, the effect of climate change, and the functioning of tropical forests has undergone revision in revolutionary ways. New knowledge about the tropics has rapidly accelerated over the past three decades as teams of collaborators have been formed to tackle large, multidisciplinary questions using new technologies (such as DNA sequencing, remote sensing, and stable isotopes). Analyses of the effect of rising carbon dioxide on plant turnover in old-growth rainforests, migratory patterns of species, and the historic role of humans in the tropics – to name just a few examples – have all uncovered a more dynamic view of tropical ecosystems. Continuously collecting data over a long-term period has proven critical for our new understanding of the tropics as highly dynamic systems. Indeed, this knowledge has emerged largely from just a few sites in the tropics that have supported research and monitoring programs over multiple decades. As our understanding of the tropics has improved, it has also revealed that the baseline has shifted since the days of Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin. Human population has risen exponentially in the tropics, giving rise to megacities such as Mumbai, São Paolo, Manila, and Nairobi. This growth is straining the critical resources upon which biodiversity rests. Science tells us that the tropics face many threats in this new millennium due to human impact, ranging from the effects of global climate change to deforestation to species loss. To comprehend the challenges confronting tropical systems today we must employ the biological, physical, and social sciences to understand, for example, carbon and nutrient cycling, increased biomass production, soil erosion, declining water resources (including catchment’s management), introduction of exotic species, infectious disease spread, grazing and cropping strategies, chemicals in the ecosystem, severe weather impacts, forest degradation, species/system enrichment, and depletion, and development of conservation corridors. Much work still needs to be done to chart a sustainable future for this critical area.
For over 40 years, the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica has served as the ‘laboratory of the tropics’ to thousands of researchers and students from across the globe. Its three biological field stations with their state-of-the-art research facilities have made possible critical advances in the study of tropical systems. Meanwhile, as the ‘classroom of the tropics,’ OTS’ experiential education approach has equipped multiple generations of students with the tools to understand how natural and man-made processes have shaped the tropical world. These efforts, in turn, have helped inform policymakers and led to an international consensus that the tropics contain critical resources that require protection under local, national, and international laws.While OTS’ programs are acknowledged to be world-renowned models for tropical education and research, the organization is no longer the sole purveyor in these areas. OTS now finds itself in a highly competitive marketplace for its products. To remain a force for change in the tropics, OTS itself must adapt to a changing environment. Three fundamental tenets highlight the new strategic direction for OTS:
First, OTS will elevate its commitment to education by broadening and diversifying its offerings. Responding to the needs of an increasingly diverse and global audience, OTS will offer a broader array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional courses in the natural, physical, and social sciences.
Second, OTS will strengthen the field of tropical studies by developing institutional capacity throughout the tropics to teach the next generation of scientists, practitioners, and policymakers. OTS’ past educational expansion outside of Costa Rica has revealed an enormous and unmet demand for field-based educational programs. To sustainably meet this demand over the long term, capacity must be developed within home-country institutions. Under the new strategic vision, OTS will partner with institutions and help build these skills throughout the tropics.
Third, OTS will catalyze innovative research focused on emerging frontiers in tropical science. OTS research stations, especially La Selva, already serve as world-renowned centers of research excellence, and OTS will strive to maintain and enhance these facilities. Under the strategic vision, OTS will extend its historic role of facilitating research to that of a catalyst. By taking on the latter focus, OTS can harness its unparalleled network of global tropical researchers on the key future problems of tropical biology. Modern and forward looking facilities and infrastructure at OTS stations will be a critical ingredient to implementing this new strategic direction.
The Organization for Tropical Studies’ mission is to provide leadership in education, research, and the responsible use of natural resources in the tropics
As OTS grows in this new century, it must examine how its business is conducted. The new vision calls for greater and more stable revenue streams that are supported by a range of products that reflect the organization’s mission and its market opportunities. At the same time, OTS must alter its governing structure and internal management to become more agile in meeting its new, global strategic vision. A green ethic must underpin of our all activities and serve as the model for not-for-profit organizations.In taking on these new directions, OTS will show the same innovation and boldness that guided the founders of the consortium. To date, the Organization for Tropical Studies has been a central organizing force in producing seminal research in tropical studies, translating ecological research into application and policy, and training the next generation of tropical biologists. The new vision of OTS builds upon this outstanding track record of its researchers, students, and alumni, while positioning OTS to be a global force for change in the tropics in the future.
Goal 1: Expand the breadth and impact of OTS’ world-class, experiential learning program
OTS has created a highly successful approach for education and training in the tropics through its suite of high quality undergraduate and graduate courses. The ‘OTS approach’ fully immerses students in science at OTS field sites and other sites in the tropics. These field courses are inquiry-based in the sense that students are taught science by doing science. Unlike most field courses, OTS is unusual in the quantity and quality of resource faculty that participate from a few days to several weeks on OTS courses. OTS courses, thus, also provide unique opportunities for students to work one-on-one with leading scientists in the field. OTS courses are intellectually and – for many – physically challenging. And, as a consequence, students form long-lasting bonds with their peers and instructors. For most students, their OTS course is truly a life-changing experience. This approach has been successfully applied in multiple disciplines, languages, and countries.
OTS can increase the impact of its educational offerings by providing a broader and increasingly sophisticated range of educational products to wider and more diverse audiences within our key target constituencies – graduate students, undergraduates, and professionals. The programs will include many areas of tropical studies not previously addressed by OTS, especially interdisciplinary studies and physical and social sciences. At the same time, OTS will rigorously assess the program quality of existing as well as new offerings to ensure excellence.
Initiative 1: Maintain and diversify field-based courses and other educational initiatives to provide a wider range of learning opportunities for OTS students
- Assess consortium needs and market demand for educational programs across a range of disciplines and languages(G.1.1.1)
- Document the present ‘OTS approach’ and its relevance to different types of courses (G.1.1.2)
- Enhance existing educational programs (G.1.1.3)
- Develop within OTS a broad set of educational programs in tropical studies (G.1.1.4)
- Create an intellectual and organizational structure that can effectively and economically implement the new strategic directions (G.1.1.5)
Initiative 2: Assess and evaluate impact of all educational programs to ensure current relevance and highest programmatic quality for all participants
- Conduct and integrate results of external review of OTS education approach (G.1.2.1)
- Develop appropriate assessment and evaluation tools (G.1.2.2)
Goal 2: Build capacity globally in tropical studies
The next generation of leaders in tropical studies will require rigorous education and training no matter where they are located. To maintain its leadership position in tropical studies, OTS must take on a more pan-tropical vision, building partnerships with an increasing array of tropical institutions to jointly address this need. These new partnerships will focus on strengthening tropical institutions’ capacity to train their own students using the educational approach developed by OTS. This partnership approach allows OTS to increase its education and training impact over a wider geographic area while reducing the need for costly infrastructure. New partner institutions, through their engagement of OTS’ ‘second generation model,’ will themselves become active and valuable new members in all aspects of the OTS consortium and activities
Initiative 1: Develop educational capacity among institutions in tropical regions to offer OTS-style programming in tropical science and policy
- Refine and revise an export version of the OTS approach so that it can be transferred to a broader set of tropical countries and be economically viable (G.2.1.1)
- Implement programs in a wider geographic range by building institutional capacity in selected tropical countries (G.2.1.2)
Initiative 2: Develop new institutional partnerships to advance tropical studies globally
- Engage institutions from a wider geographic range – especially tropical countries – in the OTS consortium (G.2.2.1)
- Facilitate greater dialogue and partnership between outside institutions and the consortium (=S-S, E-W, N-S) (G.2.2.2)
Goal 3: Catalyze tropical research to identify and resolve the most challenging problems of the next decades
The complexity of modern day research in the tropics requires new and bold leadership of OTS as the world’s largest organization of tropical researchers. Maintaining and enhancing OTS’ first class research stations and logistics in Costa Rica is a critical need in understanding changing tropical ecosystems from the local to the global scale. OTS will use its facilities, the valuable datasets that they have generated, and the expertise housed within its consortium institutions to catalyze new and innovative tropical research. This can be done through the creation of new expert working groups, funding for imaginative ‘incubator’ ideas, and the strategic acquisition of new technologies. OTS will also encourage greater dialogue at its field stations between local, national, regional, and international knowledge builders (that is, researchers, educators, and policymakers and administrators). At the same time, OTS will take advantage of information technology to develop a virtual information network that brings together researchers and data in ways that will increase the efficient exchange of ideas and enhance research productivity. This new direction will also allow all workers in the tropics, no matter their geography, to feel part of the larger global network which OTS will actively engage.
Initiative 1: Catalyze research on critical issues of tropical science, education, and policy
- Develop in-house capability to coordinate and stimulate innovative, interdisciplinary, and globally relevant research directions (G.3.1.1)
- Convene expert working groups to develop ideas and proposals for innovative, interdisciplinary, and globally relevant research that include biological, physical, and social sciences, education, and public policy(G.3.1.2)
Initiative 2: Increase the synergy and effectiveness of the research and educational enterprises under the OTS umbrella
- Create organizational structures and incentives to coordinate OTS research and education activities (G.3.2.1)
- Translate OTS research into environmental education and outreach programs for local communities and general public (G.3.2.2)
Initiative 3: Develop OTS as a Tropical Knowledge Network that is relevant and accessible
- Develop and implement an information management plan for the organization and stations that reflects modern informatics thinking and will serve as a critical underpinning to the new OTS strategic vision (G.3.3.1).
- Develop standards for long-term data identification, capture, management, archiving, sharing, and open access (G.3.3.2)
- Improve dissemination of research findings from the stations to the regional, national and international research community, policymakers, educators and surrounding communities (G.3.3.3)
- Develop a mechanism whereby OTS data bases and individual scientists are better integrated into global knowledge systems (G.3.3.4)
Initiative 4: Leverage on-going research activities at OTS stations and in the surrounding landscape to promote a greater global understanding and improved stewardship of natural resources in the tropics
- Maintain and enhance existing services and infrastructure at stations to address needs of users (G.3.4.1)
- Encourage and facilitate research and researchers working in the broader human and physical landscapes outside of the stations (G.3.4.2)
- Catalyze research and interaction among regional, national, and international researchers at and around OTS field stations (G.3.4.3)
Organizacional structure, culture, and business
Goal 4: Adapt the culture, structure, and business of OTS to drive the new strategic vision and ensure its successful implementation
OTS of 2006 is much different than the organization founded in 1963 by a small band of university visionaries. The current OTS is moving to a more global and culturally diverse organization that must enhance both the scope and quality of its consortium model while providing a first-class field and laboratory experience for its constituents. The future of OTS will be more dynamic than its past. Geographically, programs will be more widespread, offerings will be more diverse, and emphases will be placed on both physical and cyber hubs of a strengthened knowledge network. OTS staff will be as diverse as the global community they will serve. In all its endeavors, OTS will follow a ‘green ethic,’ guiding its actions by the highest environmentally conscious standards. At the same time the organization must develop new income streams from diverse sources if its new vision is to succeed.
The culture and practices of OTS must change to adapt to its new global business model. All OTS products will be appropriately costed out to increase revenue to the organization and reduce subsidies. Both traditional and non-traditional products will be developed in response to market demand and new distribution models undertaken. A major endowment campaign will occur to provide further financial security for the organization. Increasing revenue `will also necessitate an aggressive communications and marketing strategy. Diversity will be a key tenet of the organization so that gender, ethnicity and cultural mores are reflective of the pan-tropical view of the organization. A ‘green ethic’ will pervade all business practices of OTS and be demonstrated particularly in the operations of the field stations. To succeed in its new vision, OTS will restructure its governance, increase membership in the consortium, and bring in new and diverse perspectives that will fuel new approaches and insights into the tropics.
Initiative 1: Ensure that OTS develops the necessary resources to implement its new strategic vision and the financial systems to manage expanded resources
- Develop a financial plan for the organization that prioritizes new strategic directions, employs diverse revenue sources, and balances revenue and expenses (G.4.1.1)
- Develop communications strategy for OTS to enhance greater awareness and marketing of the organization to strategic audiences(G.4.1.2)
- Coordinate and enhance fundraising for OTS programs and facilities (G.4.1.3)
- Launch Campaign for OTS, Phase II (G.4.1.4)
- Coordinate and enhance marketing of all OTS products and services (G.4.1.5)
Initiative 2: Ensure OTS programs and operations are sensitive to cost, market demand, supply, and quality standards while reflecting organizational mission
- Ensure analysis of financial costs and benefits is a key element in decision making (G.4.2.1)
- Set course and station fees to reflect actual costs, but seek to provide tuition scholarships and station fee aid to students and researchers, consistent with achieving the organization's mission (G.4.2.2)
- Ensure excellence of OTS products and services (G.4.2.3)
Initiative 3: Foster a culture that embraces diversity within the organization
- Continue OTS’ leadership in attracting students, faculty, researchers, board members, and committee members from traditionally underrepresented and underserved groups (G.4.3.1)
- Sustain high level of funding for diversity programming (G.4.3.2)
- Encourage diversity in OTS workforce (G.4.3.3)
Initiative 4: Better integrate and utilize consortium institutions in all aspects of OTS
- Expand breadth of involvement within consortium institutions (G.4.4.1)
- Expand the consortium through new membership categories and benefits (G.4.4.2)
Initiative 5: Assure good governance by greater inclusiveness and transparency in the decision making processes and modeling good practices
- Ensure OTS governance continues to be effective and meets legal requirements and ethical standards (G.4.5.1)
- Assemble effective boards and committees/teams to provide expert advice, oversight, and support in pursuit of the new strategic vision (G.4.5.2)
OTS Vision Statement
Over the next ten years, OTS will:
• train the next generation of tropical scientists via experiential, field-based learning,
• catalyze and facilitate critical and innovative research in the biological, physical, and social sciences that relate to the tropics,
• strengthen its existing field stations as critical centers for research, education, and wise stewardship of natural resources,
• create new models of global partnerships that enhance training and research throughout the tropics,
• share OTS expertise and tropical information broadly through an information network,
• instill in its alumni, independent of their eventual career path, a recognition of the importance of the tropics and the value of tropical research,
• make the consortium pan-tropical and increase geographic, disciplinary, gender, and ethnic diversity,
• create and set in place programs, facilities, and services that are seen as standards of excellence
• be an organization that maximizes its resources to meet its goals.
Initiative 6: Foster a cohesive organizational culture and management structure to pursue the new strategic vision
- Restructure organization to unify activities, increase efficiencies, clarify responsibilities, and pursue new strategic vision (G.4.6.1)
- Develop mechanisms to improve cohesiveness and productivity of staff (G.4.6.2)
Initiative 7: Create a ‘green ethic’ which will serve as a grounding principle for all the program activities of the organization
- Assess current state of green technology activities in OTS (G.4.7.1)
- Develop standards for ‘green’ technology to be utilized at OTS (G.4.7.2)
For decades, OTS has affected the individual lives of thousands of students, faculty, and policymakers who have participated in its courses. Many course alumni refer to their OTS experience as ‘life altering.’ In the first decade of this new millennium, we now realize more than ever how important the tropics are to the global community. While OTS has largely focused on students from North America and selectively in the rest of the Americas, the vision for the future is to bring the compelling ‘OTS experience’ to more students in the Americas as well as other parts of the tropics. OTS has enormous opportunity to extend its ‘laboratory and classroom of the tropics’ mission in ways that prepare the next generation of tropical studies leaders.
By partnering with existing leaders in host countries and, through its courses, preparing new leaders, OTS will build the world’s largest consortium of tropical knowledge builders who will provide both the insights and solutions to the most vexing problems of the tropics. The organization will go beyond merely offering courses and catalyzing research and conservation in the tropics. OTS will be recognized as the referente obligado, or the go to entity, for institutions across the broad range of geographies and organizational types who wish to develop the capacity in field-based education and research in and about the tropics. OTS will be a leader in providing 21st century N-S, E-W, S-S partnerships that are sensitive to local needs and unique cultural and environmental traditions.
Just as it achieved world leadership in tropical studies over the past four decades, OTS will now build on the rich consortium tradition to develop a model that will expand its leadership and influence on those studying the tropics on a pan-global basis over the next decade. Innovation, flexibility, greater diversity, and a commitment to excellence will underscore the new vision of OTS.
Acknowledgment: The strategic plan was developed with wide input from all stakeholders in the OTS community over the course of more than a year of deliberations. A planning retreat, a series of committees, and vigorous communications between interested parties, helped shape this document. A leadership group, comprised of Elizabeth Braker, Greg Gilbert, Bette Loiselle, Elizabeth Losos, Jonathan Powers, Ross Simons, Jay Taft, and Don Wilson, were pivotal in guiding the creation of this plan.