New Survey Finds Need for More Businesslike Approach to EBM Tool Development and Funding

July 15, 2012

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

DURHAM, NC – Software programs that help resource managers analyze, summarize and visualize oceans of raw data and turn them into useful maps and models are vital tools for ecosystem-based management (EBM). But a new Duke University-led survey suggests that without changes in how most of the software is developed and funded, managers increasingly may find the tools at hand aren’t up to the job.

“There needs to be a fundamental shift in how we support and sustain EBM tool development,” says survey leader Corrie Curtice, a research analyst in the Marine Geospatial Ecology Laboratory (MGEL) at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Right now, she explains, most EBM tools are developed not by software professionals, but by graduate students and researchers who are funded to do other work and essentially donate their time to “skunkworks efforts” (i.e. one that is not directly funded) to write code and distribute it for free.  It’s an altruistic system, but not always a practical one.

“Tools are not meant to be static.  You can’t just develop them and that’s it. They need to be updated as operating systems change, and maintained to keep pace with changing needs and increased knowledge.  Developers and funders need to come together to work out a plan for longer-term funding, researching market needs, and administering and promoting products,” she says. “Both sides have to take more ownership of the complete product life-span.”

Yet when the Duke-led team recently surveyed 24 of the leading labs and companies that develop EBM tools, they found that many developers, especially nonprofit labs, lacked the organizational support and stable funding to maintain their technology, and the skills or inclination to market it.

“There was a marked difference in approaches,” Curtice says. “One of the chief characteristics of the most successful tool developers we interviewed was the leader’s ability to somehow maintain and support the product through lean times,” Curtice says.  “They typically had a champion who believed in the project, stayed with it, aggressively promoted it, and kept funding coming in."

Based on those results and on the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab’s own experience developing and promoting  the award winning Marine Geospatial Ecology Tools (MGET) ArcGIS extension, developed by co-author Jason Roberts, Curtice and her colleagues crafted recommendations for major changes in how funders and developers seek and grant financial support.  They published their recommendations ––in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience earlier this summer.

Key among the recommendations is that funders and developers need to be prepared to support (financially and technology-wise) the tool for the full product lifecycle, not just its initial development.

“All too often, foundations and government agencies like to fund shiny, brand new projects,” says Patrick Halpin, MGEL director and associate professor of marine geospatial ecology.  “They’d rather fund 10 projects for three years than support just one for 10 years, in part because they want to hedge their bets in case priorities change.”  As a result, many tool developers now find themselves caught in episodic grant cycles, where every two-and-a-half years they have to scramble for funds again.

To address these concerns, Halpin – who has worn the champion’s hat at MGEL since it was founded – says funding agreements could be restructured to provide longer-term support contingent on tool developers’ ability to demonstrate that their tools are meeting market needs. Developers would be required to devise business plans to promote their technology and submit to periodic performance reviews to evaluate its impacts and market share.

“If a tool wasn’t making the grade, funding for it would end,” Halpin explains.  “But if it was succeeding and proving useful in the market, then it would qualify for continued support."

Government agencies and private nonprofits could partner to support this longer-term funding based on shared priorities and needs, he says. It would be a win-win.  Developers would gain greater financial stability, and funders could avoid the huge waste of investment that occurs when a typical three-year grant ends and a project dies.

Another option worth exploring, Halpin suggests, would be for universities and other nonprofits to create endowments that provide short-term financing for tool developers whose grants have run out.  “If they stepped in and provided three to six months of bridge funding, it could give a project leader time to find a new source of funding without shelving his project or losing his staff,” he explains.

Developers might also consider stretching beyond traditional grant-only models and charging fees for their tools and services.

“Fee-for-license or –service have, traditionally, been a dirty word in nonprofit EBM tool development. Users expect tools developed by nonprofit labs to be free,” Curtice says, “and most developers say they’re motived not by profits but by the desire to do the most good by getting their products into as many people’s hands as possible including poorly funded projects in developing countries.” But even modest, need-based fees could provide perennially cash-strapped labs with vital revenue to maintain and improve their operations.  And at a time when more governments are starting to mandate long-term marine ecosystem planning, resource managers may be willing to pay a reasonable fee to use a well-maintained tool they can trust, rather than waste their time with a free tool that’s hard to use, buggy, unsupported or unreliable.

“Altruism is great, but we also need to plan for the future,” Curtice says.  “If we continue doing business as usual, tool development could lag further and further behind market needs and there’s a risk that ecosystem-based management may fail.  But if tool developers and funders can coordinate and adopt some essential changes, it’s likely we’ll be around to develop and support useful EBM tools and meet resource managers’ needs for years to come.”

Sarah Carr, coordinator of the Coastal-Marine Ecosystem-Based Management Tools Network, and MGEL research staff members Daniel Dunn and Jason Roberts co-authored the BioScience paper.