2019 RMBL Strategic Plan

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The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) will unleash the power of place to transform how we understand the world and provide the scientific knowledge needed to maintain the environmental processes that support food security, air and water quality, and human health.


RMBL is a high elevation station whose principal purpose is to provide quality research for biologists and biology students of all disciplines who can benefit professionally and intellectually from studying at this location. An important further purpose of RMBL is to promote the understanding and protection of the high-altitude ecosystems of Colorado and the watershed of the Gunnison River through the professional activity of its members.

A major criterion for attendance as a student or as an investigator is the promise of or the fulfillment of quality scientific achievement. A secondary consideration in the selection of a research investigator is whether his or her research can benefit by the research currently being conducted at the RMBL, or whether current RMBL research can he enhanced by the presence of the particular investigator.

Strategy and Tactics

We will transform field biology by being the first field station that explicitly adopts the strategy of using the ‘”model ecosystem” concept to drive discovery. Focused study of a handful of species has long been a productive research strategy. Research typically starts on a species because of ease of use. Research on some species grows rapidly as scientists develop common tool kits. The growing body of knowledge about that organism then fuels additional discovery. Because many biological processes, such as physiological and genetic processes, are similar across all organisms, findings from these species can be used as a model for other species, including humans.

We will extend this concept to the study of environmental processes, an approach we call the “model ecosystem approach.” RMBL is often the only place in the world where a sufficient foundation of knowledge exists to pursue understanding of complex environmental systems. In many instances, the insights gained at RMBL provide the strongest starting point for understanding ecosystems around the world, even ecosystems fundamentally different than those found in the Gunnison Basin.

For these reasons, we will use the Gunnison Basin as a platform for understanding global environmental processes. We will continue making field research more efficient through the development of a shared logistical platform for research. We will facilitate insights that only emerge from scientists working within the same ecosystems by attracting a large community of top biologists and encouraging collaboration and synthesis.

We will further expand our impact by articulating and demonstrating the value of the model ecosystem approach to support field biology so that its value will be recognized and explicitly implemented around the world, and to help policymakers take full advantage of the knowledge generated by field scientists.

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Increase the number of scientists, retain and recruit the leading environmental scientists, and foster decades-long research programs. If we are successful with the model ecosystem approach, we will see a virtuous cycle. More science increases our knowledge of the Gunnison Basin ecosystems. As the foundation of knowledge grows, we become more attractive to a scientist who wishes to use that knowledge. To truly realize the value of this virtuous cycle, RMBL must actively work to overcome unnecessary logistical constraints that pose barriers for scientists working at RMBL.

We have identified the following key elements to recruiting and retaining scientists:

Ensure access by a growing number of scientists to housing and laboratory space. We are out of laboratory and office space. We are at capacity in terms of the number of individuals we can house. At the same time, fewer scientists and staff can afford to live offsite because of growing costs.

  • Bring Gothic housing up to 180 housing spots
  • Add 16-21 housing spots in Mt. CB campus
  • Create laboratory space in Mt. CB campus
  • Build replacement reserves for buildings, research equipment, and critical operational equipment such as our wireless system

Design the Gothic campus to support collaboration, long-term research, and undergraduate training. RMBL has historically had a core number of scientists that have returned to Gothic for decades. This has been critical to our ability to accumulate the largest collection of long-term field studies. Furthermore, the campus environment supports collaboration and mentoring of students. We will strengthen our use of the Gothic campus to provide an enjoyable and community-based living experience for scientists and students wishing to contribute to, and take full advantage of, the RMBL culture and community.

  • Upgrade Gothic housing through renovations of cabins, new cabins, an upgraded water system to improve quality of services, and general improvements
  • Install a Visitor Center on the Mt. CB campus to reduce public pressure on Gothic
  • Use Mt. CB campus lo focus use of Gothic campus on building community

Ensure access by scientists to research sites. Increasing public use of and public pressure on federal lands is making access to research sites problematic. Growing development reduces access to private property. RMBL will use a combination of approaches, including land acquisition and cultivation of owners to ensure access to private lands, and maintenance of strong relationships with public land managers to ensure access.

  • Retain institutional knowledge of existing land use by maintaining continuity of staff
  • Add $500,000 to land acquisition fund in case we have an opportunity to purchase a low­elevation site

Fellowships. We will use fellowships to retain and recruit scientists.

Create a data-rich environment. Providing scientists access to a wealth of information about the environment, from natural history knowledge to datasets to publications, makes RMBL attractive to scientists. We will use these resources to attract scientists by helping them be more efficient and to help create scientific opportunities that might not otherwise be possible.

  • Archive valuable, historic data
  • Provide staff support for data services best provided by RMBL
  • Create a geospatial modeling platform
  • Maintain weather stations and support projects of value to the larger RMBL community

Recruit and retain staff capable of delivering high-quality services to scientists and students. Because of the complexity and uniqueness of RMBL operations, retention of quality staff is important to the level of service we can provide. The high cost of living, including housing and health care, poses a challenge.

  • Increase health care benePi/s
  • Increase salaries for key staff above cost of living
  • The Mt. CB campus will allow us to provide nice offices as well as allow us to bank land to provide housing for permanent staff, improving our ability to recruit and retain staff. Additionally, the seasonal housing will make it easier to recruit summer staff as summer housing costs escalate.

Create novel research opportunities by creating a data-rich and interactive environment that promotes synthesis and collaboration. A core concept of the model ecosystem approach is to use the accumulated knowledge about the Gunnison Basin ecosystems to create unique scientific opportunities.

Building upon the ecosystem model concept involves supporting collaboration and helping scientists take advantage of the accumulated knowledge about the Gunnison Basin. In science, the fundamental way of sharing information is through scientific publications. At RMBL, like many field stations, oral history, including science talks and informal conversations, has been an important source of information, particularly for natural history knowledge that is not always well captured in the scientific literature.

Over the years, RMBL has developed a process for managing research that facilitates the sharing of information. RMBL reviews research proposals, a process that includes active scientists, to assess fit to RMBL and identify what logistical hurdles we need to assist with. The process gives us an opportunity to provide scientists with background information on their study system and connect them to potential collaborators. A key part of this process has been our mapping system (Geographic Information Systems/Global Positioning Systems-GIS/GPS). This system is used to help scientists set up research sites, and is an invaluable tool allowing future scientists to connect past research to specific locations. As we build RMBL’s data resources we will continue the general strategy of providing services that scientists want and enhancing access to data and promoting collaboration as a byproduct of those services.

Through this strategic plan, we will build on these successes and further increase our capacity for getting scientists information that will benefit their research.

We will increase access to valuable datasets. Historically scientists have benefited greatly from the accumulated knowledge about the ecosystem but have had limited access to actual datasets. The federal government is requiring data sharing, as are many scientific journals, which has led to the development of national data repositories. We will take advantage of the national data infrastructure to provide data services for scientists. One core element of this strategy will be to build upon the extensive and increasingly unique geodatabase we have developed. A second core element will be to provide PhD-level support for scientists who can use assistance taking advantage of RMB L’s unique data resources when they cannot efficiently receive that support through their home institutions.

  • Archive valuable datasets
  • Provide staff support for access to data
  • Continue to improve natural history information. A valuable data resource that RMBL can provide, and that no one else will, is the continued development of our collections.

Support synthesis/ collaboration. While access to data is important, knowing what questions to ask, and knowing how to integrate different types of knowledge, is often the most critical element of taking advantage of RMBL’s foundation of knowledge.

  • Support conferences and other meetings to shore ideas, taking advantage of the Mt. CB campus and upgraded Gothic facilities
  • Having year-round office and laboratory space will make it easier to support scientific research and the associated collaboration throughout the year
  • Strengthen Gothic campus and focus use on students/scientists contributing to the scientific community
  • Support bridge positions, such as postdocs, that foster collaboration among research groups

Encourage projects that have broad value to multiple ·research groups and that provide unique insights into the Gunnison Basin. One of the distinguishing characteristics of working at RMBL is the wealth of unique, long-term research projects. These projects provide the basis for research questions that cannot be asked anywhere else. Additionally, at times there are short-term projects that are valuable to multiple research groups.

  • Increase fellowship support
  • Provide staff support
  • Create Mt. CB laboratory facilities and adopt Gothic laboratory facilities to keep up with changing research needs
  • Maintain COO position to ensure ED has a science background capable of positioning RMBL to attract desired research groups

RMBL will prioritize the translation of its science to public benefit. We are emphasizing translation for three main reasons. First, we believe there is an urgency to environmental issues that touch the lives of all humans and threaten the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems. Second, we recognize that, to a considerable extent, public support of science through both federal as well as private support depends upon science benefiting society. Third, we believe that the application of science can accelerate the process of fundamental discovery; juxtaposing research and application can advance science just as science advances application.

We think RMBL’s greatest leverage point is in helping decision makers, policymakers, and the public at large to understand how field research – done at one particular place and time -can provide general insight that informs management across a diversity of ecosystems and situations. Promulgating this perspective will not only increase the value of RMBL research but also more generally work to maximize the value of place-based research conducted by other institutions at sites around the world.

The full power of place-based research is often not realized because of misperceptions about how field studies provide general insights. Many biological processes, such as physiology and genetics, work in fundamentally similar ways across species. Additionally, there are general frameworks that explain and predict ecosystem processes and how individuals, populations, and species interact with the environment. These general frameworks, which are often developed using place­based case studies, can be powerful tools for making predictions and informing management across the world.

We will influence the national conversation concerning the use of place-based research in science and decision-making. Our opportunity to have the greatest impact does not involve specific policy decisions, but rather helps create a stronger framework for, and acceptance of, the use of place-based research for informing decision-making. Success with this will unleash not just the value of RMBL research, but the value of place-based research generated across the world.

  • Create public materials /e.g., popular books and articles! and pursue opportunities to push this message in public outlets
  • As part of implementing our communications plan, we will illustrate examples of how place-based research has informed management.
  • Make interpretative space a priority within the Mt. CB campus and use the development of interpretative materials as an opportunity to develop talking points that can be pushed out more broadly
  • Increase engagement by RMBL scientific leadership in national and international initiatives where this message will have an impact by amplifying the impact of RMBL scientists and dedicating time for RMBL’s ED to participate in related initiatives

We will institutionally support initiatives involving the use of RMBL research to inform policy and management. We will focus on opportunit_ies to demonstrate the value of place-based research to general decision-making and on unique opportunities to have a disproportionate impact on decision­making. This will help generate examples that can be used to influence the national conversation.

  • We will continue to support the weather station network (approximately$ 10k/year in the existing budget)
  • We will invest approximately $10,000/year, as part of the fellowship funding, to support long­term research projects for policy implications (e.g. bee monitoring)

We will support engagement by RMBL scientists in policy and management. Our focus will be on opportunities to bridge RMBL research with policy and management.

  • We will try different approaches such as having forums (e.g., fall conference or summer outreach) that bring together RMBL science and policymakers.
  • We will provide travel funds, out of our fellowship program, to scientists participating in activities that bring RMBL science to policymakers and managers.

We will develop a financial model that will support the growing value and importance of RMBL research. The value to society of research at RMBL will only grow as the foundation of knowledge grows. Our goal is to develop a financial strategy that will sustain RMBL over the long run. Within that goal, we will focus on maintaining the buildings, equipment, data management systems, and the staff needed to provide a high quality of service for scientists.

RMBL will emphasize risk management. To ensure that RMBL is able to support research over extended periods of time, we will emphasize risk management.

  • RMBL will continue to maintain strong financial controls.
    • We will continue to recruit board members with a strong financial background to assist with the finance committee.
    • RMBL will maintain a financial system capable of tracking cash on at least a weekly basis
  • We will upgrade the Gothic facilities. A large part of our liabilities is associated with our buildings and associated infrastructure. We will maintain a high level of staff expertise for managing that infrastructure, as well as explicitly managing the risk associated with that infrastructure. We will increase our total reserves.
    • We will add another $250,000 to create a reserve for unexpected contingencies. We are working to fund the $ 1 million in cash reserves from an easement on the Gothic Townsite.
    • We will establish reserve funds for buildings and research equipment, with a goal of making annual contributions of $100,000 and $50,000 respectively. Expenditures will then be used to replace or repair existing infrastructure.
  • We will carefully sequence increases in annual spending. We will maintain and track financial benchmarks as we increase staff and annual spending to manage the risks associated with increased spending.
  • We will increase the endowment to maintain the financial capacity to support core operations. This will help RMBL maintain key staff positions during downturns in philanthropy or operational income.
  • Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important as the world is more interconnected. We have already experienced a catastrophic loss of our website. Because both the GRC and bbcc are operated online, cybersecurity issues con even create problems for the use of our buildings.

We will expand philanthropy as a significant source of revenue. Given the increasing cost of operation and growing uncertainty in the federal science budgets, RMBL will aggressively work to grow its philanthropic effort. Unless the Board has explicitly identified an approach that staff should not pursue, the staff will aggressively pursue a wide range of options, including corporate and foundation support, and not place limits on funding retroactively.

  • We will increase staff capacity for fundraising /accomplished).
  • We will nationalize our fundraising, including developing messages that appeal to supporters beyond RMBL and Gunnison County.
  • We will expand our geographic areas of focus.
  • We will recruit at least two Board members who can help with fundraising, including nationalizing fundraising.
  • We will establish a branded giving level above $5,000.
  • We will optimize operational income to ensure private donations are highly leveraged and fill in funding gaps that cannot be filled in other ways.
  • We will create a year-round public presence through the Mt. CB campus.

RMBL will increase operational income. We will increase operational income while minimizing impacts on science.

  • We will generate income from the Mt. Crested Butte campus
    • Direct revenue. Our preliminary analysis is that the Mt. Crested Butte facilities will generate sufficient revenues /visitor center retail sales, coffee shop, rent from housing and labs, conferences, educational programs) to cover operating and replacement costs. We estimate that the incremental annual costs of the Mt. Crested Butte campus will be in the range of $350,000. This includes a net staff increase of $460,000, operating costs such as utilities and repairs/maintenance, and funding replacement costs. We estimate that revenue will be somewhere from $350,000 to $460,000. These are early estimates and the Pinal analysis will depend on many factors, including design specs and other assumptions. However, we think there are several pathways to generating sufficient revenue to cover costs, and potentially more costs.
    • Indirect revenue. The campus will increase utilization of the Gothic facilities in winier, providing an alternative location when avalanche hazards preclude access to Gothic. Income from station fee revenues will grow due to increased scientific activity.
  • We will increase income by offering additional services, including Financial, personnel, and laboratory space, to scientists. We will offer nexible Financial and personnel services that are difficult for universities or federal agencies to provide scientists, to help cover some of our fixed costs.
  • We will increase income from scientific and educational activities. We will spread the burden of our fixed costs on science by increasing the operational income we generate from scientific and educational activities throughout the year.
    • We will develop education programs outside of summer.
    • We will develop fall conferences/meetings.
    • We will attract more scientific use through improved facilities and creating a data-rich environment.
    • We will move to a two-tiered fee system. We will either arrange ways of capturing indirect income for federally supported science projects, or increase rates for federally funded scientists, while keeping RMBL affordable for scientists lacking federal support.

Endowment. We will build the endowment through planned giving as part of a capital campaign

  • Confirm existing pledges. We will approach individuals who have indicated they are making planned gifts and confirm whether they are willing to make public pledges as part of the campaign. We will use these pledges to encourage others to make similar pledges.
  • Publicize planned giving through the campaign. We will advertise the importance of endowment pledges throughout the campaign and present planned giving to potential donors as an important giving opportunity.

We will generate income from non-mission related activities when the impacts on our mission are minimal. We will pursue opportunities to generate income from RMBL facilities from non­mission activities when those activities have minimal impacts on science and education, and when the net revenue is sufficient to meaningfully reduce the financial burden on scientists, students, and philanthropists. We will work to eventually replace this use with mission-related programs

Major Investments. We have identified the critical investments that will have
the biggest impacts on allowing research to continue to grow, encouraging
collaboration/synthesis, promoting a broad understanding of the value of
place-based research, and ensuring RMBL is operated sustainably over
extended time frames.

Mt. Crested Butte campus. We propose raising $8 million (including the $500,000 already raised) to do site work, build up to 25 units, laboratory/ office space, and a Visitor Center, including a coffee shop. We need to build 17 housing units to complete the transaction. Adding more would allow us to meet housing requirements associated with the research and laboratory space, as well as give us housing that will have more Flexibility. Building the additional space will allow us to create a real campus and take advantage of the fixed costs associated with the site work.

We will move the operation of Gothic Visitor Center to Mt. Crested Butte and operate it year­round. We believe that annual costs of operation, including replacement costs, can be covered from income from the coffee shop, Visitor Center, and housing and laboratory rental.

Gothic Campus. We propose investing $3 million (including the approximately $500,000 already raised) in the Gothic campus to upgrade housing and address basic infrastructure needs, including our water system. We will pursue projects on a case-by-case basis, with the range in project costs roughly from $20,000 to $300,000.

Create staff for our information technology and data management systems. Supporting access to data resources will be a key part of supporting collaboration and synthesis. While we recognize that these are two different functions, we see this as a single initiative for several reasons. Because of scale issues and the desirability of shifting staff between functions across seasons, these areas will be integrated. Furthermore, because RMBL currently has only limited IT resources, we do not wish to make a significant investment in data management until we have stabilized our IT systems.

Our general approach will be to take advantage of existing data archives and complement, rather than replace, the support that scientists have through their research groups and home institutions. We see the approach as being similar to the investment we made in the Science Director position, which has brought efficiency and increased collaboration to the process of experimental design and implementation of projects. We will focus on supporting archiving, discovery, and analysis that serves the broader research community, with a focus on geospatial data and modeling.

As funding becomes available we would like to increase our investment in data management and IT by approximately $300,000/year. In addition to staffing this includes replacement costs of hardware and software.

Tracking success. To assess the success of our programs we will track: number of publications, quality of publications (as measured by journal and citation rates), number of research days, the value of media coverage, and anecdotal reports of how we have impacted the national dialogue around the value of place-based research and its role in informing policy and management.

Prioritization | Summary of Spending | Revenues

Annual Expenditures. The Mt. CB expenditures will only happen if the campus is built and will be regulated largely based upon the associated revenue streams. We will request Board approval for annual expenditures as part of the annual budgeting process. Because adding these expenditures involves a complex analysis (e.g., staff positions are hard to start/stop, we don’t know if health care costs will continue to accelerate), we will prioritize any increased expenditures at the time we develop the budget. Most of the increases in expenditures within a category will be phased in. For example, we might start by increasing our annual spending on fellowships by an amount smaller than $100,000 or increase spending on IT/data management by less than $300,000.

Capital Expenditures. For capital expenditures, we will prioritize the Mt. CB campus for private philanthropy. Our second priority for private philanthropy will be the Gothic facilities. Our goal is to use state tax credits from the conservation easement on Gothic to fund the reserves, and NSF funding for archiving of historical data. Staffing and campaign costs will be included as part of overall fundraising.