2024 RMBL Strategic Plan

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Vision

The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) will unleash the power of place to transform field science and discover new knowledge critical to maintaining biodiversity and human prosperity. Partnering with a diverse and inclusive community of stakeholders, RMBL will combine a deep understanding of regional ecosystems with novel technologies to accelerate scientific research, disseminate knowledge and train the next generation of diverse leaders.

Mission

RMBL’s core mission, as described in our by-laws, is to provide world-class research and learning opportunities for scientists and students of all disciplines that can benefit from working in the high-altitude ecosystems of the upper Colorado watershed. We promote synergistic scholarship that both draws from, and contributes to, the accumulated knowledge of past studies and the community of active scientists.

Motivation

Who we are: Founded in 1928, RMBL is an independent non-profit, world-leading research station embedded within the high elevation ecosystems of Gunnison County, Colorado. Our greatest strengths arise from commitment, community and longevity: the ecosystems surrounding RMBL are among the best studied and understood globally due to long-term, multi-decadal research programs and a broad community of scientists, staff and alumni devoted to the institution and this physical place.

The challenge: The world sits at a nexus. Global climate change is fundamentally disrupting ecosystems. Altered climates, novel species and species extinctions, phenological shifts, range shifts, and other disturbances are rewiring nature in unpredictable ways with consequences that are poorly understood. These changes jeopardize biodiversity that is the basis of key services ecosystems provided to humanity, including clean air and water and food security. They also erode the capacity for nature-based solutions to mitigate fire, flood and other disturbances. At the same time efforts to meet this challenge are uncoordinated and not adequately resourced. This has resulted in an ecological observation gap that hinders our ability to detect, understand and predict changes in ecosystems.

The solution: Rapid technological innovations are providing new opportunities to reveal the fundamental rules of life, including advancements in genomics, artificial intelligence, and sensing. These technological innovations have the potential to reveal the mechanistic basis of the ecosystem services upon which humanity depends, thus informing the strategies required to mitigate the impacts of global change. Maximally leveraging these technological innovations requires coupling them to the deep understanding of natural systems that comes from long-term, detailed study in the same place.

Why RMBL: We are uniquely positioned to merge the knowledge achieved through a century of place-based study with emerging technological innovation. The long-term commitments of RMBL scientists have made the Gunnison Basin one of the best understood ecosystems in the world. As an independent field station, RMBL has tremendous latitude to innovate, adapt, and set strategic direction, and our reputation as a world-leading field station provides a platform to disseminate scientific knowledge and best practices for field science.

Why now: While this strategy is motivated by a powerful scientific opportunity whose time has come, it also provides a bridge to the future of the institution. It ushers in the next century of operations and addresses a variety of needs to sustain RMBL. It creates new opportunities to fully realize the power of diversity and transition to a new era of RMBL leadership and year-round operations. It is also committed to extending our reach to influence the future of field science and help advance the grand challenges facing humankind, including climate change, biodiversity loss, food production, disease, and ecosystem services.

Adhering to Core Values

RMBL’s unique opportunity has arisen because of a set of core values that must be preserved and leveraged going forward.

Serve scientists to serve society: RMBL’s mission is to discover and disseminate fundamental knowledge of the environmental processes that support biodiversity and human prosperity, and to develop and disseminate best practices in pursuit of this aim. RMBL does this by serving scientists, the people at the core of RMBL’s mission. RMBL’s ability to achieve this mission depends on its ability to attract, meet the needs of, and earn the trust of qualified scientists. As such, RMBL relentlessly focuses on understanding and meeting scientists’ needs.

Preserve independence, foster interconnectedness, and inclusivity: As an independent field station, RMBL is uniquely able and committed to make decisions that best align with its mission, unhindered by competing demands. At the same time, decision making depends critically upon a culture of inclusive, non-hierarchical self-governance that promotes a sense of ownership among a diverse community of internal stakeholders. RMBL also seeks and benefits from interconnectedness with external stakeholders, including the local community, grant-giving agencies, and others who share and help RMBL fulfill its mission.

Commitment to place: RMBL’s history, culture, science, and success are intimately tied to its specific location, including the Gothic townsite and the regional ecosystems that are studied from this base of operations. Our commitment to this one place provides a deep understanding of the environmental processes that are fundamental to all places. RMBL would not, and could not be the same institution in any other location.

Guiding Principles: We will evaluate tactical investments through the lens of four principles that arise from the unique character of RMBL as an independent, nimble institution. First, we will focus on what RMBL is uniquely positioned to do best. Second, we will be opportunistic, leveraging our ability to take advantage of unique and potentially unexpected circumstances. Third, we will recognize the inter-relatedness among strategies and prioritize synergistic tactics that serve multiple aims. And fourth, we will develop and leverage relational (not transactional) alliances with outside stakeholders.

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Strategies

STRATEGY 1: Drive scientific discovery by combining the power of place-based research with new technologies.

Support for scientists is at the core of RMBL’s mission and reflects the institution’s commitment to close partnership with our community of scientists. The legacy of this commitment are decades-long research programs that make RMBL unique and have made the Gunnison Basin one of the best understood ecosystems in the world. RMBL’s deep foundation of knowledge of the Gunnison Basin in turn provides unique opportunities to understand the implications of accelerating global change for the biodiversity that underlies key ecosystem services for humanity. Moving forward, RMBL will create opportunities for its scientific community to leverage new technology with long-term research to create novel opportunities for synergistic collaboration and synthesis. The success of this research platform will depend critically on close collaboration with the scientific community to build the new tools of greatest value and utility. Success will also depend on expanding our housing capacity so as to maintain our commitment to the existing scientific community while also recruiting new investigators that increase diversity and bring new research perspectives. In doing so, RMBL will develop, demonstrate and globally disseminate a new set of best practices for field science.

Support scientists and long-term research programs: Many biological processes operate on timescales that can only be understood through long-term, often multi-decadal research programs. Our scientific community is at the core of these programs, and we will actively work to overcome the logistical constraints that pose barriers for them working at RMBL. This includes prioritizing existing research programs, maintaining an equitable fee structure and other forms of targeted financial support, improving the quality of our facilities, ensuring access to research sites, and creating streamlined and integrated administrative systems.

Create a data-rich environment: Historically, field science has been based on independent field studies that advance understanding of an ecosystem’s component parts without synthesizing this knowledge into a broader understanding of the larger encompassing systems. Recent technological advances including satellite and drone imagery, sensors, big data, computing power and artificial intelligence create powerful new opportunities for synthesis across disparate data streams. Harnessing these technological advances in concert with a century of long-term research will produce an unprecedented understanding of ecosystem function and change. We will archive and make accessible data from past and ongoing studies and natural history collections. The value of these data will in turn be amplified through the continued development of a Spatial Data Platform, where drone imagery, field sensor networks and geographic information systems provide spatially and temporally explicit scaffolding to stitch historically disparate studies together. This Platform will in turn yield data products to drive novel lines of inquiry, including ecological modeling and forecasting. By tracking the interactions among thousands of organisms and their environment across space and time, RMBL scientists will cut through ecological complexity to generate new insights into ecosystem structure, function, and adaptation to a changing environment.

Increase science capacity 365: We will work to expand our housing capacity outside of Gothic so as to maintain our commitment to the existing scientific community while recruiting new investigators that increase diversity and bring new research perspectives. Although field science has traditionally focused on the snow-free season, there is a growing recognition for the importance of winter processes in ecosystem function. While RMBL has already made critical contributions in this regard, most of our research infrastructure is unused for most of the year. By promoting year-round science we will accelerate scientific discovery while maximally leveraging our infrastructure investments. Potential investments include lowering logistical barriers to accessing Gothic in winter as well as the development of accessible year-round work space.

Promote synthesis and collaboration: Many fundamental scientific advances arise from collaborations among research programs that bring complementary, synergistic approaches to the same topics. We will provide physical and virtual spaces, logistical support and social infrastructure for intellectual exchange including conferences and workshops. From the Spatial Data Platform, we will develop new tools to synergistically merge disparate data streams. We will promote bridge positions to foster collaboration within and among research groups, including targeted funding for new investigators and efforts to increase and retain diversity within our community.

Bring people to science and science to the world: RMBL’s impact on the world depends not only on creating new knowledge, but also on active engagement with environmental managers, policymakers, and the public. We will continue to share scientific discovery through publications, conference presentations, and strategic media opportunities. Beyond this, we will leverage RMBL’s reputation as a leading scientific institution to promulgate best practices for field science. We will achieve this through our continued investments in our undergraduate education programs and the expansion and development of other K-12 and adult programs, including year-round programs. We will support conferences, workshops and outreach activities that bring RMBL science to new audiences.

Develop strategic partnerships: Strategic partnerships provide access to new skills, expertise, tools, and technologies, and allow RMBL to focus on and amplify the impacts of our core strengths. We will develop strong relational alliances with key partners supporting data management and synthesis, access to field sites, year-round programing, fundraising and facilities improvements, and educational programing. We will also seek relational partnerships to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in our scientist and student communities to drive innovation and impact.

STRATEGY 2: Build institutional resilience and stability to prepare RMBL for success in its next one hundred years.

RMBL faces unique challenges as a mid-sized independent non-profit operating in a remote setting with seasonal accessibility to core facilities and high living costs in the surrounding region. RMBL maintains a complex set of facilities in Gothic that are central to all activities and must be maintained and, in many cases, improved to serve growth and our evolving research and educational programs. The seasonality of access to Gothic is a major limitation as winter conditions create unique challenges for facilities maintenance while limiting their use and associated revenue generation to a small fraction of the year. A lack of permanent, year-round staff offices and rapidly increasing housing costs undermines staff productivity, morale, recruitment and retention. While RMBL has thrived for nearly a century in the face of these challenges, our future success will require navigating a changing operational landscape, including anticipated transitions to new leadership and the continued increases in the cost of housing and health care.

Retain and recruit staff to maintain key expertise and institutional knowledge: RMBL at its core is a collection of talented and passionate people who believe in the mission and the importance of what we do. Staff play a critical role in RMBL’s success by fostering community, providing leadership, and ensuring smooth and efficient operations. Retaining and recruiting top talent will require a constructive and collaborative work environment with year-round office space, providing competitive wages and benefits, and access to reliable housing.

Develop a sustainable financial model: We will maintain strong financial controls through careful sequencing of annual spending and managing risks related to infrastructure, cybersecurity, and other liabilities that are paramount to organizational stability. In parallel, RMBL will aggressively grow its philanthropic effort to offset increasing operational costs, mitigate growing uncertainty in the federal science budgets and fund strategic objectives. This effort will require additional development capacity and capability to stabilize and grow the annual fund, advance capital fundraising, and pursue programmatic funding opportunities through private foundations.

Facilities improvements and 365 expansion: There is a constant need to upgrade Gothic facilities and infrastructure. Improvement of winter access to Gothic will expand the capacity of science and education programs and increase revenue with limited impacts on our fixed costs. We will pursue the development of year-round facilities outside of Gothic, including housing for full-time and seasonal staff, permanent office space, and space supporting winter research, educational programing and community outreach. In summer, Gothic will continue to be the center of operations and the intellectual and cultural heart of RMBL and these ancillary facilities will be developed and programmed to allow us to optimally use the limited housing and lab space within Gothic. At the same time, the eventual expansion of RMBL facilities to provide a year-round physical capacity will be critical to RMBL’s financial stability; such facilities will improve our overall financial health through year-round revenue generation while increasing our overall staffing to provide redundancy in key facilities positions.

Succession planning: Institutional resilience and sustainability will depend on succession planning for all leadership positions, including the Executive Director and Science Director. Managing organizational transition will rely on attracting the best candidates, considering and meeting their likely housing needs, and retaining staff to maintain key expertise and institutional knowledge to provide a seamless bridge.

STRATEGY 3: Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion to fuel innovation and opportunity.

Advancing diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do, but it also has tangible benefits for science, student learning, and the performance of RMBL as an institution. Inclusion requires that we facilitate the equitable distribution of opportunities, resources, and recognition to persons regardless of social and demographic characteristics. Success in these realms will rely on our ability to tap into the rich diversity of experiences, expertise, skills, ideas, and backgrounds needed to address complex problems.

Recruit diverse community members: We will diversify the RMBL community by designing and implementing intentional recruitment methods tailored to different audiences, including researchers, students, staff and the board. We will increase scientist diversity with opportunities
for individuals of historically underrepresented identities to visit, explore, and work at RMBL. We will increase student diversity through outreach to historically underrepresented communities. This includes building on our past successes by investing further time and other resources to grow RMBL’s relationships with Latinx-serving institutions, while seeking opportunities to build similar relationships with other Minority Serving Institutions. For board and staff, we will recruit diversity opportunistically as positions turn over.

Build capacity for inclusion: To ensure that individuals are recruited into an environment where they feel included, staff will work with the Board and stakeholder communities to develop and support practices, policies, and programs that are demonstrated to enhance inclusion and a sense of belonging in the sciences. These efforts will extend to building strong relationships with Indigenous communities in the region, creating pathways for educational opportunities, and building alignment on shared priorities and stewardship of the landscape. We include a specific but not exclusive focus on Indigenous communities because RMBL sits on Indigenous land, and any actions will be evaluated in terms of whether and how Indigenous communities should be engaged, being respectful of their culture, approach, and timeline.

Monitoring and communicating outcomes: We will continue to engage in an annual assessment cycle, monitoring the RMBL cultural climate and tracking outcomes of recruitment (diversity) and retention efforts (inclusion) specific to different components of the RMBL community (board, staff, researchers, and students). The outcomes of these assessments will then be used to modify and refine recruitment and retention efforts, as well as potentially providing the evidence of success needed to fundraise and increase our capacity to support these programs. We will disseminate an annual report of RMBL’s diversity and inclusion efforts and outcomes.