Statistician Receives European Research Council Grant to Aid in Mapping Biodiversity Around the Globe

Friday, October 11, 2019

A Duke statistician is part of a three-member team awarded $13.8 million by the European Research Council to conduct a planet-wide inventory of life over six years, with particular emphasis on insects and fungi.

David Dunson, the Arts & Sciences Professor of Statistical Science, received notification of the award this month. His expertise in managing big data and the development of novel statistical methodologies will help interpret a collection of DNA, audio samples and camera trap images from over 450 locations around the world.

Working under the project name LIFEPLAN, the research team is led by Otso Ovaskainen of the University of Helsinki and includes Tomas Roslin of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

“With the support of this grant, we will collect completely unprecedented data across the Earth on insects, fungi, land mammals and birds,” Dunson said. “Most importantly, the data will contain 10,000 or more species that are unknown to science – primarily insects and fungi, as, amazingly, most of those species on earth are currently unknown.

“In order to make sense of these data, we will also develop transformative new statistical and artificial intelligence methods that can also be used beyond biodiversity research broadly in science, technology and industry.”

The team previously mapped bird species in the Brazilian rainforest with audio samples, and collected large datasets on fungi and insects with partially automated equipment. This grant will extend that sampling and analysis.

The award is among the ERC’s annual Synergy Grants, given this year to 37 international research groups. It is the first year that scientists from U.S.-based research institutions were eligible for inclusion.