NESCent Closing its Doors: A Loss for Evolutionary Science & Education

Last week I received an email announcing that NESCent will be closing its doors in June of next year (2015). This will certainly be a big loss for evolutionary science and education.

NESCent stands for National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. In the center’s own words, it “promotes the synthesis of information, concepts and knowledge to address significant, emerging, or novel questions in evolutionary science and its applications“. It is funded by the US National Science Foundation, and is jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.

Next to supporting evolutionary science, NESCent also dedicates a large amount of effort and resources to public outreach and education. Doing the science is, of course, important, but educating the general public, and especially young children, about evolution and related issues is at least as important. And NESCent has been doing an excellent job with that. It is this aspect, I feel, where the loss may be the largest.

Personally I have had the pleasure of visiting NESCent twice. The first time was in October of 2011, when I was invited to attend a catalysis meeting on “Evolution, Astrobiology, and Synthetic Biology”. This very interesting 3-day meeting also provided me with a good impression of what NESCent is all about. As a consequence of this positive experience, I decided to apply for a short-term research visit at the center, which was approved. So a year later, in October of 2012, I spent four weeks at NESCent working on a research project together with Duke University professor Dan McShea. The result of our joint work on “Complexity by Subtraction” (about which I will write more in a future post) was eventually published in Springer’s Evolutionary Biology journal.

NESCent is directed by another Duke University professor, Allen Rodrigo. I first met Allen in New Zealand in 2003, where he was a professor at the University of Auckland, and I was a postdoc at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. In the following years, we kept running into each other at various conferences and workshops, and then, in 2011, he kindly invited me to the NESCent catalysis meeting he was organizing.

I have always admired the high quality of Allen’s research, and also its practical relevance (such as his work on HIV). Moreover, he is one of the most eloquent speakers I know of. Indeed, he has been an excellent director for NESCent all these years. In fact, the center’s entire staff is very knowledgeable and capable, and always willing to help. I have enjoyed my visits at NESCent very much, and am sad to hear it will close its doors. If not the center itself, then I hope at least its spirit will live on…