View from Sapsucker Woods: Envisioning the Cornell Lab—Past, Present, and Future

By John W. Fitzpatrick
September 6, 2017
Wallcreeper by Ghasem Chabok Wallcreeper by Ghasem Chabok.

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Eighteen years ago, staff and board members of the Cornell Lab spent several days discussing its purpose and future. Those conversations in 1999 resulted in a document we called the Millennium Strategic Plan. It was a vision for the Lab of the 21st Century—both an articulation of our mission and an action plan for creating the world’s leading center for birds and biodiversity.

Those lively discussions produced the 17 words we still live by today: To interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. This statement of purpose declares an essential truth about our work, that birds supply routes to a larger purpose. They represent key entry points for understanding, communicating about, and protecting the broader biological world of which they are a part. Our mission’s two action verbs—“interpret” and “conserve”—encode the Lab’s commitment to knowledge, training, inspiration, and conservation action.

Eight years later, having acted on every point in our Millennium action plan (including building a superb new home), the Lab was rapidly expanding its resources, staff, programs, and impacts. Organizational growth (and a few growing pains) coincided with dizzyingly rapid world changes, both technical and social. Wholly new possibilities and horizons were emerging for the Lab, so it was time to convene another period of comprehensive strategic planning. The resulting Centennial Strategic Plan, approved by our board in 2007, identified 100 concrete objectives and actions in science, conservation, education, and communication that we would strive to advance on or complete by the Lab’s 2015 centennial celebration.

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While our score is not perfect, the Lab has made huge progress on almost all of the objectives we identified 10 years ago. In declaring, for example, our intention to “Launch an internationally competitive postdoctoral research program,” we could scarcely have imagined that by 2017 we would be hosting 22 exceptional postdocs from seven different countries. These recent PhD graduates are producing scores of advances in bird biology, from solving the genetic mysteries of Blue-winged/Golden-winged Warbler hybridization to documenting coordinated song-and-dance displays in Australian lyrebirds; from understanding the evolution of plumage coloration in birds-of-paradise to using NEXRAD radar data to census the entire North American population of migratory songbirds.

Another objective—“Engage global audiences…”—has advanced an extraordinarily powerful worldwide database project (eBird, with bird sightings reported from every single country in the world), popular and authoritative websites (such as All About Birds, Bird Academy, and Neotropical Birds, which are used by more than 15 million people annually), and a revolutionary bird ID app (Merlin, now available in English and Spanish, and in use throughout the Americas as well as Great Britain and northern Europe). Our globally focused Multimedia Productions program produces best-in-class conservation media to be used by partners across the planet.

A complete account of the 2007 objectives on which we’ve made significant progress would more than fill several issues of Living Bird. What you will find in this issue—including our 2017 Annual Report—is a remarkable series of stories that represents just a taste of that progress. Strategic planning really does work when it is focused and taken seriously by talented staff, leaders, and supporters. In this last respect especially, we have you—our members—to thank for providing the Lab the means by which we can accomplish our mission.

This fall, a decade after our last strategic planning exercise, and having continued to gain in breadth and scale of impact, we are again undertaking a comprehensive look at our organization and our aspirations. This is a time to study what we are doing well, how we could be doing that even better, and where we are falling short of our potential. The process is engaging our staff, our board of directors, and a number of outside experts and stakeholders. Please consider this an open invitation to you, our extraordinary supporters, to communicate your own thoughts to us at cornellbirds@cornell.edu about what you dream the Lab should be doing after another decade goes by.

John W. Fitzpatrick is the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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