Particle physicists use massive accelerators to push the theoretical envelope; astronomers use increasingly high-powered telescopes to inch farther into the universe. But scientists specializing in biodiversity have decided that to better understand the planet's known organisms, as well as their habitats and ecosystems, they don't need a mammoth physical structure. Instead, many advocate a vast virtual facility that would compile and catalog detailed data sets on the billions of living things strewn throughout the biosphere.

On March 24 and 25, at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting in Paris, representatives from several countries will try to put the finishing touches on plans for a new electronic information network called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). First envisioned in the early 1990s and likely to go online by 2000, GBIF is the global version of virtual biodiversity facility efforts already under way all over the world at regional,...

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