- Lisa Yang is an investor and philanthropist who donated $24 million last month to establish the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Yang told Mongabay that she focused on bioacoustics due to the great potential for scaling the effectiveness of conservation efforts: “The technology can provide an effective way of assessing conservation practices.”
- Yang’s philanthropic interests extend to translational neuroscience and fostering opportunities and respect for people who’ve been historically marginalized by society, including the “neurodiverse and individuals with disabilities.”
- Yang spoke about opportunities to scale impact in conservation during a conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
Last month, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the receipt of a $24 million donation to catalyze the field of conservation bioacoustics, which uses sound data to to understand and monitor species, habitats, ecological processes, and environmental health.
The benefactor is Lisa Yang, an investor and philanthropist, who serves on several boards and has degrees from Columbia University and Cornell University. Yang’s gift established the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, which will support several strategic initiatives led by an institution that has been at the forefront of the sector for more than 30 years.
Yang told Mongabay that she focused on bioacoustics due to the great potential for scaling the effectiveness of conservation efforts.
“When arrayed on a large scale, bioacoustics can capture huge amounts of sound data in nature, which when combined with machine learning and AI to make sense of the meta data, can be an incredibly powerful tool to guide conservation decisions,” Yang told Mongabay during a recent interview.
“The technology can provide an effective way of assessing conservation practices. By lowering the barriers to monitoring and comparing habitats, bioacoustics makes it possible to identify, and assess, how different conservation strategies affect species and habitats, as well as invest in the most effective conservation measures.”
Yang cites the power of bioacoustics to monitor elusive species, build “an enduring record of an ecosystem”, and monitor human activities to enable near real-time action. She also says the sector provides opportunities to bring together expertise from different fields.
“Bioacoustics is an incredibly diverse field: physics, hardware and software engineering, ecology, computational modeling, and more,” she said. “We need to bring the best people in these various scientific fields together.”
Yang’s philanthropic interests go beyond soundscape ecology and bioacoustics. As the mother of two children with autism, Yang is particularly supportive of translational neuroscience and fostering opportunities and respect for people who’ve been historically marginalized by society, including the “neurodiverse and individuals with disabilities.” She says this concern extends from people to animals.
From this vantage point, she sees parallels between the mental health and conservation sectors, noting her frustrations with organizations that take a top-down approach “[losing] sight of their mission” and “poorly-informed and tone-deaf legislators and funders that don’t understand the nuances of the population and the challenges” of the populations they are charged to serve.
“The intent may be noble among funders and NGOs, but the spectrum of opinion is wide; where the granular details are lost because the keepers of the purse do not get down-and-dirty with boots-on-the-ground experience,” she said.
She added that conservation needs to broaden its horizons if it is to scale its impact.
“Conservation cannot be viewed from a Westerner’s lens alone: a profound understanding of the local environment, from socio-economic factors, income inequality, culture(s) and religion(s), diversity of ethnic/gender/human ability, etc. has to be understood before any “conservation solutions” are tabled.”
Yang spoke about these issues and more in a conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
An interview with Lisa Yang
Mongabay: What has inspired your philanthropic interests and priorities?
Lisa Yang: My philanthropic interests have been shaped by who I am, my life experiences, and the philosophy of Buddhism. Being a female, a graduate of two Ivy League colleges, a working professional most of my life, a minority (AAPI) immigrant, having two children with autism, and a single mother, have informed my philanthropic priorities: Faith in translational neuroscience, respect for human dignity via equal opportunities in employment for neurodiverse and individuals with disabilities, value for all life forms, and conservation issues.
Mongabay: You worked in finance and Wall Street before focusing your attention on philanthropy. What did you bring from those experiences to your philanthropy?
Lisa Yang: Working for firms in the “first bracket in a tombstone” on Wall Street, with outstanding talent and smart people, being held to the highest standards by clients and colleagues, have taught me that we need to hold the bar high, that there has to be accountability and impact in philanthropic funding.
Mongabay: Last month you donated $24 million to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. Why did you choose bioacoustics?
Lisa Yang: Bioacoustics is one way to “chunk down” the big challenge of conservation.
It is a field that has advanced by leaps and bounds, especially when it comes to recording technology. When arrayed on a large scale, bioacoustics can capture huge amounts of sound data in nature, which when combined with machine learning and AI to make sense of the meta data, can be an incredibly powerful tool to guide conservation decisions.
It makes possible the monitoring of existing, and finding, of new species that are hidden by vegetation, live underwater, are active at night, or avoid humans. It also provides an enduring record of an ecosystem, making it possible to monitor changes through time.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics assistant director Laurel Symes discuss plans for the new endowment, plus a selection of our favorite bioacoustics recordings:
The technology can provide an effective way of assessing conservation practices. By lowering the barriers to monitoring and comparing habitats, bioacoustics makes it possible to identify, and assess, how different conservation strategies affect species and habitats, as well as invest in the most effective conservation measures.
Human activities can also be monitored with acoustic approaches. For example, acoustic recording can capture gunshots and chainsaw activity, providing information about patterns of poaching and illegal logging over time and space. Paired with real-time communication systems, these monitoring approaches can inform time-critical anti-poaching and conservation actions.
Mongabay: In interviews, you’ve mentioned the importance of partnerships for the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics to achieve its goals. Could you elaborate on this?
Lisa Yang: Bioacoustics is an incredibly diverse field: physics, hardware and software engineering, ecology, computational modeling, and more. We need to bring the best people in these various scientific fields together.
Conservation is a grassroots movement with global implications. If the locals don’t buy into it, conservation efforts are going to fail. Therefore, effective conservation requires a primary knowledge about local ecosystems, cultures, economies, and the important role played by indigenous communities.
With that as basic fabric, The K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics aims to adopt a holistic approach: not only to provide the tools and leverage the technology, the scientific rigor from research and data collection, education and mentorship, amongst other things, but act to precipitate local and global collaboration and partnerships among different players, whether private or public, academic, government, and conservation groups, so as to maximize global conservation impact.
Mongabay: Bioacoustics is an example of an enabling technology that could contribute to a significant advancement in a sector. Are there other technologies, in conservation or other sectors, that you see as having similar potential that aren’t yet on a lot of peoples’ radar?
Lisa Yang: Smarter and more efficient technologies to get sensors into the field to collect data—and not just acoustic data—whether underwater, terrestrial or aerial, like drones and gliders.
Mongabay: You’ve actively supported initiatives that provide opportunities for historically marginalized communities and groups that face other challenges, including children with autism. This is an area where the conservation sector has faced some criticism over the years: For example, lack of meaningful engagement of key stakeholders, top-down models, and inadequate consideration of local needs. Are there things you’ve learned from working in these other sectors that could help better address these issues in conservation?
Lisa Yang: As with Chaos Theory and The Butterfly Effect, there are limitations of prediction for even deterministic, Newtonian physics. Along with randomness in quantum systems, effective randomness seems a key feature of nature. Or on a philosophical note, “Man proposes, God disposes.” These statements come to mind as I recall my frustrations in working with mental health organizations: the non-profit organizations that run with a top-down approach, and in the process, lose sight of their mission, the poorly-informed and tone-deaf legislators and funders that don’t understand the nuances of the population and the challenges of the human services industry, and so on.
I am afraid I see a similarity in the conservation community: where the intent may be noble among funders and NGOs, but the spectrum of opinion is wide; where the granular details are lost because the keepers of the purse do not get down-and-dirty with boots-on-the-ground experience.
Most importantly, conservation cannot be viewed from a Westerner’s lens alone: a profound understanding of the local environment, from socio-economic factors, income inequality, culture(s) and religion(s), diversity of ethnic/gender/human ability, etc. has to be understood before any “conservation solutions” are tabled.
Mongabay: Beyond what you’ve covered so far in the interview, what do you see as the biggest gap (or gaps) in conservation? Or in other words, where does conservation need to do better?
Lisa Yang: We still face issues scaling up. Acoustics is a powerful tool to support conservation efforts, but it also requires in-depth knowledge and experience to get from data collection to conservation actions. Right now, the experts in the field are often the bottleneck. Locals too often rely on experts from the western world to get the job done. Reducing technology barriers and educating local people in using these tools is critical to scale up at a necessary level. This will help to establish new domain experts in areas
where biodiversity is threatened the most. Those domain experts can then start building local networks of users.
Mongabay: Roughly three percent of philanthropic giving in the U.S. goes to animals and the environment, of which only a tiny fraction goes to conservation, and of which an even smaller share goes to international wildlife conservation. The tech sector as a whole has an incredible amount of resources and expertise. Do you see ways to better engage people in the tech sector to put their energy toward tackling global challenges?
Lisa Yang: In my opinion, greenwashing comes to mind. We need tech companies that are truly invested in making a change. Unfortunately, there aren’t many (yet).
Mongabay: How do you measure the impact of your philanthropy? Or, phrased another way, could you share an example of a project you feel strongly exemplifies the kind of impact you seek?
Lisa Yang: In funding neuroscience, I want to focus on translational science.
Four years ago, we started a Center for Autism Research at MIT. From the 5-Year “Current Use” Funding Pool, two of the four projects selected were NHP (Non Human Primates) and Crispr. We saw incredible progress in those 2 projects.
Moreover, due to the success seen in the first 2 years, we further set up a same-named Center at Harvard in 2019.
On the back of more incredible progress, we funded a Molecular Therapeutics Center in 2020 to focus on gene therapy, Crispr, development of tools and novel materials for use in neuroscience therapeutics.
So, it is not one project, but a cascade: identification of promising, if unconventional scientific approaches, focus, keep an eye on progress and results, then scale the funding. That will lead to tangible therapeutic cures and a positive impact on quality of life.
Mongabay: We face daunting challenges. What do you see as the key levers for driving the kind of systemic change required to transform humanity’s relationship with the natural world?
Lisa Yang: Obviously, humanity needs to be part of any solution – locally and globally. We need to put a different spin on how we communicate about nature and conservation. If you look at what comes through the news, it’s mostly doom and gloom. People are fed so much “bad news” that they don’t care too much anymore. Instead, we need to talk more about conservation successes to show people that we can make a difference; that they can make a difference.
Mongabay: Do you think the pandemic will teach us anything about how to live more sustainably? And if so, do you think any positive momentum will carry into the future or be quickly forgotten?
Lisa Yang: I think the pandemic has highlighted the basic inequalities of the “Haves“ and “Have-Nots,” not only locally but globally. I am not as optimistic that the involuntary pause on “normality” on life on Earth imposed by a virus, particularly in the developed nations, has created a “new normal.”
We need to invest in people – researchers, scientists, and especially entice young people who want to have an impact on conservation. I believe the future lies in the hands of the young, who will wake up to the reality that they will have to live with the consequences of the unsustainable degradation of the Earth in the name of economic progress and material wealth. Just as important, we need to invest in the local custodians of the land, the local and indigenous populations.
Everyone has a vested interest in the future; we will each need to agitate for, and force, change.
Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Lisa Yang: There is hope! Take the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the Bikini Atoll test site where 23 atomic bombs were detonated. Humans utterly destroyed both areas, and even after many decades, humans still can’t live there. Yet, nature fought back, animal population bounced back, and today, some researchers consider these areas nature preserves.