On a Department of Monitoring Biology

Begin with the current university structure in North America. Long ago it was simple: a Department of Biology, a Department of Microbiology, a Department of Forestry, and possibly a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Management. We could always justify a Department of Microbiology because people get sick, a Department of Forestry because people buy wood to build houses, and a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Management because people fish and hunt. But what are we going to do with a Department of Biology? It rarely deals with anything that will make money, so we divide it into interest groups, a Department of Botany, and a Department of Zoology. All is well. But now a new kid appears on the block, Molecular Biology, and it claims to be able to solve all the issues that were formerly considered the focus of Botany and Zoology and probably several other departments. Give us all the money, the molecular world shouted, and we will solve all your problems and do it quickly. So now we get a complete hassle for money, buildings and prestige, and the world turns on which of the bevy of bureaucrats races to the top to make all the major decisions. If you wish to have proof of concept, ask anyone you can find who teaches at a university if he or she was ever consulted about what direction the university should take.

At this point we begin to proceed based on ‘follow the money’. So, for example if the Department of Forestry gets the most money from whomever, it must get the biggest buildings, the largest salaries, and the newest appointments. So soon you have a system of intrigue that would rival the Vatican. The winners of late are those departments that have most to do with people, health, and profit. So Medical Schools march on, practical matters like economics and engineering do well, and molecular biology rises rapidly.

What has happened to the old Departments of Botany and Zoology? They make no profit; their only goal is to enrich our lives and our understanding of the world around us. How can we make them profitable? A new program races to the rescue, a Department of Biodiversity, which will include everyone in plant, animal and microbe science who cannot get into one of the more practical, rich, existing departments. The program now is to convince the public and the governments that biodiversity is important and must be funded more. David Attenborough to the fore, and we are all abandoning the old botany and zoology and moving to biodiversity.

Now the problem arises for ecologists. Biodiversity includes everything, so where do we start? If we have so far described and named only about 15% of the life on Earth, should we put all our money into descriptive taxonomy? Should we do more biogeography, more ecology, more modelling, or more taxonomy, or a bit of all? So, the final question of our quest arrives: what should we be doing in a Department of Biodiversity if indeed we get one?

If you have ever been involved in herding cats, or even sheep without a dog you can imagine what happens if you attempt to set a priority in any scientific discipline. The less developed the science, the more the arguments about where to put our money and people. Ecology is a good example because it has factions with no agreement at all about what should be done to hasten progress. The result is that we fall back on the Pied Pipers of the day, form bandwagons, and move either forward, sideways, or backwards depending on who is in charge.

So, let us step back and think amid all this fighting for science funding. The two major crises of our time are human population growth and the climate change emergency. In fact, there is only one major crisis, climate change, because as it apparently progresses, everything will be overwhelmed in a way only few can try to guess (Wallace-Wells 2019, Lynas 2020). After some discussion you might suggest that we do two things in biology: first, get a good grip on what we have now on Earth, and second, keep monitoring life on Earth as the climate emergency unravels so that we can respond with mitigation as required. This is not to say we should stop doing other things. We should be more than unifactorial scientists, and it may be a small recommendation to the world of thinkers that we consider endowing at least some universities with a Department of Monitoring Biology and endow it with enough funding to do the job well. (Lindenmayer 2018; Lindenmayer et al. 2018; Nichols et al. 2019). It might be our best investment in the future of biology.

Lindenmayer, D. (2018). Why is long-term ecological research and monitoring so hard to do? (And what can be done about it). Australian Zoologist 39: 576-580. doi: 10.7882/az.2017.018.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Likens, G.E., and Franklin, J.F. (2018). Earth Observation Networks (EONs): Finding the Right Balance. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 1-3. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.10.008.

Lynas, Mark (2020) ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’. 4th Estate, Harper Collins, London. E book ISBN: 978-0008308582

Nichols, J.D., Kendall, W.L., and Boomer, G.S. (2019). Accumulating evidence in ecology: Once is not enough. Ecology and Evolution 9, 13991-14004. doi: 10.1002/ece3.5836.

Wallace-Wells, David (2019) ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming ‘ Tim Duggan Books: New York. 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-525-57670-9.  

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