On the Focus of Biodiversity Science

Biodiversity science has expanded in the last 25 years to include scientific disciplines that were in a previous time considered independent disciplines. Now this could be thought of as a good thing because we all want science to be interactive, so that geologists talk to ecologists who also talk to mathematicians and physicists. University administrators might welcome this movement because it could aim for a terminal condition in which all the departments of the university are amalgamated into one big universal science department of Biodiversity which would include sociology, forestry, agriculture, engineering, fisheries, wildlife, geography, and possibly law and literature as capstones. Depending on your viewpoint, there are a few problems with this vision or nightmare that are already showing up.

First and foremost is the problem of the increasing amount of specialist knowledge that is necessary to know how to be a good soil scientist, or geographer, or fisheries ecologist. So if we need teams of scientists working on a particular problem, there must be careful integration of the parts and a shared vision of how to reach a resolution of the problem. This is more and more difficult to achieve as each individual science itself becomes more and more specialized, so that for example your team now needs a soil scientist who specializes only in clay soils. The results of this problem are visible today with the Covid pandemic, many research groups working at odds to one another, many cooperating but not all, vaccine supplies being restricted by politics and nationalism, some specialists claiming that all can be cured with hydroxychloroquine or bleach. So the first problem is how to assemble a team. If you want to do this, you need to sort out a second issue.

The second hurdle is another very big issue upon which there is rarely good agreement: What are the problems you wish to solve? If you are a university department you have a very restricted range of faculty, so you cannot solve every biodiversity problem on earth. At one extreme you can have the one faculty member = one problem approach, so one person is concerned with the conservation of birds on mountain tops, another is to study frogs and salamanders in southern Ontario, and a third is to be concerned about the conservation of rare orchids in Indonesia. At the other extreme is the many faculty = one problem approach where you concentrate your research power on a very few issues. Typically one might think these should be Canadian issues if you were a Canadian university, or New Zealand issues if you were a New Zealand university. In general many universities have taken the first approach and have assumed that government departments will fill in the second approach by concentrating on major issues like fisheries declines or forest diseases.

Alas the consequences of the present system are that the government is reducing its involvement in solving large scale issues (take caribou in Canada, the Everglades in Florida, or house mice outbreaks in Australia). At the same time university budgets are being cut and there is less and less interest in contributing to the solution of environmental problems and more and more interest in fields that increase economic growth and jobs. Universities excel at short term challenges, 2–3-year problem solving, but do very poorly at long-term issues. And it is the long term problems that are destroying the Earth’s ecosystems.

The problem facing biodiversity science is exactly that no one wishes to concentrate on a single major problem, so we drift in bits and pieces, missing the chance to make any significant progress in any one of the major issues of our day. Take any major issue you wish to discuss. How many species are there on Earth? We do not even know that very well except in a few groups, so how much effort must go into taxonomy? Are insect populations declining? Data are extremely limited to a few groups gathered over a small number of years in a small part of the Earth with inadequate sampling. Within North America, why are charismatic species like monarch butterflies declining, or are they really declining? How much habitat must be protected to ensure the continuation of a migratory species like this butterfly. Can we ecologists claim that any one of our major problems are being resourced adequately to discover answers?

When biodiversity science interfaces with agricultural science and the applied sciences of fisheries and wildlife management we run into another set of major questions. Is modern agriculture sustainable? Certainly not, but how can we change it in the right direction? Are pelagic fisheries being overharvested? Questions abound, answers are tentative and need more evidence. Is biodiversity science supposed to provide solutions to these kinds of applied ecological questions? The current major question that appears in most biodiversity papers is how will biodiversity respond to climate change?  This is in principle a question that can be answered at the local species or community scale, but it provides no resolution to the problem of biodiversity loss or indeed even allows adequate data gathering to map the extent and reality of loss. Are we back to mapping the chairs on the Titanic but now with detailed satellite data?

What can be done about this lack of focus in biodiversity science? At the broadest level we need to increase discussions about what we are trying to accomplish in the current state of scientific organization. Trying to write down the problems we are currently studying and then the possible ways in which the problem can be resolved would be a good start. If we recognize a major problem but then can see no possible way of resolving it, perhaps our research or management efforts should be redirected. But it takes great courage to say here is a problem in biodiversity conservation, but it can never be solved with a finite budget (Buxton et al. 2021). So start by asking: why am I doing this research, and where do I think we might be in 50 years on this issue? Make a list of insoluble problems. Here is a simple one to start on: eradicating invasive species. Perhaps eradication can be done in some situations like islands (Russell et al. 2016) but is impossible in the vast majority of cases. There may be major disagreements over goals, in which case some rules might be put forward, such as a budget of $5 million over 4 years to achieve the specified goal. Much as we might like, biodiversity conservation cannot operate with an infinite budget and an infinite time frame.

Buxton, R.T., Nyboer, E.A., Pigeon, K.E., Raby, G.D., and Rytwinski, T. (2021). Avoiding wasted research resources in conservation science. Conservation Science and Practice 3. doi: 10.1111/csp2.329.

Russell, J.C., Jones, H.P., Armstrong, D.P., Courchamp, F., and Kappes, P.J. (2016). Importance of lethal control of invasive predators for island conservation. Conservation Biology 30, 670-672. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12666.