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The Crumbling Infrastructure of Ecology

Since the 1980s, governments around the world have drastically reduced funding for ecological research.  During this same period, private foundations, charities and corporations have also cut funding.  It is therefore not surprising that today scientific research in ecology is woefully underfunded and understaffed. 

The results are sobering:  At this critical period in world history, when our planet is said to be moving toward ecological disaster on several fronts, our leaders don't have all the scientific information they need to make crucial decisions because, years ago, funding for ecological research was cut.

Many vital areas of ecological research now have no funding at all, consequently progress in these areas has stalled completely.  Even the "best funded" research projects in Ecology receive in reality just a fraction of the money they need, critically limiting the generality of their results.

Once famous ecological field stations now stand deserted like ghost towns - their brilliant researchers forced to work in other professions - because there is no money for salaries, fieldwork, equipment and upkeep of facilities.  Thus, just when we need the science of Ecology the most, its infrastructure is crumbling due to a lack of funding.

While it is encouraging to read recent statements by world leaders calling for new initiatives to save our planet from ecological disaster, one essential element is usually missing in their equations for success:  the need for more well-funded and fully-staffed ecological research programs.

The simple truth is that humanity doesn't have all the scientific knowledge it needs to solve ecological problems and live in harmony with nature.  This knowledge can only be obtained by conducting scientific research.  Good research takes time and it takes lots of money.  Yet it is a bargain compared to the price we will pay if we don't do the research.

The case of the California Condor is a good example of the folly of neglecting research.  Even though laws were passed to protect this species, and a large wilderness refuge was established for it to live in, its numbers continued to decline and no one knew why.  Finally, when the bird was on the brink of extinction, authorities grudgingly consented to condor research.  This research quickly found that the main cause of mortality was lead poisoning from bullets that the condors ingested when feeding on deer carrion outside their refuge.  The problem was then easily solved by requiring hunters in condor country to use lead-free bullets.

The lesson here is that it is usually not enough to set up wildlife refuges and employ law enforcement personnel to protect them.  We also need research to understand wildlife and the problems that they face.  If condor research had been initiated earlier, the entire condor rescue program today would be far less expensive and have a much better chance of success.

Another critical need is funding for what is called "pure ecological research."  Pure research is not aimed at solving any particular environmental problem, but rather seeks to elucidate general principles of ecological interactions that apply to most species. 

Once research discovers these general principles and reveals how they vary under different situations, they can be applied to solve specific environmental problems.  Good examples are the various Laws of Population Ecology, which have many applications in wildlife management and the conservation of endangered species.

Pure ecological research is often cheaper and easier to do than applied research because it studies common, easily-found organisms, rather than rare, endangered species.  Yet, many foundations today refuse to fund pure ecological research because they naively reason "we only need to study endangered species."

It is the height of folly to refuse to fund ecological research on the grounds that doing so might 'hurt the economy,' and it is a mistake to think that Ecology is just another academic subject whose budget can be cut whenever money is wanted somewhere else.  Yet, these mistakes are made regularly by political leaders.

Ecology is the only science that focuses on interactions between species and between species and their environment.  Unlike physics, chemistry and biology, Ecology deals with the enormous diversity of living nature and the myriad of complex interactions that are found in ecosystems and landscapes.  Like economics, it is a science that focuses on complexity.  In fact, the word "Ecology" means "the economics of nature".

Ecological research can provide us with the information and insights we need to act wisely in this time of growing ecological crises.  But to reap its full benefits we will have to fund it generously, just like we fund medical and military research.  Good research often takes many years to complete, so it is vital for our leaders to make ecological research a high priority for funding now.

- Paul D. Haemig
Ecology Online Sweden

Photograph: Unemployed young people "losing time" by Alexander Radev  (Bulgaria).  Many gifted PhD's in Ecology and their young assistants are now unemployed because funding for ecological research has been drastically cut by hostile politicians and administrators.  Their money has instead been transferred to corporations through "tax reduction" and "corporate welfare". 


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