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
The results are sobering: At this critical period in world history, when
our planet is said to be moving toward ecological disaster on several
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
The lesson here is that it is
usually not enough to set up wildlife refuges and employ law enforcement
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
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
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
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".