Currently there exists great interest in the concept of optimum diversity, regardless of whether this concept pertains to genetic, species, or habitat type. In agriculture, for example, there is evidence that monocultures (single crop type per area) contribute to soil erosion and crop damage caused by the rapid spread of insect pests and disease. At the other end of the spectrum, extensive adoption of polycultures (multiple crop types and rotations per area) is associated with problems of reduced yields and profits, and with difficulties related to machine harvesting. Thus, the optimum must be somewhere in between. New approaches and concepts such as integrative pest management, conservation tillage, and net energy are helping to solve these problems by integrating theory with application, resulting in optimum diversity across levels of organization.
There also exists great interest in the concept of optimum patch size, regardless of whether this concept relates to the minimum critical size of an ecosystem for reproductive success, edge effects on parasitic species, or genetic inbreeding. In conservation biology, for example, scientists are frequently asked if it is better to protect or establish one large tract of habitat, or to establish several habitats of equal total size but scattered over a greater geographical area. A single large area permits species with large home ranges and breeding territories to survive, whereas multiple fragmented habitats reduce the risk that a major catastrophic event (hurricane, flood, or fire) would eliminate a particular plant or animal species breeding in a particular habitat type. New approaches, such as metapopulation theory, source—sink dynamics, and habitat conservation plans are helping to solve these problems and to ensure that landscape fragmentation is managed based on the concept of optimum patch size across levels of biological and ecological organization.
There has long existed the desire for AIBS to serve as a "federation" or "umbrella" under which biologists could unite and function (for example, speak in unison regarding federal support for education or research) similar to our professional colleagues in the physical and chemical sciences. Currently, AIBS is faced with a challenge that I prefer to term optimum service. In the biological sciences, there has been a proliferation of new fields of study, new cross-disciplinary research and monitoring endeavors, and new interface teaching and learning opportunities and technologies. This diversification and proliferation has enriched our knowledge and has led to several emerging fields of study (e.g., conservation biology, landscape ecology, agroecosystem ecology, environmental engineering, and restoration ecology, to name a few), in large part because biology provides an infrastructure and a nucleus of information necessary for integrating theory and technologies developed by the physical, medical, social, political, and economic sciences. This integration has helped to ensure the continued development of these emerging fields of knowledge. This developmental process has resulted in the optimization of research and learning technologies. The time is now ripe to address the question of how AIBS might best optimize its service mission.
Perhaps the optimum role of AIBS during the coming decade is to increase efforts to build bridges between biology and other sciences and between science and society. I suggest that this role would be the best way to provide optimum service. For the nearly 5000 members of AIBS and the 85,000-plus members of our affiliated societies, this optimum service should include the organization and coordination of regional, national, and international meetings or roundtable discussions with special focus on interface disciplines; the publication of BioScience and special reports, including a continuing dialogue about the merits of a new trans-disciplinary education and/or service journal; and the development of new service technologies that will identify AIBS as a professional organization that provides optimum service, not only to its clientele, but also to a society motivated to achieving intellectual maturity. This goal may be better for society than the goal of seeking sustainable development because the latter concept has, unfortunately, come to be viewed as "business and quantitative growth as usual" (i.e., bigger is better), rather than as qualitative growth and planning based on a concept of global carrying capacity within a constrained ecosphere–a concept that must, sooner or later, become the strategy for maintaining human quality of life.
Gary W. Barrett (e-mail: email@example.com) is the president of AIBS for 1998. He is Odum Professor of Ecology at the Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-2202. © 1998 American Institute of Biological Sciences.