August 26, 2004
Timothy M. Beardsley
Researchers depressed about the extinction crisis might lift their spirits by volunteering to work on behalf of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Approved at the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the convention came into force the following year and now has 194 signatories, including the United States. Even though the United States (along with Iraq, Brunei, Somalia, Andorra, and Timor-Leste) failed to ratify it, US scientists, especially taxonomists, could contribute their expertise much more than they have heretofore. The convention needs all the help it can get.
Intended to promote conservation of biodiversity at a variety of levels, the biodiversity convention acknowledges the sovereign right of countries to exploit their biological resources and requires them to refrain from damaging those of other countries. It also seeks to promote sustainable use of resources and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. Unobjectionable aims, one might think, yet the convention has run into substantial problems. Although the convention has been hailed as a fillip for conservation in some developing countries, corporations complain that it has put intolerable obstacles in the way of biological prospecting, and it has irritated many scientists by encouraging the conflation of prospecting and research — as Arturo Gómez-Pompa made plain in his plenary article earlier this year (BioScience 54: 217–225). The result has often been over-burdensome permit requirements that impede research on taxonomy and conservation biology even as extinctions continue. Some observers believe further that the convention has lost momentum as it has been swept into the effort to achieve the United Nations' ambitious Millennium Development Goals.
Participants at a sparsely attended session of a meeting convened in June by the American Society of Naturalists, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society of Systematic Biologists heard how US scientists seem poorly informed about the biodiversity convention. (US scientists mention it in their publications about 40 percent less often than do their UK counterparts, for example.) The United States boasts 23 percent of the world's taxonomists, but US universities, where most taxonomists are to be found, have taken little interest in the convention. The Global Taxonomy Initiative, an effort inaugurated under the convention to ameliorate the critical shortage of taxonomic expertise, has so far failed to attract international funding.
To be sure, a root cause of the slow political progress toward protection for biodiversity is fear in Southern nations of economic exploitation. Such fears become more plausible as scientific knowledge increasingly becomes a tradable commodity (and as some of the poorest countries slip backward on the economic ladder). But international meetings of the various bodies that deal with the biodiversity convention — in particular, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice — provide valuable opportunities for scientists and others to influence discussions that can reduce mistrust and establish sound priorities.
Some US scientists may think that the nonparty status of the United States means they are excluded from activities related to the biodiversity convention. Not so. The United States even has a senior conservation officer at the State Department who is a contact person for convention-related activities (Christine Dawson; e-mail: ). More input from scientists could only help.
Timothy M. Beardsley