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Biodiversity - Often Advocated, Rarely Funded

Interview by Josephina Maier

Everyone wants to preserve biodiversity - but the necessary expertise is threatening to disappear. A conversation with zoologist Alexander Haas from Hamburg.

biodiversity© Sergey Korotkov - iStockphoto.com Frogs in Borneo are the main research of Prof. Dr. Alexander Haas
DIE ZEIT: What is the key focus of your research project?

ALEXANDER HAAS: In Borneo we are drawing up a catalogue of frogs in which you can look up, amongst other things, which larva belongs to which species. The larval forms are often neglected when describing frogs. If you want to ecologically record an area, this is a problem - it should be possible to assign any found tadpoles to a species.

ZEIT: Who is financing your research?

HAAS: Currently the VW Foundation. The project was part of a partnership programme with Asia in which a local and a German scientist respectively team up to work together and share research funding. This funding is now coming to an end because the VW Foundation wants to concentrate its programme on Africa. If I have understood correctly, it also intends to sponsor only highly application-related projects from now on.

ZEIT: Is funding for your work ensured?

HAAS: Not yet. I am hoping that I can attract new funds through an application to the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG). But that requires the recording of species to be part of a wider project; it's not enough to say "I want to discover new species". More likely, you'll be doing a little inventorying alongside your field research on the project, and in the course of that you might discover new animals. I can't even think of an institution in Germany that might finance a purely taxonomic inventory project. National Geographic sponsors expeditions, but only if they deal with extraordinary species or exciting areas.

ZEIT: Are your international colleagues facing similar problems regarding research funding?

HAAS: Scientists from the USA are also having difficulty, at least where amphibians are concerned. I know of a group that intends to make an application to the National Science Foundation in the near future. We estimate that on the shelves of museums alone approximately 500 new types of frog are waiting to be categorised - but no headway is being made in precisely describing and publishing the data because there is no funding for it.

ZEIT: Is taxonomy suffering from an image crisis?

HAAS: There is a large discrepancy between what is propagated and what is actually implemented. The subject of species protection is very positively received by the public. There have also been advances at the political level in recent years. The Federal Ministry of the Environment and the German Research Foundation have for example issued brochures discussing the subject of biodiversity. So the political will is slowly emerging - but at the same time there are still no specific funds for inventorying and describing the species of our Earth.

ZEIT: Why are things so difficult for these two disciplines in particular

HAAS: The issues are very complex. One example is bio-piracy. Many nations, especially in the Tropics, are uncomfortable with scientists coming from abroad and wanting to export animals and plants from their countries. This is entirely justified. Therefore it is very important to co-operate with the people in those countries and conclude contractual agreements. It requires a lot of patience and trust-building processes to internationally establish inventory projects.

ZEIT: How could the means for better international co-operations be acquired?

HAAS: When I see how much money goes into projects like the LHC particle accelerator, I sometimes think we just need better lobbying. A huge consortium of international scientists is working to expand our knowledge in Geneva. Why isn't this possible when it comes to recording biodiversity? We are working to answer the important question of which species live on Earth. The expense is manageable, but the potential financial sponsors don't appear to be convinced of the long-term usefulness yet.

ZEIT: What is the concrete utility of, for example, your research project?

HAAS: I conduct basic research which is mainly aimed at expanding knowledge. Nonetheless it isn't useless: many skin secretions produced by frogs are of great pharmacological interest. They have anti-bacterial or pain-relieving effects. It's impossible to predict which species will be important to mankind. But we are taking a great risk by allowing so many species to simply die out. I realise that we can't protect everything. Instead, the question is how can we save as many species as possible? We will only succeed in this if we first conserve the areas harbouring the greatest biodiversity. This also offers the greatest likelihood that we will conserve those species that might offer an economic or pharmacological benefit. And that in turn will only be possible once we know where those areas are.

ZEIT: What would have to happen for things to improve for taxonomists?

HAAS: I have a feeling that our image has already improved somewhat in the last five or ten years. It is gradually becoming clear that the expertise of taxonomists is indispensable. There are a number of good national and international organisations that highlight the difficulties of attracting young scientists and the loss of expert knowledge. Many chairs of systematic biology have not been staffed by taxonomists over the last 20 years; the universities have increasingly stepped away from promoting young scientists in this field. The large research museums are almost the only places that still train taxonomists today.

ZEIT: What form might a modern inventory project take?

HAAS: A useful move would be to bundle research activities in large associations. A board shouldn't have to decide whether it sponsors the recording of insects or of amphibians. We need consortiums of scientists who concentrate on a critical area and tackle the inventory jointly, together with institutions that sponsor this, and collaborating closely with the countries where the examined areas are located. This would make it possible to share resources, to jointly use field stations and logistics, and to evaluate the results in a wider context.

DIE ZEIT :: 12.02.2009