Monday, June 19, 2006

The EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

It is certainly good news, that on June 23, the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is being launched in New York in a rather glamorous setting, the Tavern on the Green in New York’s Central Park. It’s especially good news, that in a time of great biodiversity loss, EO Wilson, a retired Harvard Professor rated by Time Magazine as one of the most influential US citizens, comes up with a foundation, with a board full of Nobel Laureates, entrepreneurs and other successful people.

It is the logic consequence of EO Wilson’s highly successful scientific and public career, and indeed modus operandi, to lend his name to a foundation created by highly successful businessmen in biotech. Wilson was an early advocate that we need to protect biodiversity, because, among others, of all its yet unknown genes and thus value for humankind. This was in 1987, and since then, we still struggle to produce even a simple list of organisms, not to speak of proper monitoring programs to assess the change of the world’s species. Despite a brief high-noon around 1992, the time of the Earth Summit in Rio, conservation of biodiversity has been dropped of the screen of politics and industry.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 led to the Convention on Biological Diversity ( – not signed by the US, but 150 governments worldwide) – has been hailed as a step towards the conservation of biodiversity, but not by all. The developing world, where most of the biodiversity is, was much more interested in Access and Benefit sharing of all the many valuable genes out in their backyards, who could lead to substantial revenue, as EO Wilson Foundation’s CEO Jay M Short point out. That this is still a main issue has recently been demonstrated under the lead of Brazil and India who asked for an amendment to the WTO’s intellectual property agreement to disclose the origin of inventions using biological resources or traditional knowledge, against the will of many of the industrialized nations (see), and which could be one reason of the current Doha round of negotiations failure.

Another reason of the dismal state of biodiversity knowledge and conservation is the failure to build adequate infrastructures to measure, monitor, access and communicate its state. There is on the one hand hardly any connection between the bio-systematics community (those able to discover and chart to worlds living creatures) and the conservation community. On the other hand, we systematists still struggle to change our culture from very introverted scientists to extroverted, from single project oriented, focusing on few taxa to an emphasis of being a member of the megascience project “Global Biodiversity”, as Sandy Knapp puts it. There are such structures being built (eg. Global Biodiversity Information Facility; the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Zoobank and Ubio as name server. Conservation Commons ( and Science Commons both work towards a licencing system allowing building up a global semantic web, that is an open access based information network needed to link all the bits of information. These activities are not mentioned anywhere in the documents of the EO Wilson foundations currently available online.

Wilson himself has a dubious record in terms of practical achievements. He is clearly not a builder of organizations. There is no Wilson legacy in terms of a prolific institution, such Peter Raven's Missouri Botanical Garden and initiatives. The All Species foundation, under guidance of Wilson, disappeared, to a large degree because it's utterly unfocused strategy. His highly praised effort of building up an Encyclopedia of Live is undermined by siding with Harvard University Press to retain the copyright on his systematic work (see…"The last of its kind"). Searching new ways of funding and doing things is certainly laudable, but to “include academic experts on population genetics and evolutionary theory as well as business-school trained entrepreneurs”, questions whether the work can be done, since none of them has credentials nor experience in the complexity of assessing biodiversity and conservation, nor working with the respective scientific community.

It is great, that such a high-powered new initiative is on its way. Let’s be optimistic once more, and watch how they operate, and whether this will developed into a serious effort enhancing the megascience project “Global Biodiversity” and its conservation, or just another misinformed initiative to whitewash the hands of people generating their money and fame from biodiversity. Lets use the Internet watch this new foundation's actions unfold.


Post a Comment

<< Home