COLLEGE STATION Talking to a biologist about one’s feelings could produce the same reaction as, say, telling a sociologist about molecules.
Yet if the problems confronting conservation of the world’s biodiversity are to be tackled and fixed, then science and people must mix.
So say Dr. Lee Fitzgerald, a conservation biologist who has traveled through Latin America for 20 years studying reptiles, and Dr. Amanda Stronza, a cultural anthropologist who has for 15 years studied ecotourism and indigenous peoples in the Amazon.
Fitzgerald and Stronza now will lead 20 other professors at Texas A&M University on a $3 million National Science Foundation grant aimed at cutting down barriers between biological and social science in order to help conserve the world’s rich biodiversity.
“When we were developing this project, we realized that there are many biological scientists working in conservation who lack training and skills in how to deal with all the social science issues,” Fitzgerald said.
The same was true in Stronza’s field.
“I can tell you what people are saying and doing in their environment I hunt this often, or I fish this often, or we protected this forest,’” she said. “But I am not trained to go out in the world and see what effect those actions are having on the wildlife or the forest.”
Funds will come from a science foundation program called Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship which helps U.S. doctoral students become leaders in their fields. The program seeks ways to cross traditional barriers, such as when scientists in different disciplines need to know what researchers in companion fields are studying, according to the science foundation.
In bridging gaps between different fields of study, the science foundation notes, students also are better prepared to be “broadly inclusive” in their careers.
The effort is timely, Fitzgerald said, because a wave of retirements is about to sweep over those U.S. agencies where long-time, experienced biologists have been studying the ecological problems for decades.
“More than one half of the Senior Executive Service members at the Department of the Interior, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to retire by the end of this year,” Fitzgerald said, citing a Renewable Resources Foundation survey done in 2003.
The report also said the interior department also will lose more than 60 percent of its program managers, the forest service will lose more than 80 percent of its entomologists and 49 percent of its foresters, and the EPA will lose 45 percent of its toxicologists and 30 percent of its environmental specialists.
It’s good timing for students as well, they say.
“Students are hungry for this kind of program,” Stronza said. ” They will address issues of invasive species, declining range size and diminishing species populations, poverty and social conflict, over-exploitation of resources, land-use change and habitat loss. These are big challenges some of the most vexing challenges of the 21st century.”
The two call their five-year project “Applied Biodiversity Science: Bridging Ecology, Culture and Governance for Effective Conservation.” They put heavy emphasis on “applied.” They have targeted the U.S.-Mexican border, Central America, the Caribbean basin, the Western Amazon and Gran Chaco, a sparsely populated area between Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia.
“If you picture the three sides of a triangle conducting interdisciplinary research, partnering with local communities and organizations, and putting theory into the practice of conservation the space inside the triangle is what we call applied biological science,” Fitzgerald said.
Students in the program will do complementary research on either biological or social aspects of conservation in the study regions. They also must complete an internship with a conservation organization and go to the Amazon for a field course. Doctoral candidates may approach research from a variety of academic disciplines.
“We want to produce a social scientist who can talk effectively with a biologist about what’s going on in that system and vice versa,” Stronza said. “We hope that the PhD.s who emerge from the program will be effective in working in teams to conserve biodiversity in Latin America and in the U.S.”