Assessing biodiversity funding during the sixth extinction


  • George Amato,

    Corresponding author
    1. Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, American Museum of Natural History New York, NY, USA
    2. Center for Conservation Genetics, American Museum of Natural History New York, NY, USA
    • Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, American Museum of Natural History New York, NY, USA.
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  • Rob DeSalle

    1. Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, American Museum of Natural History New York, NY, USA
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Funding for understanding biodiversity on this planet has had a checkered and unsatisfactory history. There have been some true successes in developing models for assessing biodiversity, but satisfactory governmental and international support has been piecemeal and unsatisfactory. A true solution to the biodiversity crisis will require greater attention from governmental and international funding agencies.

This may sound like whining coming from two biodiversity focused scientists, but it is hard to argue against the impression that biodiversity funding has always been an afterthought for national and international funding agencies. This is evident in both of the realms where the limited funds for biodiversity research have appeared. First, the amount of funding and the overall attention paid to the discipline have historically made them a poor second cousin to biomedical and more reductionist type science such as genomics and molecular biology – all primarily focused on human health. In this realm biodiversity science is now largely co-opted to be a part of research on emerging zoonotic diseases and the so-called one health initiatives 1, 2. Another trend is to link business with biodiversity as the European Union has done with their Business @ Biodiversity program. But it is also clear to us that biodiversity science has been the afterthought as part of global efforts for poverty alleviation and protection of indigenous and developing country bio-resources that are not truly focused on biodiversity research and conservation.

As a biodiversity issue, several authors have discussed the problem and it has been given various names, starting with Wilson 3 and his description of “the biodiversity crisis”. Other more precise monikers have been given to the problem such as the “taxonomic imperative” 4, which describes the problem of diminishing taxonomic expertise, the “extinction crisis” or the “Sixth Extinction” 5, which describes the impact of loss of biodiversity and the public-citizen biodiversity science gap 6 which describes the lack of public understanding of the biodiversity crisis.

To add to the existence of the funding problem is a sense of urgency. It has been suggested that species loss is an even more critical blow to the future of the planet than global climate change. It has been estimated that a species goes extinct every 20 minutes on the planet and that this rate is 1,000 times or more greater than background. Extrapolations indicate that half of all bird and mammal species will go extinct in the next 200–300 years. These are grim numbers and it is impossible to argue that the biodiversity crisis in the guise of species loss does not exist. So how do we confront this problem? While there have always been controversies within conservation biology concerning the relative value of various approaches 7, what is clear is that we are still remarkably ignorant about the amount and distribution of biodiversity on the planet – even at the level of species. Even for relatively well-studied groups such as birds – it has recently been estimated that we have underestimated diversity by at least half, and that current taxonomies are incorrect as a result of morphologically cryptic diversity 8. In order to affect biodiversity conservation to a measurable – if minimal –degree, we need a significant effort to accurately identify and catalogue this diversity. Several initiatives have been started in the last decade to tackle this enormous challenge by creating international collaborative efforts and consortia with the ultimate goal of stemming the tide of the crisis. We mention four here – the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) 9, DNA barcoding (BoL) 10, the Census of Marine Life (CoML) 11, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) 12 as important advances. All of these approaches have garnered significant funding, significant momentum, and significant publicity; but all have their pluses and minuses, indicating that there still is a need for significant new funding to make headway on biodiversity science and solve the crisis. All of these initiatives have served as great working models for how the crisis can be broached (Fig. 1). And private Foundations have made truly important contributions through the strategic leveraging of critical seed money, though none have the capacity to match governmental spending should governments decide that this is a societal priority.

Figure 1.

A diagrammatic summary describing how the biodiversity crisis has been approached in the past decade. The crisis was identified and continues to be characterized, and has been given many names such as “the sixth extinction”, “the taxonomic imperative”, and “the public-science biodiversity gap”. Once the crisis and its extent was identified, researchers proposed “working” models (CoML, BoL, EoL, etc.) focused on addressing specific aspects of the crisis. These proposals are picked up and funded by both private foundations and governmental funding agencies. More often than not, private foundations have provided the seed funds for development of “working” models. The dashed line emanating from the government funding box at the top of the figure suggests that such funding does occur but at this point in time it is somewhat lacking. Once working models mature, prioritization (Barometer of Life) becomes an important next step. Funding for the prioritization step and the subsequent major push to a fully realized biodiversity initiative will depend almost entirely on governmental interest and international cooperation (connected by small gray bar). The weak dotted lines in this part of the diagram signify the continuing lack of attention most governmental funding agencies have paid to the problem. Our view of the goal of a full scale biodiversity initiative is shown in the box at the bottom and includes establishing an international effort with efficient pipelines in an open source model. It should also be adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The “Prioritization” and “Affective Biodiversity Initiative” boxes in the figure have yet to be realized in addressing the current biodiversity crisis.

Recently the proponents of the EoL have suggested that an even more important tool or product would be a “Barometer of Life”. According to the authors of the idea such a barometer would compile and keep track of conservation-related data on distributions, threat to species, and extinction risk assessment of species 13. Such a barometer would seem to us to be a critical aspect of any initiative on biodiversity incorporated into not only the EoL but also GBIF, CMoL, ToL, and BoL. The authors of this paper suggest that a working Barometer of Life for the EoL would cost more than 50 million $US which would from an “economic perspective, be one of the best investments for the good of humanity” 13. But is this suggested initiative likely to be practically efficient or is it merely another working model for how we can curb the crisis?

While private funding has had a huge impact, governmental funding is usually lacking. Two exceptions we are aware of are the US governmental source of biodiversity funding that comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz, BfN). While we applaud the successful (but now defunct) NSF program Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) and the more recent establishment of a program called “Dimensions of Biodiversity”, we wonder if it is too little in the wrong place. We agree with Joann Roskoski, NSF Deputy Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, that “the innovative and interdisciplinary teams of the Dimensions of Biodiversity program may accomplish in 10 years what, with a piecemeal approach, would have taken 50 years – a half-century we can no longer afford to wait”. However, we question whether this slight increase in speed is the only consideration we need to make in attempting to overcome the crisis. And, again question whether or not we are seeing still other working models being introduced into our lexicon for dealing with the crisis.

Any truly effective program should be global and support real and broad international efforts. An effective approach should not rely too heavily on standard approaches but rather innovative approaches to cost effectively match the necessary levels of funding with the enormity and time-sensitive nature of the task. While the new international approaches mentioned above have identified better paradigms for identifying biodiversity data at the species level, they only represent model programs rather than being the tools for truly rapid assessments. More appropriately we need a well-funded pipeline approach similar to new genomics initiatives and based on the working models that we have in hand now. This pipeline should combine high throughput DNA sequencing and bioinformatics efforts with collaborative, global collecting, and sampling. And these should all be conducted following an open source model. It should be international and adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as the best way to globally protect all life on the planet for all people on the planet. The current under-funded models with so much attention paid to only human health and parochial resource protection is resulting in an acceleration of the current extinction crisis rather than contributing to retention of a biodiverse planet.


We acknowledge the continued funding of the Sackler, Cullman, and Korein Family Foundations.