Beyond DIVERSITAS – the future legacy of a new generation of biodiversity scientists

If science moves in increments - is it time to take a leap? Photo: James Marvin Phelps via Flickr
Nov 2014

As the DIVERSITAS programme celebrates 23 years of operation, Carly Ziter asks what will define the next generation of biodiversity science.

It’s not often as a new PhD student that you find yourself in the same room as several dozen of the greats of your discipline – the women and men who have shaped the field that you have barely scratched the surface of. My stint as a 'youth reporter' at the DIVERSITAS celebration a few weeks ago afforded me just such an opportunity, for which I’m immensely grateful. Over the course of the meeting, I was struck not only by the magnitude of the work that this group had done, but also by the grace and kindness by which several renowned scientists took time out of their day of celebration to chat with a young interloper, intent on learning as much as possible about the legacy left by 23 years of biodiversity science.

“And what a legacy it is! DIVERSITAS – self-described as “an international research programme aiming at integrating biodiversity science for human well-being” – has created not only an incredibly strong network of collaborative scientists, but a body of work that has pushed forward the field of biodiversity science in countless ways. Over the 2 phases of DIVERSITAS, spanning 23 years, biodiversity science has moved from a field of inventory and taxonomy, to one that incorporates genetics, phylogenies, and traits in innovative ways. It has moved from the naming and categorizing of species, to investigating the roles that these species play in ecosystem functioning: a heated debate, recounted as a defining period in biodiversity science, and only recently proclaimed “solved” (at least by some attendees!) This wealth of knowledge generated by investigations of biodiversity functioning has helped inspire the growing field of ecosystem services, moving us closer to a fuller understanding of the relationships between biodiversity and human wellbeing. Certainly, this progress was not made by DIVERSITAS alone, and the current state of biodiversity science is a testament to countless scientists across the globe – but neither is it a coincidence that many of the great movers and shakers of the field have been involved in this international programme. DIVERSITAS worked at the cutting edge, and attracted many of the best. It served as an incubator of new ideas – a place to brainstorm – that I can’t help but think has sped the science along.

Over the course of these discoveries, biodiversity science has also grown from what might be considered a narrowly defined field to an increasingly broad and more interdisciplinary one. This was evidenced by the frequency in which research questions were described as “policy-relevant” and “user-driven” over the course of the celebration. Indeed, participants identified not only as biologists or ecologists, but as economists, policy-makers, and social scientists. As experts in environmental health and infectious disease. As educators. While there is still a long way to go regarding effective transfer of science to policy, DIVERSITAS has played an important role in bringing together experts that perhaps 20 years ago would not have been in the same room, much less sitting at the same table. 

Learning about this rich history of DIVERSITAS led me to wonder – and to enquire of many of those present – what will be the defining themes of my generation of biodiversity scientists? The responses to this question ranged in their scope and disciplinarity. Perhaps, it was suggested, the legacy of my generation will be to define a standard unit of measurement for biodiversity, agreed upon by all. Maybe we will be remembered for completing the link between biodiversity and human wellbeing, identifying the feedbacks to indirect drivers of biodiversity loss. More than one attendee suggested our legacy would be working with social scientists to identify how, and why, we make decisions regarding biodiversity loss – creating an interdisciplinary discourse around biodiversity science and its importance. 

Certainly, these are important aims, and will further the work of DIVERSITAS in building scientific knowledge. However, there was also the suggestion – an undercurrent throughout the meeting, mentioned between guests at the dinner table and at coffee breaks, and slipped into conversations on the bus – that maybe some of these discussions are already becoming outdated. Maybe the system is already changing such that solutions to these big “future challenges” are already afoot. There were suggestions that interdisciplinary science is not a future goal to strive for, but rather is already becoming the norm – with centres like the Stockholm Resilience Centre and interdisciplinary environmental science programmes like that of Rhodes University leading the charge. There was a sense that perhaps we’ve got to move beyond this idea to further, harder, challenges. And I must say that I agree. Many scholars of my generation entered the field not solely because of a fascination with the natural world, but because we’ve grown up with the narrative that the natural world is broken, and it’s ours to fix. We’re well poised to tackle these issues, because we’ve always known we’d have to.

A statement from the meeting that particularly stuck with me is that "the future will demand radical changes to achieve sustainability”. And that we’ve known this for a long time. Perhaps the legacy of my generation of biodiversity scientists will not be to conduct interdisciplinary science (because that will be a given), or even to conceive of novel biodiversity metrics (although we cannot neglect such disciplinary science), but rather, we will start to take concrete steps in building the world that will look fundamentally different from the one we’ve got today. Our Future Earth, if you will.

Perhaps our challenge is to start moving towards solutions at the pace that a “biodiversity crisis” demands. 

We’re taught that science moves in increments – in small steps – and that we need to proceed with caution. While these arguments certainly have their place, for most of my life I’ve been hearing that conservation biology is a crisis discipline, and that biodiversity loss is a defining issue of our time (indeed, this paper on bringing conservation biology to management was published the year I was born). So perhaps it’s time to take a larger step – a leap, even. And the solid foundation of biodiversity science and policy built by DIVERSITAS might provide just the platform to leap from.