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Agencies Balk at Report on Diversity

WASHINGTON—Federal research administrators have reacted coolly to suggestions from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment that their agencies become more active in support of programs to preserve biological diversity. In a lengthy report released in late March, OTA pressed Congress to increase funding to existing programs that foster or protect biological diversity, such as the Endangered Species Program and the National Plant Germplasm System. In addition, OTA proposed a specif

By | April 20, 1987

WASHINGTON—Federal research administrators have reacted coolly to suggestions from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment that their agencies become more active in support of programs to preserve biological diversity.

In a lengthy report released in late March, OTA pressed Congress to increase funding to existing programs that foster or protect biological diversity, such as the Endangered Species Program and the National Plant Germplasm System. In addition, OTA proposed a specific niche for conservation biology within the National Science Foundation, cautioning in the same breath that NSF would probably argue that it conflicted with its mission as the nation's funder of basic research.

OTA correctly predicted resistance, but for the wrong reason. Frank Harris, NSF's deputy director of Biotic Systems and Resources, said the Foundation is already funding 90 percent of the research that falls under the loosely defined term "conservation biology." A separate program with sheltered money, he said, would take resources away from other parts of NSF's research budget without necessarily being more effective than the present system of funding projects in ecology, population biology, systematics and ecosystem studies.

OTA report author Michael Strauss, now with the National Research Council, said OTA is the "middle man" in an ongoing debate over establishing a conservation biology section within NSF. The problem, Strauss said, is that conservation biology is more than biological science. It includes sociology, anthropology and politics and is thus an unwieldy charge for any one agency.

Nevertheless, the report's conclusion—that loss of genetic and ecosystem diversity will accelerate over the next few decades, to the global detriment of agriculture, medicine and the biotechnology industry—puts added pressure on Congress to make some changes.

"Little adjustments can be done in a lot of places," said Strauss. And in some cases, it is more a matter of management than money.

Money Not the Answer

For example, the National Plant Germplasm System, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began in the 1940s as a federal-state partnership to provide regional repositories for agricultural plant varieties. USDA's primary concern was production and improvement of the major commodities. Today the agency is fighting this image and orientation, trying to place molecular biologists alongside the plant breeders in the Agriculture Research Service, and gearing its germplasm activities toward preservation as well as crop improvement.

"If Congress dumped $40 million [the figure recommended by OTA] in our laps, we couldn't use it," said Henry Shands, national program leader for germplasm at ARS. Modest, stepwise increases, coupled with advice on managing the system to accomplish conservation goals, are more urgently needed, said Shands. Guidance for ARS is expected to come from the National Research Council's Board on Agriculture, which is conducting a three-year study of the management of global genetic resources.

In Harris's view, greater international cooperation to maintain biological diversity would yield better results than adding programs to the NSF roster. Several years ago Congress directed the Agency for International Development (AID) to consider the management of biological resources in its distribution of development aid. NSF already participates in this process on a policy level. But the process would be more effective, Harris said, if NSF's grantees could join with the people at AID who confront practical problems of reconciling conservation and development.

On the national level, the House subcommittee on natural resources, agricultural research and environment is "considering a number of options" in response to the OTA report, said committee staffer Eileen Lee. But she said it is still too early to discuss the particulars of possible legislation. She added that Congressional hearings on biological diversity are planned for mid-May.

Heneson is a freelance science writer in Washington.

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