Q&A: We cannot afford to lose the global sentinels of environmental change
Field Stations and Marine Laboratories (FSML) are great engines for researching, monitoring and learning our world. However, FSMLs around the world are facing significant cuts and even closures due to budget cuts linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gene E. Likens of UConn and David L. Wagner, professors in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, wrote an editorial in Science emphasizing the importance of these vital “sentinels” while drawing attention to the dangers. that we are facing if these global observatories are to be closed. They met with UConn Today to explain the issues. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How has the pandemic affected research in the field? What effect does this have for scientists and research in general?
Wagner: The pandemic has resulted in travel restrictions around the world, from the polar regions to the equator. The ramifications of short- and long-term data collection have compromised the research efforts, field courses, and training experiences of undergraduates, many graduate and postdoctoral students, who often have limited windows to their studies. Many early-career scientists have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic following two seasons in the field of canceled or reduced research efforts. Few studies, except those considered the most essential, have been able to continue, and these have often been reduced. 2020 and 2021 will be asterisk years for decades to come: for datasets, published studies, and in the resumes of many early career students and scientists.
Can you talk about the threats that field stations and marine laboratories (FSML) face?
I like: FSMLs around the world are financially dependent on parent institutions. Historically, universities have subscribed to many FSMLs around the world because these off-campus facilities align with the institution’s undergraduate teaching and research missions. When universities are short of funds, one of the first goals of balancing budgets is often to cut funding for off-campus programs such as field stations and marine laboratories. Sadly, this is extremely short-sighted given the overall importance of these environmental sentinels in helping us humans on our way to sustainability.
Wagner: Field stations depend on course fees, tuition, bench and day usage fees, meal plan, and accommodation income, all of which almost all evaporated in the two last seasons in the field. The staff, in particular, has been reduced. For example, the famous biological station of La Selva in Costa Rica (where many professors and graduate students from UConn have worked for decades), suffers from multiple budgetary problems, linked to the pandemic: research efforts were suspended, classes canceled, some administrative issues and support positions eliminated, and other staff put on leave.
What would be the future of research without field stations or marine laboratories?
I like: These field stations and marine laboratories are silent but robust observatories of environmental change. They may not be well known outside the academic community, even though they are scattered around the world. Yet these sentinels are essential for monitoring our survival systems, our clean water, our clean air, our clean soils, our clean food, all of these vital things that sustain us, the so-called ecosystem services. It is important to make responsible parties such as universities and the federal government understand that this funding is a crucial issue and that FSMLs must be supported and maintained. We wrote the editorial to clarify this point.
Wagner: Having none is not an option, they are too important! FSMLs are hives for environmental scientists: ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists and soil scientists, oceanographers, limnologists, meteorologists, biosystematists, conservation biologists, resource managers and others. FSMLs are where many early career students and scientists learn their craft, formulate their ideas (and questions), collect their own data. They provide a crucial infrastructure for immersive on-site learning, where scientists and non-scientists alike will face obstacles and difficulties, and make their own discoveries and taste success.
Can you explain why closing these facilities in times of climate crisis is particularly damaging?
Wagner: Field stations and marine laboratories are our observatories to take the pulse of the Earth and its generosity … infinite forms of Darwin. It is deeply ironic that, as we delve into the Anthropocene, humanity faces unprecedented rates of climate change, rainforest destruction, decline of coral reefs, and a myriad of other challenges. environmental, and that we have the greatest need for data that could be used to inform policy and make science-based decisions, that scientists have been anchored by a global pandemic. Additionally, the loss of back-to-back seasons in the field has barred many undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and early-career scientists from an array of courses and research opportunities – the pandemic has sent a ripple that will spread across many disciplines for years to come.
I like: These observatories have and clearly reveal the many critical environmental problems we face. Mankind has problems with water pollution, problems with air pollution, problems with soil pollution, etc. FSMLs make an extremely important contribution to our knowledge base, which is extremely important if we are to make sound management decisions regarding these serious environmental challenges.