Realizing the Value of our Investment
As biologists, we seek knowledge and understanding of an immensely complex, interwoven, interdependent system that makes up the biosphere. The true cost of human exploitation of the biosphere for economic gain (e.g., through deforestation, over-fishing, mining and drilling) is coming home to roost not just as a loss of our natural heritage of biological diversity, but also in economic terms. Resource economists recognize current modeling practices as flawed, but they don’t yet have access to representative quantitative biodiversity data in networked and accessible information systems. As biologists and informaticists we have the ability to answer the question, “What is the hidden economic cost of replacing millions of hectares of old-growth tropical rainforest with a monoculture of oil- palm?” However, to answer this question we need additional resources allocated to biodiversity surveys and infrastructure.
Our biodiversity inventory is highly incomplete, but data from museum collections represent a global gold standard for names and distributions, ecological, phylogenetic, and genetic information necessary to build meaningful economic impact models. We can store, manage, and synthesize large amounts of diverse information on extant and extinct species; we can capture specimen data much more efficiently than we used to; we can identify phylodiversity hotspots; we can model past, present, and future species distributions, and how invasive species may disperse in a changed climate. However, we are currently limited by computational scale, and a lack of digitized and accessible networked information.
By making key, quantitative, synthesized information available in ways that can be incorporated into economic models, we make scientific collections and downstream knowledge much more relevant to the world at large. The Biodiveristy Institute Think Tank will use collaborations among biologists, ecologists, informaticists, economists, legal specialists, and policy- makers to improve economic models related to biodiversity. This will increase the monetary value of our collections and their data, which can be made available to a broad array of clients. The return on investment is potentially huge, not just in protecting the planet, but in developing a viable business model that will support biodiversity science.