The members of the Consultative Scientific Committee of the Biota/FAPESP project met in December last year, at the Intervales Farm, for the second assessment meeting of the program in order to study and map the fauna and flora of the State of São Paulo. James Staley, of the Microbiology Department of the University of Washington, in Seattle; Arthur Chapman, scientific coordinator of the Environmental Resources Information Network (Erin), of the Australian government; Frank Bisby, of Reading University in England, and coordinator of Species 2000, and Robert Colwell, of the Department of Biology and Evolution of the University of Connecticut, who form the committee, were unanimous in considering the Biota “thrilling” and “exciting”, above all because of the interaction, synergy, and cohesion between the 21 projects. Meeting at FAPESP, the four researchers talked to the journalists Mariluce Moura and Fernando Cunha.
What do you think of the various stages of the Biota/FAPESP program after the meeting at Intervales?
Staley – I was here in December 1999 and a lot has changed since then. One of the most important observations is that the students are now much more actively involved in the program. The research itself is also further forward. What is happening is fantastic: excellent researchers doing excellent work on one of the great features of Brazil and its fantastic biodiversity. FAPESP made all these things add up. The researchers, with support to carry out their research, and the richness of the environment create the setting for an impressive biodiversity program.
Colwell – I was at the Serra Negra Conference, before the start of the Biota/FAPESP, where it was concluded that it was important to develop a program of this sort. Since then, the progress in studying the biodiversity has impressed me more that it has Dr. Staley, who was here around a year ago, when the program was already underway. One of the great hopes we had at the Serra Negra Conference was that Biota Program would be more that just a collection of independent projects. We expected that the synergy, the inter-relationships, the interaction and, in fact, the creative progress would unite different kinds of researchers. After the meeting at Intervales, we saw that this had actually happened. Perhaps the most exciting thing has been to see that, when a researcher talked about what he was doing in his field, someone in the audience would suggest, “Why don’t we get together? We will do this together because we have the data on what you are doing”. This is, probably, the main feature of the Biota-FAPESP Program: it is big enough to have lots of interlocutors and small enough for many disciplines to join forces, interacting synergistically.
Chapman – Like professor Colwell, I was also at the meeting Serra Negra where many ideas came up for the Biota Program. The researchers saw the deficiencies in the research and established what should be done in terms of conserving biodiversity in the State of São Paulo. Like professor Staley, I was also here last year. Many projects were just beginning. This year, the program has taken off and there are now many groups and publications under the scope of the research. The new projects increased the Biota program momentum, setting out new paths. Some have even observed the level of carbon dioxide produced by various types of vegetable, relating it to climate changes, etc. It is surprising to see the brilliance that this program has acquired in such a short time, filling in gaps that, four years ago, were seen as problems and that are starting to be filled in.
Bisby – This has been my first time on the program’s assessment panel, but I have followed the development of the projects since the beginning. I was also impressed by the speed with which the Committee prepared this the large program and with the quality of the projects, some, in particular, of outstanding quality. There are one or two things I would like to mention. I am a plant taxonomist and it seems to me that one of the chief features of the Biota is that, at the same time as it is trying to develop excellent quality research in the interaction between plants and animals in the different components of the system, it also strengthens the basic taxonomical information, that is to say, the basic knowledge of which organisms are present, which organisms exist. This is its strong point. The other area I would like to mention is the program’s cohesion, bringing together the information from all the projects in a single information system. These are two things that I think particularly noteworthy about the Biota and that I appreciate very much.
Professor Staley, Have you noted if among the 21 projects, some are more important than others? Are they all of the same level?
Staley – We noticed that São Paulo is the only State in Brazil that has this program. Perhaps it could be extended to other states in the country. That is why we are encouraging FAPESP to consider how this could be speeded up. It would be absolutely fantastic if all Brazil could achieve an integration of this sort.
What are the guidelines for the next stages of the program?
Bisby – We have structured the report with recommendations on various items. First, we speak about the competence and protocols for annotating information between countries. We go on to give a few ideas for the future and on the size of the program. Under the title of competence and protocols, we have noticed that, over the year, there has been real progress toward an agreement on the notation systems for the whole program especially in the fish projects. But we think that more is still needed. We suggest holding workshops to establish some sampling techniques and the question of when the sample is sufficient. Another point is what is the premise that is being tested.
We also suggest holding workshops to analyze the operational kits, which are increasing. They are quite sophisticated instruments for modeling and measuring biodiversity and for checking the different components of biodiversity. We feel that it would be useful to gather people from different projects in a workshop in order to define future development. We observed that some projects are moving on from a preliminary stage, including collecting, to a more advanced stage of testing hypothesis, looking at other models, sorting out how things change, if other parameters change in the State.
We also made two or three suggestions on the annotation of protocols in the whole project, although they are not important in the present context, but rather mere technical details. Besides this, although the Biota project is studying the State of São Paulo, we suggest that the information system be modified slightly to enable the presentation of information from both inside and outside the State.
Chapman – One of the recommendations we made last year was that some of the student-researchers and the recently graduated researchers become more involved in the evaluation meetings. We were pleased to learn that, at this Intervales meeting, there was a four or five-day-meeting of young scientists. We met them on the last day and managed to discuss many of the topics they brought up. We examined the results of our last year’s report and the things that were being put into practice. I think that one of the problems we found was in the recommendation for integration between last year’s projects. We were suggesting that people should think of integration in a broad way, in seeking ways of integrating. We did not mean to force people. Some projects really could not be integrated but others could. We were thinking of things like techniques, working in the same area or collecting materials that would have some value for other project groups. We wanted them to be aware of this information exchange, and this is happening in a widespread way
— Have you made any suggestions regarding the training of new researchers?
Staley – One of the things we are suggesting for the Biota Program is a special training program for students working on their doctorates, to include graduates in Zoology and Botany. If they take special courses in biodiversity, as well as the doctorate in their own fields, they could become some type of a specialist in environmental therapy. I am unaware of any program offering this type of qualification to students. We are suggesting that the FAPESP-Biota Program consider this type of qualification, because students would join it.
— FAPESP has a policy of attracting young doctors to research programs in São Paulo. The idea is to set young Brazilian researchers on various high-level projects as well as to attract people from abroad: Argentina, Chile, etc. Would the Biota have the potential to absorb these young researchers and their projects?
Colwell – I believe the Biota Program should be important for attracting people from Chile, Argentina and even from Europe, because of the integration of the projects and the fact that it is working on the Atlantic Rain Forest (Mata Atlântica),which is in the process of becoming extinct. The Brazilian Savannah (Cerrado) specifically, will attract world class researchers. As far as I know, this will be the first postdoctoral program offered by a country in the Americas bringing in important people from within and without the country. We think the time is right for the Biota to make a long-term plan in order to plan the use of the knowledge of all its projects or those that are appropriate for this purpose and build what we call a knowledge infrastructure to increase the public’s knowledge of the Biota Program and FAPESP.
Sometimes we leave the education of the public to teachers with materials perhaps produced by amateurs or even prepared abroad. We think that with the deep knowledge the researchers have of the Biota Program and the State of São Paulo, they could form, or advise on how to form, high-quality monitors, world class, for groups of people interested in birds, butterflies, some of the common families of beetle, freshwater fish, mammals, etc.. Instead of going to the Pantanal (the Brazilian Swampland), visitors could go to Intervales with a trained guide and proper materials to study biodiversity. This is just a fantasy of how the Biota could unite everyone, children and adults, in the State.
— What support could the knowledge produced by the Biota give to a general policy of environmental conservation?
Chapman – This subject has various aspects. In most countries, environmental policies bring areas together in an information vacuum. The more information we obtain, the more relevant will decisions be on matters of conservation. In the inventory of species, we don’t know which of them are being threatened and which are common. We don’t know the really critical habitats for the species. As this information becomes available, one of the points for an environmental policy is the protection of threatened species and threatened habitats or those that are in a critical state. It would be possible to decide, for example, that certain areas will become important, which, in the present circumstances, cannot be done due to the lack of specific laws. Or even the government could end up buying this land, or on the contrary, if it believed that they could become valuable for their products and decided on their broad use, be it in forestry, medicinal drugs or in various types of tourism. In the area I live in, in Australia, that is how these matters are considered important by the government. People were not worried about the environment. They had some worries, but the worries were not channeled to the political arena. Now, we have people ready to recycle garbage in separate trash cans. They are worried about areas of vegetation. This is happening all over the world. As people become worried, governments also become more worried because they need these people’s votes. The environment becomes a great topic in Global environment change.