In the age of austerity measures, research programs studying biodiversity have become an object of scrutiny. Why, you may ask, should taxpayers pay to send a graduate student to the tropics to survey reef life? What could we possibly gain from this?
The classic argument is that it is important to understand as much of the world around us as possible (a common statistic passed around is that 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored). We are losing biodiversity as fast as we can catalogue it. Imagine every species as a book. Each of these books is unique—some contain information on how to cure disease, some may provide solutions to the world’s food crises, some may even provide ideas for alternative fuels. As we learn about each new species, we write these books. Meanwhile, these books are being destroyed, ground to a pulp or slimed with oil often before they can be finished or shared. If we stop writing these books and allow destruction to overtake creation of knowledge, how long will it be before our species libraries are empty?
However, the real reason this research should be funded is education. Sure, it’s exciting to go into the field and do research, but what happens when we come back from the beach?
That’s when the work begins. Legions of undergraduate students are trained to process samples and data, performing all manner of analyses in the lab. These students, more often then not, go on to careers with more immediate utility in fields like medicine and technology. What starts as two weeks on a reef ends with training future doctors and chemists in the tools they need to remain competitive in the global economy.