Since 1758 -the year in which scientific nomenclature officially came into being- around 1.8 million animal and plant species have been identified. However, in recent years, research has shown that these recorded organisms account for only one tenth of the actual number of species that currently exist on the earth. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that, with the advent of industrialization and the ever more massive increase in the world's population, an extinction of species is occurring the like of which has not been seen more than once or twice in the earth's history.
Agriculture and human settlement are expanding, and precious living-spaces (geodiversity) that serve as habitats for the world's multifarious species (biodiversity) are disappearing. According to conservative estimates, around 17,500 species are getting extinct every year. Most of these have not even been discovered, let alone researched or exploited. This loss has ecological and economic consequences which, though difficult to measure, are undoubtedly of major significance. Extinction is forever!
If we are to be able to institute measures to protect and preserve biological diversity, taxonomical research and biosystematics are crucial. This branch of research therefore urgently needs to be supported and liberated from its present state of scientific semi-obscurity. This had already been cited as a global objective in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and was reaffirmed in the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) that followed on from this. The CBD was signed by almost every country in the world. It sets out how biodiversity can be recorded, preserved, and sustainably used. It also sets out how the profits derivable from biodiversity can be equitably distributed.
Biodiversity is not distributed evenly over the earth; it is concentrated mainly in the tropics-in other words, primarily in the developing countries. As a result, there is a huge discrepancy between economically impoverished 'megadiversity countries' and ecologically impoverished 'megadeveloped countries'. The intention is that this discrepancy should be ironed out through collaboration between the developing and the industrialized countries.
The BIOPAT initiative aims to tap new sources of finance and, with these, support taxonomical research and biosystematics, and also measures to preserve and protect biological diversity as stipulated in the CBD and GTI.
How Does BIOPAT Work?
BIOPAT raises funds by issuing sponsorhips for newly discovered animal and plant species. The funds raised are used for purely non-profit purposes-namely, researching and preserving biological diversity. As an acknowledgement of their contribution, sponsors are offered the opportunity of naming a new species.
The idea of issuing dedicatory names in recognition of financial contributions is not new: it has been successfully practised, for example, by the State Zoological Collection in Munich (ZSM). But the BIOPAT initiative differs in several important respects from the procedures commonly used up to now: whereas some previous actions of this kind have found themselves open to the charge of 'bio piracy', BIOPAT's aims fall entirely within the ambit of the kind of 'benefit sharing' detailed in the biodiversity convention (CBD).
Donations to BIOPAT are channelled, on the one hand, to the institutes that identify the species, to support research into taxonomy and biosystematics. On the other hand, in line with the idea of 'benefit sharing', support is given to research projects-in the tropical countries of origin-which are designed to help preserve biodiversity. After a sponsorship has been successfully agreed, and the species description has been published, the institutes whose researchers have passed their new species on to BIOPAT for negotiation receive a proportion of the donation to put towards their work. The minimum amount of this will be € 1,300 (for a minimum donation of € 2,600), and in the case of a larger donation, it turns out correspondingly higher. The sum received must genuinely benefit the researchers or study groups engaged in identifying the new taxa.
The remaining portion of the donation is placed in a support fund. The countries of origin of the newly identified species can apply for money from this for help in researching and protecting the modes of life and tropical habitats of these organisms. Assessment of the merits of the claims is carried out by a BIOPAT Awards Committee.
The researcher responsible for the identification must be working with a recognized research-institute. In addition, his or her samples of the animal or plant concerned must have been collected and exported in accordance with the national provisions of the country of origin. The holotype must have been deposited in a scientific collection that is readily accessible. Should BIOPAT have any doubts as to the earnestness of the person identifying the species, it will refuse the grant of a sponsorship.
To some scientists, the idea of linking research to 'commercialism' or to sponsoring appears somewhat suspect: research should never come to be so dependent on financial backers that doubt can be cast on the objectivity of its findings. In science, seriousness and objectivity must always have the highest priority.
The research fields of taxonomy and biosystematics in fact constitute an exception, in that they number amongst the few scientific disciplines for which there is as yet no significant degree of sponsoring. In almost every other field of biological research whose findings, when practically applied, are expected to produce some kind of economic benefit (genetics, microbiology, biotechnology, molecular biology, biochemistry, etc.), research is now no longer conceivable without some kind of sponsoring.
But financial support need not necessarily lead to a reduction in scientific quality-provided there are control mechanisms. In fact, sponsoring can greatly enhance the effectiveness of scientific research-or actually make it possible in the first place. It is also becoming increasingly clear that loss of biodiversity has major economic consequences, the costs of which must ultimately be borne by society. Supporting research into the preservation of biological diversity therefore constitutes an economic, as well as an ecological, investment.
Assigning dedicatory names to newly identified taxa is a long-established tradition. It is common, for example, for identifiers to use a dedicatory name to honour a person for his or her scientific achievements-or a person that is close to them-or someone who perhaps collected the new species on their travels. But dedications to financiers who have supported research, or actually made it possible, have always existed as well.
The BIOPAT initiative is not about 'selling' species-names. By making their donation, the individuals concerned become sponsors of a new species of animal or plant, and their money promotes research that helps ensure the preservation of biodiversity. In return, they are honoured by having a name of their choice assigned to a species. It is hard to see any objection to this kind of honour being paid to sponsors who are supporting the work of scientists and whose donations are being used solely for a good purpose. Besides this: even if the BIOPAT initiative is successfully implemented, the proportion of dedicatory names assigned through BIOPAT is likely to remain relatively small. Given the stipulated minimum of € 2.600 for a donation, the demand from donors will probably be much lower than the number of new species that are continually being identified (currently around 10,000 per year).
Canvassing for sponsors for as yet unidentified taxa theoretically brings with it an increased risk of prior publication by third parties. It is therefore left up to the researchers themselves to decide how detailed an account they give of 'their' species and whether they provide illustrations. If necessary, a picture of a similar species that has already been identified can be used, with an appropriate note.
For BIOPAT, scientific quality is paramount. Authors will therefore be required to submit their manuscripts to established journals where they can be subjected to 'peer review'. This will preclude species being the object of dubious 'commercialization' for individual profit. With this in mind, BIOPAT reserves the right to refuse to deal with suspect species-identifications.
To Sum up
Loss of biodiversity has unforeseeable ecological and economic consequences and must therefore be diminished or prevented. Given the present state of affairs, taxonomy and biosystematics cannot and must not be pursued as ends in themselves. The BIOPAT initiative will do much to ensure that taxonomy and biosystematics, as bases for the research and preservation of diversity, do justice to their crucial role. The greater the number of institutions and researchers involved in the BIOPAT initiative, the more positive will be the response from the public. By becoming a member, you will be able to bring your views and ideas to the BIOPAT initiative.