Dr. Elizabeth Barron holds a joint appointment as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and in the Program on Science, Technology & Society at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Her academic background includes a BS in Anthropology and Biological Aspects of Conservation from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Master’s in Forest Resources from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She completed her PhD in Geography at Rutgers University, where her dissertation research focused on documenting the emerging field of fungal conservation in the United States and Europe, and its impacts on federal land management and policy in the USA.

Additionally, she volunteered for the United States Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa; as an ecological project supervisor with Americorps at Bandelier National Monument; and as a biological technician in the Natural Resources Division at Cape Cod National Seashore.

Her current work at Harvard continues to capitalize on her interests in the intersections of people and the environment.

(For complete clip collection without textual commentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBP49WYAajQ)

If you wander down the ambling roads of Biology, Economics, Conservation and Public Policy, you will likely meet Dr. Elizabeth Barron at their intersection. With a rich background in both the natural and social sciences, she offers a unique and sensible perspective to the intertwined issues facing biodiversity in the coming decade.

“For a long time, I’d had this tension between my desire for a deep understanding of the complexity of the natural world and of the environment, and my desire to understand why people are who they are, and interact with the environment in the ways that they do,” she said. “I was really intrigued by a course of academic study where you could get at both sides of that question, the human side and the environmental side.”

On December 2nd, 2011, Dr. Barron kindly braved sickness and sniffles to engage in an casual, candid, and thought-provoking conversation with Science in the News.

When facing a multifaceted issue like biodiversity, defining the key term can provide a useful place to begin. Biodiversity centers on the concept of “difference”, demonstrated most familiarly by the vast array of species found on Earth. However, the idea of “difference” in biodiversity extends all the way from the environments that the species live in to the genetic variation between them:

A simplified definition is perhaps most useful when used as a tool, and a launching pad to more in-depth discussions, rather than as an endpoint. Terms like “biodiversity” are often simplified for the sake of clarity and ease of use in conversation, but without further inquiry, the actual complexity of the concepts behind the term is not appreciated. Definitions are best used, then, as a tool to frame a discussion without detracting from the depth of the subsequent dialogues.

The outcomes of these discussions are often expressed through policymaking and the shaping of laws that protect and manage biodiversity (e.g., The Endangered Species Act of 1973). Working with a more complex concept of biodiversity may aid in the development of conservation policy that integrates economic, legal, social and scientific components to more holistically and comprehensively manage biodiversity.

In one of her current projects in the Pringle Lab, Dr. Barron contributes to the relatively young fields of fungal conservation and fungal resources management. While the idea of conservation typically conjures images of large animal species, fungi constitute an important but challenging front in the conservation of biodiversity. Fungi play key roles in a wide range of ecosystems, and are comprised of a staggeringly high number of species, most of which are still unnamed by mycologists (scientists who study fungi). Because of their variation in size and form, fungal species embody the core concept of “difference” in biodiversity, while simultaneously highlighting the difficulty of managing organisms when so little is known:

Since species preservation is a major metric for assessing the value of conservation in land management, the discrepancy between the existing diversity of fungi and our knowledge of it illustrates a key difficulty for preserving diversity of life at all scales. For fungi, the knowledge of local mushroom hunters and amateur enthusiasts offers a largely un-tapped resource to fill in this gap, and presents a case for the inclusion of local knowledge when assessing biodiversity.

One of Dr. Barron’s projects seeks to systematically catalogue the knowledge of local morel (an edible mushroom) hunters in the mid-Atlantic, and examine it in relation to the research on morels using tools of molecular biology. The project underscores the power of combining a social science approach with natural science tools to provide a new context for conservation policy decisions. The hope is that this method of integration will lead to a more inclusive, effective and respectful management of the environment.

Lawmaking to codify this management necessitates a confluence of science (natural and social) and politics, leading to some murky waters. Unbiased collection and interpretation of data is a basic tenant of scientific inquiry. However, research does not occur in a vacuum, and is regularly used within a political framework. Scientists cannot control how their findings are used after they are published, so making some pre-consideration of the political landscape is worthwhile:

Scientists make choices about when, where, and in what format to publish their findings. These decisions often have some political effect. The conflict remains, however, that the scientific contributors to the debates in land management (and subsequently, biodiversity conservation) are usually not the same people as the decision makers or those affected by the resulting policies. This can lead to unintended and deleterious effects. One suggestion is that policymakers yield some of their power to other people in order to draft more inclusive conservation policies, but then the issue of responsibility becomes very significant. Yielding power in this way does not eliminate potential conflict, but the hope is that including as many affected and invested voices will lead to better policy:

Because biodiversity conservation must operate on multiple scales, tensions arise between personal and political agendas, economic concerns, and unknowns in the initial research that helps to define the landscape. In any situation with complex and competing interests, a careful consideration of our own perspectives, values, priorities, and how these components fit within a broader cultural context may constitute a step forward:

Dr. Barron suggests that the sources of many seemingly irreconcilable problems regarding conservation policy and environmental protection are rooted in social and cultural “value” systems, which seem to automatically order our priorities and hide alternative solutions.

A familiar example in some communities is the clash between environmental protection and economic development projects (like a highway). Similar to conservation policies focused on protecting species, environmental policy places priority on protecting natural resources and habitats, additional key components in the preservation of biodiversity.

Economic development and environmental protection are often framed as at odds with each other, within a value system where we define the value of actions in terms of potential economic benefit to the “market”. While valid for many decisions, establishing a “market value” for environmental protection often proves problematic. Therefore, any decision leaning towards environmental protection can seem like a sacrifice of economic growth. Depending on whose voices are heard, or what metrics are used, a community can decide that the precise type of proposed development is not worth the loss of an environmental resource:

Biodiversity will benefit from proper environmental protection, but the immediate question that arises is whether or not a community can risk not choosing a plan that proposes growth and development. While the potential for providing work and income for a community may initially seem alluring, weighting different value systems could help one see that not all economic plans are created equal:

Considering a different set of priorities as potentially valid can bring in new perspectives. While economic growth may have initially appeared irreconcilable with protection of biodiversity and the environment, a new context for discussion might show that there are indeed times when the economics do not automatically trump the preservation of natural resources. A change in vantage point illuminates potential solutions that would otherwise go unseen. The multifaceted nature of issues like biodiversity requires this kind of pensive pragmatism:

A way forwards starts with small steps into the new terrain of multidimensional problem. The natural and social sciences can help frame our current knowledge, institutions and cultural systems, but then we must evaluate for ourselves in an honest and even daring manner whether we accept the situation we see around us, and decide how to move forward together. This does not imply a world without disagreement, but rather one where no possibility is left unconsidered:

We began with asking for a simple definition, and ended with a seemingly impossible question: What now?

The path ahead is set in no single dogma or mindset. The only true answer is we must ask, we must seek, and above all, we must listen.

And, perhaps, we will decide that biodiversity truly is priceless.

Interview conducted by Marc Presler, a PhD student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard Medical School.

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