Why does biodiversity matter to the federal government?

Barbara Martinez
May 7, 2014

Biodiversity is the variation of life at multiple levels: molecular, genetic, species, ecosystems and across landscapes. The federal government does not have just one agency devoted to the study, management or conservation of biodiversity, so the Biodiversity Affinity Group within the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship recently convened a panel discussion to address the question, Why does biodiversity matter to the federal government?

The panel consisted of representatives from a number of federal agencies: the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the USDA Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Speakers described their agencies’ efforts to understand, conserve, monitor, and sustainably manage biological diversity with implications for resource management, agriculture, food security, international development, ecosystem services, global monitoring, basic science, and innovation.

Here are some highlights from the recorded session:

Biodiversity is part of the mission of the USFS: to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 requires that the USFS create management plans and monitor habitats and wildlife so that multiple-use objectives are met while maintaining biological diversity.

Our food security relies on the genetic level of diversity of seeds and livestock found within wild relatives, farmers’ heirloom varieties, and conventional breeding stock. In light of the growing human population, the 1990 Farm Bill charged the Agricultural Research Service with preserving agrobiodiversity as genetic resources in genebanks. These genebanks are giant safe deposit boxes for the genetic diversity of our food, and researchers have the keys to access the genetic diversity to improve our food security.

The Foreign Assistance Act outlines the importance of biodiversity and forestry to sustainable development for USAID. This summer, USAID will launch a new Biodiversity Policy that will recognize how human well-being and progress depend on the health of biologically diverse systems, and that development gains are not possible unless these systems are valued and safeguarded.       

There is a role for NASA, too. Satellites carry sensors that create data-rich maps of the entire planet over time. Satellite data, for example, are used to calculate productivity, climate, and habitat changes over time and space.

The NSF recognizes that biodiversity is important to the organization since scientists continue to submit research proposals on the topic. Environments are changing rapidly in novel and unexpected ways, due in part to changing climate and disturbance regimes. Existing programs, including the Dimensions of Biodiversity, address scales from the genomic to the continental, as well as applied questions such as changes in species range.  

“Environmental Intelligence” was the favored term by the NOAA representative. Biodiversity informs all that the agency does, which is to protect, maintain and restore marine life. There are a number of programs at NOAA that are not labeled as “biodiversity” but are nonetheless relevant to the topic of environmental intelligence.

This last point may be the case at a number of other federal agencies that were not represented at the symposium (e.g. health-related agencies funding drug development research, most of the work at the Environmental Protection Agency, and agencies within the U.S. Department of Interior). The panel discussion was a sampling of the breadth and depth of biodiversity-related programs in the federal government, and it is clear that in many regards biodiversity is fundamental to our nation. There is no one agency that can oversee all the issues related to biodiversity; it truly is an interagency effort and further communication and coordination are needed to continue with successful biodiversity research, conservation, monitoring, and management.

Photo: Barbara Martinez

Barbara Martinez

Barbara Martinez has a PhD in Conservation Biology and was a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey from 2011-2012 and at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2012-2013. She is currently an ORISE Fellow in the Office of the Science Advisor at the US EPA.


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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