Monday, August 20, 2012

A Bystander? ~ A Bone to Pick With Cristián Samper

In which the blogger overreacts to a comment and really ends up in the soup . . . of climate change.
Cristián Samper assumed the helm of the Wildlife Conservation Society this month, leaving the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) which he had directed for nearly a decade.  It’s an impressive move for the biologist who compiled a brilliant track record at the NMNH.  The NMNH which has a mission of “inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world,” maintains a collection of some 126 million objects of natural history, employs about 460 individuals, and has annual operating resources of over $68 million.  In contrast, the Society, with a mission to “save wildlife and wild places across the globe,” runs four zoos and an aquarium in New York City, supports 500 research projects in 60 countries, employs some 4,000 individuals, and has an annual budget of  $200 million.

The Society’s gain is the Museum’s great loss, though the pain of the loss has been lessened wonderfully by the recent announcement that paleontologist Kirk Johnson, chief curator and VP of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has been appointed the new director of the Museum.  (Kirk Johnson Named Director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Newsdesk, Smithsonian Institution, July 26, 2012.)

I am annoyed with Samper because of his explanation of why he made the move.  It’s a rationale that really rankles and prompted this post in protest.  But first, some context which, in all fairness, only redounds to Samper’s credit, burnishing his reputation.

Nearly a decade ago, science within the entire enterprise of the Smithsonian Institution was under threat.  The scientific mission of the Institution was being compromised by budgetary pressures, organizational dysfunction, and ignorance in political and public circles of that very scientific mission.  The nation’s “attic” had become a repository of art and “treasures” of various stripes, crowding out, in the perception of many, the scientific work that was, and is, at the core of the Institution’s being.

In response, the Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed a Science Commission charged with advising the Institution about the priorities it should set for research and recommending how it should change to live up to its historic mission in science.  In delineating the Smithsonian’s problems, the Science Commission spoke directly about the status of the NMNH, and particularly its leadership.  Despite being “one of the world’s great museums of natural and cultural history,” the NMNH was hamstrung by
an erosion of staff morale, a lack of coherence of programs, turf battles, strategically poor hiring decisions (including administrative positions), lowered productivity, uneven standards for evaluating performance, and a bunker mentality of entitlement in the face of shrinking budgets. (Report of the Smithsonian Institution Science Commission, December 2002,  p. 36.)
Most telling, according to the Commission, the Museum had suffered from instability at the director’s level for over two decades, failing to recruit the best people for the position in part because Smithsonian’s upper management failed to accord the director appropriate authority and responsibility.

Among its many recommendations, the Commission had this counsel for the Board of Regents:
The NMNH must have a distinguished scientist as Director who, in consultation with the scientific staff and outside experts, will chart and champion a new, more focused mission for the Museum. The next Director must develop a clear, integrated vision that will re-energize Museum science, increase public benefits, expand partnerships and collaborations with other institutions, and drive a long-term development campaign.  (p. 37.)
For biologist Cristián Samper, at the time the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the leadership post at the Museum he assumed in 2003 was a huge step up.  As far as I can tell, the Costa Rican-born and Colombian native Samper has fulfilled every aspect of the Commission’s recommendation, and then some.  During the intervening nearly 10 years, the Museum thrived under his guidance, taking major steps to improve (and renovate) its public face and strengthen its financial position.

For me, this story of a scientist gracefully and effectively leading a premier scientific institution and then assuming the reins of another is slightly marred by the comment Samper made explaining his move (and reported by Lisa W. Foderaro in the New York Times).  I don’t have much quarrel with his assertion that the constellation of zoos and aquarium of the Wildlife Conservation Society is “much cooler” than the NMNH.  However misguided that opinion, to each his own.  (As Species Vanish, Taking Up a Mission to Protect Birds and Beasts, by Lisa W. Foderaro, New York Times, August 1, 2012.)  But I do take umbrage with what he added.  Samper spoke about the rapid pace of species extinction globally and then noted,
Part of my decision to make this career change is that I feel I can’t be a bystander. This is an opportunity to protect and conserve these species.
I can’t be a bystander.

What exactly does that mean?  Is Samper in agreement with Times reporter Foderaro’s invidious comparison between the two institutions – the NMNH with “a vast collection that lies mostly in drawers and jars” and the Society with “one that actively prowls four of the five boroughs”?  The dusty, long dead versus the vibrant, endangered living?

I appreciate the mission of the Society and recognize its importance.  Samper views his new position as putting him in the frontlines of the fight to protect the planet and its wild things from environmental degradation and the dire consequences of climate change.  Zoos may well serve as the final haven for species on the brink of extinction.  It’s a daunting task that he has undertaken.

Still, I cannot shake a touch of anger that he feels that, for almost a decade at the helm of the NMNH, he was merely a bystander.  If indeed he was on the sidelines, it was not a function of the mission and the science that the NMNH has, and could have, undertaken during his watch.

There are many ways to shape the counter argument which in essence asserts that what we learn from the collection of specimens that “lies mostly in drawers and jars” is critical for fighting the fight which Samper now wages from what he perceives are the frontlines of the battle.  Let me try to make the argument from the perspective of one of the scientific disciplines that is at the core of NMNH activities – paleontology.

Knowledge gained from study of the remnants of ancient life builds our understanding of what life on this planet has confronted and how it may respond to monumental challenges, including that of global warming..  The long look back of paleontology offers us insight into how flora and fauna have, or have not, survived calamitous changes in the environment.  Indeed, knowledge of how the climate changed in the distant past and its consequences comes, in part, from that very study of fossils (and, particularly, microfossils).  The sense of urgency that many have about the fate of the planet derives from the stories that the fossil record has to tell.

This general proposition – that paleontological study informs our perception of the threats faced and helps to identify potential outcomes – was driven home by an article in this month’s Scientific American by climate scientist Ken Caldeira.  (The Great Climate Experiment:  How Far Can We Push The Planet?, Scientific American, September, 2012.)

Caldeira, at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology (Stanford University), is one of those trying to sound a clarion call to action about the factors that are changing the climate and that will probably continue to do so for thousands of years, even if the rate at which carbon dioxide (the currently identified villain in the piece) enters the atmosphere drops precipitously.

As much as critics may disparage the mathematical models upon which predictions of future climate change are based, Caldeira argues that they have tracked well with the changes currently upon us.
Already we are witnessing the future envisioned by many of these models take shape.  As predicted, there has been more warming over land than over the oceans, more at the poles than near the equator, more in winter than in summer and more at night than in the day.  Extreme downpours have become more common.  In the Arctic, ice and snow cover less area, and methane-rich permafrost soils are beginning to melt.  Weather is getting weirder, with storms fueled by the additional heat.
He adds,
The greenhouse that is forming now will have consequences that last for hundreds of thousands of years or more.  But first, it will profoundly affect much of life on the planet – especially us.
In his eyes, what the future holds poses immense challenges to life.  Without action on our part, temperatures will rise, with higher average temperatures moving toward the poles – mobile species may adapt to that, others probably will not.  The planet’s desert bands will creep poleward.  Climate change will probably lead to increased crop productivity overall, though this will be concentrated in countries in the northern latitudes, further impoverishing countries near the equator.  The net result will be to “give more to the rich and less to the poor.”  Increased acidity in the oceans will imperil species dependent upon coral reefs, a sizeable portion of all marine live.  Still, Caldeira is optimistic that Earth will not enter a “feedback loop” that condemns us to a Venusian future.

Nevertheless, there will be hothouse conditions and he feels “[h]uman civilization is at risk”  Regional differences in the impact of climate change may fuel social and political unrest as populations seek to move to more hospitable environments.  “The social response to climate change could produce bigger problems for humanity than the climate change itself.”

In light of Samper's comment, what strikes me most forcefully about Caldeira's analysis is the extent to which his understanding of earth’s climate, past, present, and future, is based on paleontology, one of the hallmark disciplines represented by the NMNH's collections and research efforts.

The Cretaceous Period (145 to 65 million years ago), in particular, figures prominently in Caldeira’s article.  According to him, this is the “best historical example” for the future toward which we are moving.  It was a time “when moist, hot air enveloped dinosaurs’ leathery skin, crocodilelike creatures swam in the Arctic and teeming plant life flourished in the CO2-rich air.”  The temperatures at the poles averaged some 14 degrees C (57 degrees F) and in the summer rose above 25 degrees C (77 degrees F).  Ocean levels were appreciably higher.  In short, life and the planet were markedly different.

How do we know all of this?  A significant portion of the evidence comes from the study of fossils, those things stuck in drawers at the NMNH.  A new NMNH website dedicated to the fossil record in the Washington, D.C. area during the Cretaceous has this to say in response to the question of how we know what the climate was like then:
Earth was warmer during the Cretaceous than it is now. Coal beds and fossils show that lush forests grew in Antarctica and in the far north, and many kinds of warm temperature-loving animals, including dinosaurs, lived near the poles. Another indication of globally warm temperatures can be found in the shells of single-celled marine organisms called foraminiferans . . . ; fossils dating from the Early Cretaceous show the chemical signature of growth in ocean waters much warmer than today's seas.  (Revealing Ancient Climate and Terrain in the website Dinosaurs in Our Backyard.)
Samper may indeed be grappling with the growing environmental challenges to life on Earth in a hands-on fashion, but the broader effort is critically informed and driven by paleontological work.  Further, the outcome of battles in the social and political arenas over the issues of environmental degradation and climate change may depend as much on the detailed and persuasive reconstruction of the record of the planet’s past as on impassioned pleas and efforts to save endangered wildlife.

1 comment:

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