Scott Miller: Guardian of life

Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.
Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.

As Deputy Undersecretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), Scott Miller helps oversee the work of SI’s science units, including the National Museum of Natural History, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and others. He is also Chair of the Executive Committee of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), and Co-Chair of the US Government Inter-Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, where he works on science capacity building activities on national and international scales. He maintains an active research program in the systematics and ecology of moths, and the application of that information to conservation and agricultural issues in New Guinea and Africa.

How did you become interested in biodiversity?
I grew up fascinated by nature as a child, and was able to get involved early in insect research projects at a local natural history museum, leading to a career in biodiversity. As I gained a broader perspective, I became especially concerned about helping developing countries to develop the capacity to manage their biodiversity wisely. They lead to my work in Africa.

What will the International Year of Biodiversity achieve?
This is an important opportunity to raise the profile of biodiversity issues. But we have to remember that our reliance on biodiversity is constant, and so must be our attention to understanding and wise management.

Most ecological studies show that biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate worldwide. Could you comment on this?
I agree that biodiversity is being degraded at an alarming rate. While the exact rate can be debated, it is clearly not sustainable.

What is the value of lost biodiversity?
We need much better economic models and data for biodiversity and ecosystem services, but some studies give an idea of the economic importance [Costanza et al. 1997, Pimentel et al. 2000]. One-third of global crop production relies on insect pollinators, valued at some US$ 117 billion. Natural biological control is valued at some $400 billion. Soil arthropods that maintain soil fertility provide trillions of dollars in value to agriculture.

How can Africa reduce the loss of biodiversity?
Action is needed at all levels, from wise government policies, enlightened management of industries that use natural resources, through the empowerment of local people to conserve and benefit from their own natural resources. Wise management requires understanding biodiversity, and valuing conservation to maintain the benefits to society over the long term. The economies of most African countries are based on natural resources, and sustainable development requires wise management. I have always been impressed by the “Working for Water” program in South Africa as a model for integrating landscape scale conservation, invasive species management, economic development and job creation, but there are many other success stories across Africa.

You worked in the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya some time ago. Tell us about your experiences in conservation and sustainable development.
My time in Kenya was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope I was able to help build programs that will have lasting impact. I am still involved in Kenya through collaborations with icipe, Mpala Research Centre, and the National Museum. We tried to help local people understand the value of their biodiversity, how to restore degraded landscapes, and how to benefit from the biodiversity resources. Among other things, I was involved in an integrated conservation development project at Kakamega Forest in western Kenya that involved many synergetic components. These included strengthening forest management, replanting degraded lands, reducing the use of wood as fuel (through promoting efficient cooking stoves), developing sustainable income sources (especially “low tech” uses of natural products, and ecotourism), providing microfinance facilities, and enhancing the accessibility of health care and family planning.

What do you think of IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation/sustainable agriculture?
Historically, IITA has played a very important role in agrobiodiversity conservation efforts. While some of those efforts remain strong, I am concerned that financial pressures threaten some of them, such as the collections that support biological control research and application in insects and fungi. The institutional infrastructure for understanding biodiversity is very weak in West and Central Africa, and as an international organization, IITA can play a vital role in filling the gap, and building national capacity. I am pleased to see IITA’s leadership in the CGIAR study of biomaterial collections beyond plant germplasm, which recognizes these collections as Global Public Goods.

Do you see the investment in conservation well spent?
IITA’s investment has been critical in the past, and needs to be enhanced to support future agricultural development and pest management. Climate change will bring new challenges to agriculture in Africa, and crop germplasm will be crucial, as well as knowledge of crop relatives, pest organisms, and beneficial organisms. The native forest on IITA’s Ibadan campus is an important biodiversity resource, and the protection that IITA has provided it for many years has been an important service.

What is the contribution of insect diversity to agriculture?
Insects provide vital ecosystem services to agriculture, including pollination, biological control of pests, and the maintenance of soil fertility. A recent study on the impact of CGIAR research in Africa (Maredia and Raitzer 2006) found that 80% of the impact (valued at $17 billion) resulted from four biocontrol programs using insects and mites. All those programs had to solve significant taxonomic problems (e.g., understanding the biodiversity) before they became successful, underscoring the importance of research and documentation.

How does the Consortium for the Barcode of Life contribute to the conservation and protection of biodiversity?
DNA barcoding is a species diagnostic system using short sequences of DNA (www.barcoding.si.edu), and the Consortium is an international organization promoting the development of standards and the building of the reference library of sequences. Understanding species, being able to identify them, and being able to communicate about them are basic to managing and using biodiversity. Thus, CBOL contributes through allowing fast and accurate identifications in difficult situations such as the immature stages of plant pests, the wood or roots from medicinal plants, or parts of butchered wildlife or fish in the illegal trade.

CBOL works closely with organizations with similar interests, such as BioNET INTERNATIONAL and the Global Taxonomy Initiative of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We are communicating with organizations such as the International Plant Protection Convention to help establish formal protocols for the DNA-based identification of agricultural pests.

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