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EGENIS seminar: "The Invention of Biodiversity as a Conceptual Tool for Science Communication", Stefan Bargheer (Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies)

Egenis seminar series

Few scientific concepts have the same amount of public resonance as the notion of biodiversity. The talk traces the creation of this relatively new concept and its impact on scientific research. I show based on archival documents that the neologism was coined in the mid-1980s by conservation biologists connected to the U.S. National Committee of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program in order to buffer the adverse economic impacts of an announced withdrawal of the United States from UNESCO.

Event details

With the United States no longer a member of UNESCO, the U.S. National Committee lost the majority of its funding. The notion of biodiversity was invented as a catch-phrase for public campaigning in an effort to find alternative sources of institutional support. With the use of the new term went a new strategy for communicating the importance of studying diversity in nature. Under the UNESCO MAB program, diversity was heralded as a contributor to the stability of ecosystems, captured by the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis. Unlike the diversity-stability hypothesis, however, the concept of biodiversity was not tied to a specific justification for research and policymaking. This openness of the concept was not a design flaw, but an intended feature. It reflected the need to appeal to a wide range of funding agencies. I show that even though the openness of new concept worked well in connecting scientists to multiple audiences, it did for the same reasons not do very well in guiding scientific research.

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