Another Setback for Biosphere Science?

Just as Biosphere 2, the glass-enclosed laboratory near Tucson, Arizona, seemed to be getting onto a stable scientific track, one of its leading scientists, Wallace Broecker, has resigned as research coordinator. Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, played a key role in Columbia's takeover last year of the facility, which has had a troubled history since it opened in 1991 as an experiment in enclosed ecosystems.

Neither Broecker nor William Harris, Biosphere 2's executive director since October, were available for comment today, but the Associated Press (AP) reported last week that Harris announced a staff reorganization in mid-December that changed the job responsibilities of several employees. Harris told AP that Broecker would no longer "have day-to-day responsibility for the budget," but did not elaborate on his role as the facility's scientific research coordinator.

Some people associated with the project believe that a tug-of-war over education and research at Biosphere 2 may have played a role in Broecker's resignation. Biosphere 2 was founded by Texas billionaire and environmentalist Ed Bass, and it still relies on funding from Bass. However, Columbia has expressed an aim to make the compound financially self-sustaining in 5 years, in part with revenues from tourism. Toward that end, the compound last November opened the former living quarters of the original "Biospherian" inhabitants to the public. Besides the residences, tourists can see exhibits on global warming and the trials the Biospherians endured.

But tourism and rigorous science sometimes make poor bedfellows. "There can be kind of a conflict between rigorous research and demonstration," says Hyrum Johnson, an ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Temple, Texas, and a scientific adviser to Biosphere 2. "If you want to mimic the real world," he says, "it may not be as graphic as a demonstration" would be. Johnson speculates that Broecker, a longtime advocate of rigorous science at the facility, may feel that "some of the decisions that have been made have gone heavy on the educational part."

Spokespersons for Columbia declined to comment on whether Broecker would continue to have a role at Biosphere 2 in the wake of his resignation as research coordinator. But Broecker will be sorely missed if he does leave, says Johnson: "He's really been the evangelist to get that facility going in a way that would be good science."

Posted in Policy, Scientific Community