United States Joins the International Biological Program

U.S. scientists joined the world’s largest biological research program and participated in cooperative projects focusing on environmental productivity and human welfare.

Summary of Event

The International Biological Program (IBP) originated officially in 1964 as an international alliance of biologists to study various ecosystems and humanity’s relationship to them. The research phase of the U.S. program started on July 1, 1967, and continued until June 30, 1974, during which time at least eighteen hundred U.S. scientists were supported. Their efforts resulted in hundreds of publications, including a series of synthesis volumes, which advanced the concept of the ecosystem as a legitimate focus for study. International Biological Program
[kw]United States Joins the International Biological Program (July 1, 1967)
[kw]International Biological Program, United States Joins the (July 1, 1967)
[kw]Biological Program, United States Joins the International (July 1, 1967)
International Biological Program
[g]North America;July 1, 1967: United States Joins the International Biological Program[09350]
[g]United States;July 1, 1967: United States Joins the International Biological Program[09350]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 1, 1967: United States Joins the International Biological Program[09350]
[c]Environmental issues;July 1, 1967: United States Joins the International Biological Program[09350]
[c]Science and technology;July 1, 1967: United States Joins the International Biological Program[09350]
Blair, W. Frank
Peters, Rudolph A.
Van Dyne, George
Weiner, Joseph S.

The term “ecosystem” Ecosystems was coined by the British biologist Alfred G. Tansley Tansley, Alfred G. in 1935 in order to provide a concept that described both the living organisms and the physical environment as a functioning whole. The term was soon employed by scientists who studied lakes as microcosms with food chains and hierarchies of energy users. World War II interrupted this research, and postwar concerns about the release of radioactive materials into the environment led to radiation ecology studies funded mostly by the Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;ecological research (AEC). By the 1960’s, ecosystem research had solid support in the United States, but its transition to a dominant paradigm was aided by the formation of the IBP.

The creation of the IBP was inspired by the successful collaboration of scientists involved in the International Geophysical Year International Geophysical Year of 1957. Three biologists led the discussions that followed between 1959 and 1964: Rudolph A. Peters, president of the International Council of Scientific Unions International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), Conrad H. Waddington Waddington, Conrad H. , and Giuseppe Montalenti Montalenti, Giuseppe , from the University of Rome. Montalenti was then president of the International Union of Biological Sciences International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), a union within ICSU, and headed the preparatory committee that drafted the initial plan for studies in human heredity, plant genetics and breeding, and studies of natural plant communities that are liable to undergo modification or destruction. The proposal was presented to the General Assembly of the IUBS, and the three topics were expanded to include study of biological communities that were threatened by change or destruction, research into human population dynamics and the pressures on the genetic constitution of humankind, and finally, support for a better understanding of the global equilibrium and production of organic resources with the aim of increasing that production.

U.S. scientists were involved from the beginning, and by November, 1963, an ad hoc U.S. committee on the IBP was appointed by the president of the National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Sciences, U.S. (NAS). The NAS funded planning efforts from 1965 through 1968, and Roger Revelle Revelle, Roger of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, a respected senior scientist and organizer, was appointed as the first president of the U.S. National Committee (USNC/IBP) in January, 1965.

Nine tentative projects were accepted by late 1967 for inclusion in the USNC/IBP. The research phase officially started on July 1, 1967, although funding for the first project, the Grassland Biome Grassland Biome , did not start until June 1, 1968. At the end of 1967, W. Frank Blair from the University of Texas was appointed as Revelle’s successor. Blair’s initial tasks involved streamlining the governing structure of the USNC/IBP and identifying relevant ongoing studies while reducing the number of total projects. There were two primary interest areas—environmental management and human adaptability—and two organizational structures. The most centralized and best supported of the USNC/IBP projects were titled Integrated Research Programs (IRPs) and were composed of multidisciplinary teams involving many institutions. The other USNC/IBP coordinated research programs (CORPs) were more loosely organized and were structured around specific themes.

The environmental component of the Analysis of Ecosystems IRP included studies of five regionally associated groupings of animals and plants or biomes: grasslands, eastern deciduous forest, coniferous forest, desert, and tundra. Three additional ecosystem-oriented IRP’s included Origin and Structure of Ecosystems, Biological Productivity in Upwelling Ecosystems, and Integrated Plant Pest Control. The CORPs in this section included Aerobiology, Conservation of Plant Genetic Materials, Conservation of Ecosystems, and Marine Mammals.

Joseph S. Weiner organized and led the Wenner-Gren Foundation Burg Wartenstein Conference in July, 1964, in Austria, which resulted in the plans for the Human Adaptability section. Comparative data were to be collected on human-environment interactions. U.S. investigators focused on five projects: Population Genetics of South American Indians, International Study of Circumpolar Peoples, Biology of Human Populations at High Altitudes, Migrant Peoples, and Nutritional Adaptation to the Environment (three IRPs and two CORPs, respectively).

Blair’s next task was to obtain funding, which coincided with growing concerns about environmental degradation. Scientists and politicians agreed that baseline information about plant and animal communities was needed. Congress finally approved in 1970 what eventually totaled more than $57 million for the USNC/IBP. One-third of the money funded studies complementing research already ongoing in other countries. The rest of the money funded the five biome studies, which doubled the NSF’s funding for ecology. The Human Adaptability components of the USNC/IBP had more difficulty obtaining funds since their support was supposed to come from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The end of the IBP was scheduled for 1972, but the late start of projects in the United States resulted in an extension of the program until 1974. Officially USNC/IBP ceased, but funding for the IBP was transferred to a new program, Ecosystem Studies, in the division of environmental biology of the NSF and provided support for scientists continuing and extending the work of the IBP. The Human Adaptability studies served as the framework for the continuing Man and Biosphere (MAB) program effort of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and also influenced the United Nations Environmental Program. Blair, as a member of SCIBP, attempted to extend the IBP biome studies as a global monitoring program beyond 1974, but the program received no financial support and was superseded by the MAB program.


The USNC/IBP energized ecosystems analysis and ecological studies thanks largely to the work of the biome projects, which received the most money and attention. Terrestrial studies dominated the projects, and the first, the grasslands biome, was the most successful in following the original intent of the IBP with a central study location and smaller comparative localities. The other biome projects focused on one or several sites, depending on local conditions. Hundreds of professionals gained experience and learned to work cooperatively with scientists from other disciplines. Mathematicians and modelers worked with field scientists to construct more realistic models, which were then put to use in planning research and in determining how ecosystems develop.

The IBP was also carried out concurrently with environmental management programs, which were being developed by states, the federal government, and private businesses. Many individuals were able to obtain employment and translate their experience with and understanding of ecosystems into protection and management of the environment. Universities such as Colorado State University, the University of Georgia, Oregon State University, San Diego State University, and Utah State University became centers for ecological research and extended the network and training opportunities for ecologists beyond the AEC national laboratories. Most of these programs survived, although few other universities followed their lead.

Hundreds of articles and a series of volumes were published by the IBP participants. The ecologist Frank Golley estimates that the number of publications generated by senior scientists of the grasslands biome was three and one-half titles per person-year from 1968 through 1974, and that the cost per title was comparable to other scientific publications.

Benefits of the Human Adaptability Section were also numerous in spite of the lower level of financial support. Many scientists gained experience in multidisciplinary cooperative ventures, which also helped standardize methodologies and techniques. A large body of in-depth information is available through the USNC/IBP on populations experiencing rapid culture change, such as the Eskimo (Inuit) and Aleut peoples, the Brazilian and Venezuelan Yanomamo peoples, and the highland inhabitants of the Peruvian Andes. The list would be longer if international efforts were included. The IBP also generated baseline data on child growth, nutrition, and inherited variations for many different populations, which have been useful for planning by international agencies such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The USNC/IBP also had problems, however, which may have been a result of the enormity of the undertaking. It was difficult to manage the large number of institutions and individuals involved. Directors of the biome projects controlled the planning and distribution of money, but only George Van Dyne, the director of the Grasslands Biome, was able to successfully focus the efforts of his independent researchers on the objectives of his biome project. Another problem was that biome proposals never received full funding. This forced directors to continually readjust plans and goals and to rely on inexperienced students for the fieldwork. The conflicts between individual and group goals and the need to rely on students fueled concerns about the quality of the work.

In addition, the early planners of the USNC/IBP described goals during a series of 1967 congressional hearings, most of which could not be fulfilled. One objective, the training of scientists, was considered by all to be a success. Another objective was to model entire ecosystems, an objective which was determined to be impossible, although modeling of subparts of the system was successful and stimulated interest in and provided training for future modelers. IBP scientists also made use of contemporary ecological theory in providing the framework for various projects, but no attempt was made to test competing ecological theories, and thus no theoretical advances occurred.

IBP scientists hoped to generate enough information about ecosystems for better resource management, but the absence of an accessible, centralized database and the excessively slow publication of the results of the biome studies were disappointing for planners. Finally, international collaboration was relatively unsuccessful. Except for during the early planning stages, there were few representatives from developing nations on most projects, and there was only limited success at building the foundation for future cooperation.

Most observers agree that the limited interaction between investigators representing the Environmental and Human Adaptability Sections was not ideal. The original intent of the IBP was to understand ecosystems and the human impact on those systems. Studying natural ecosystems separately from human activities such as agriculture was too narrow a framework. Another weakness was the emphasis by the investigators in the Human Adaptability Section on biological aspects of a human population’s adaptation. Margaret Mead Mead, Margaret , the cultural anthropologist, had argued in favor of an exclusive emphasis on social factors at the initial planning conference in 1964, but her suggestions seemed inappropriate for a biological program. Later, many investigators acknowledged that the biosocial environment was a significant feature affecting the health and welfare of the peoples examined, and social factors were often considered in future research.

The criticism of the IBP may have been too harsh. The USNC/IBP greatly extended ecological knowledge and, more important, helped build institutional and informal networks of scientists. The USNC/IBP was able to give ecosystems analysis full attention, and was successful in extending the efforts of the International Biological Program. International Biological Program

Further Reading

  • Blair, W. Frank. Big Biology: The US/IBP. Stroudsburg, Pa.: Dowden, Hutchinson and Ross, 1977. A detailed personal discussion focused on the formation of the USNC/IBP. Describes its operation, its organizational structure, and a list of participants.
  • Boffey, Philip M. “International Biological Program: Was It Worth the Cost and Effort?” Science 193 (September, 1976): 866-868. A devastating critique of the program.
  • Breymeyer, A. I., and George M. Van Dyne, eds. Grasslands, Systems Analysis, and Man. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. An example of a synthesis volume of one of the most successful biome programs.
  • Collins, K. J., and Joseph S. Weiner, eds. Human Adaptability: A History and Compendium of Research in the International Biological Programme. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. A history of the organization and operation of the international efforts of the Human Adaptability Section of the IBP. Describes all projects and refers to resulting publications.
  • Golley, Frank B. A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology: More than the Sum of the Parts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. A superb, well-written volume describing the development of ecosystems analysis in the United States. Includes a chapter on the IBP.
  • Hanna, Joel M., Sharon M. Friedman, and Paul T. Baker. “The Status and Future of U.S. Human Adaptability Research in the International Biological Program.” Human Biology 44 (May, 1972): 381-398. An excellent brief overview of the accomplishments of the USNC/IBP Adaptability Section.
  • Jenkins, Kurt, Andrea Woodward, and Ed Schreiner. A Framework for Long-Term Ecological Monitoring in Olympic National Park: Prototype for the Coniferous Forest Biome. Port Angeles, Wash.: USGA Forest Rangleland Ecosystem Science Center, Olympic Field Station, 2002. Evaluates the success of a prototype biome program and its suitability as a model for other such programs. Bibliographic references.
  • Mitchell, Rodger, Ramona A. Mayer, and Jerry Downhower. “An Evaluation of Three Biome Programs.” Science 192 (May, 1976): 859-865. An interesting assessment of the productivity of the three biome programs with a comparison to a smaller project, the Hubbard Brook Program.
  • Moran, Emilio F. Human Adaptability: An Introduction to Ecological Anthropology. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1979. Describes the growth and development of human ecology and the state of research. Extensive bibliography.
  • Worthington, E. Barton, ed. The Evolution of the IBP. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Includes descriptions of the organization and the operation of international efforts, a calendar, and lists of publications and participating countries. This is the first volume in a series of summary volumes that were published long after the end of the IBP.

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