Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Price of Science

Unknown fish species, found off Curacao this past December

In 1997 Dr. Grant Gilmore, a marine biologist, captured an unidentified fish off the coast of Cuba. The scientific community had never documented this species before. In order to be designated a new species, however, he needed two samples. Hopeful, he kept his ear to the ground waiting for someone to find his missing paratype. Fourteen years later, this December he received word from a commercial fish collector based in the Keys who captured an unknown species matching the description of his original holotype. Unfortunately he wasn't the only one in the market for rare fish. Collectors all over the world also seek out coastal businesses and divers to purchase unique species for their aquariums, and they're willing to pay top dollar. Dr Gilmore knew he didn't have long before it disappeared into a private collection so he called Dr Jerry Lorenz to help document its existence. That same day, a Japanese aquarist purchased the 3-inch fish for $4,500. This gave us a two-day window to make a positive id. 

Helping hands make sure the fish doesn't leap out of the make-shift tank

The next morning Jerry, his wife Linda, and I traveled to Marathon and spent twenty minutes photographing a very stressed fish. Pulled from 400 feet below the water's surface, its colors changed dramatically since original capture making it impossible for Dr Gilmore to confirm it as a paratype without closer inspection; a sad loss for science. The fish now swims in a private aquarium in Japan and poses an important question about the relationship between science and its stakeholders. 

The free market has subsidized countless scientific revolutions over the last century. By placing a value on discovery, the researchers, explorers, and biologists of the world can afford to dedicate their lives to opening new doors and expanding our knowledge of the living world. Scientists depend on the funding from investors to conduct their research, just as fish collectors depend on buyers to finance their operational costs. In this fiscal marriage, it seems inevitable that the two will eventually quarrel. What happens then, when the cold heart of capitalism starts steering the altruism of science? Should the same laws that govern supply and demand be allowed to creep their way into the scientific method? 

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