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Ira Rubinoff honored by the Association for Tropical Biology

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Association for Tropical Biology honored Dr.Ira Rubinoff for "exceptional service in the fields of tropical biology and conservation" at its 2002 Annual Meeting in Panama (July 29-August 2). "Six billion people inhabit the earth", Rubinoff remarked as he accepted honorary ATB membership: "we are struggling both scientifically and politically to determine how enormous developments associated with this magnitude of human activity are changing the planet and the biological systems that keep us alive."

Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama (STRI) since 1974, Ira Rubinoff has been successful as both scientist and politician. The Republic of Panama, due to celebrate its centennial as a nation in 2003, has played a key role in the development of both his career and personal life. In the 1960's, with Ernst Mayr as graduate advisor, Rubinoff demonstrated morphological differences between Pacific and Caribbean populations of fish species separated by the rise of the Isthmus of Panama. As a post-doctoral fellow he showed that these populations were still capable of gene exchange and that potential behavioral isolating mechanisms were still incomplete after 2.5 million years. With T.H. Hamilton he worked to develop modern biogeographic theory. By 1976, Rubinoff had published five times in the prestigious journals, "Science" and "Nature".

As STRI´s director since 1974, Rubinoff masterminded a 400% increase (from 9 to 35) in the number of permanent staff scientists and directly supervised the construction or modernization of every STRI facility. At the same time, he shepherded the Institution through the reversion of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama, a process spanning more than thirty years, and the U.S. Invasion of Panama in 1989. He has raised more than $50,000,000 from Foundations and philanthropists; including $14,000,000 in endowment funds. The continuity of his Directorship was recently recognized in "Science" (July 2001) as a major reason for STRI's success.

His contributions to conservation biology are equally impressive. A review article published in "Science" in 1968 effectively silenced advocates of a sea level canal to connect the Caribbean and Pacific. Rubinoff insisted that there is a valid economic basis for forest conservation in Panama and other developing nations. After playing a crucial role in the establishment of Panama's Soberania National Park, he negotiated agreements to guarantee the continuity of Barro Colorado Island as a research station and to create the larger Barro Colorado Nature Monument. For these efforts, Rubinoff was inducted into the Order of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the highest award granted by the Republic of Panama.

Through his actions at STRI, Rubinoff defined the direction of tropical biology research. He permitted the late Alan Smith to "hang graduate students from tower cranes" to reach forest canopies. There are now eleven canopy cranes worldwide. He played a critical role in the establishment of the Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS), a network of 17 large forest plots under long term study in 14 tropical countries where researchers currently monitor more than 3,000,000 trees of 6,000 species. This network and the discoveries it will make possible are a testament to Rubinoff's vision and perseverance.

For the last year, Rubinoff served as deputy director at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. where he was also appointed to consult for the 18-member Smithsonian Science Commission charged to evaluate and reorder scientific research within the Institution.

Anxious to return to Panama in late August, Rubinoff endorsed a bold new agenda for tropical biology in the 21st Century, stressing the importance of a complete catalog of the earth's species and of increased funding to encourage young people to study taxonomy. Estimates of the number of organisms on the earth range from six to thirty million. Researchers have currently only identified two million of the life forms that share this planet with us and still know nearly nothing about their behavior and ecological significance.

Rubinoff emphasized the need to build scientific partnerships between researchers in developed and developing nations. Citing Peter Raven's comment that only one in ten of the world's scientists live in developing countries containing 80% of the world's population and roughly the same percentage of the world's biodiversity, Rubinoff concluded:

"The developed world provided leadership in the industrial age, the atomic age, the space age, the information age and the molecular age. As a group, we must do all that is possible to insure that the beginning of this century is labeled the "age of biodiversity". And this is one age that cannot be led by the developed world in isolation from the developing world."

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The Association for Tropical Biology (ATB) was founded in 1963 to promote research and to foster the exchange of ideas among biologists working in tropical environments. The ATB has built its reputation on the publication of a high-quality, widely-cited journal, Biotropica and on the sponsorship of international symposia on diverse tropical issues. The Association also co-publishes an international newsletter, Tropinet, jointly with the Organization for Tropical Studies and the Smithsonian Institution. Through the Clifford Evans Fund and reduced subscription for scientists in developing countries, ATB actively encourages the participation of all tropical biologists.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) with headquarters in Panama City, Panama, is one of the world's leading centers for basic research on the past, present and future of tropical biology. www.stri.org

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