Director’s Letter March 2020

Planning in uncertain times

What does it mean to support field scientists and students in the year of Coronavirus?  As soon as we figure it out, we will let you know!

With one of the highest rates of infection in Colorado, the local school, ski resort, hotels and short-term rentals are closed.  Most flights have been cancelled and restaurants are limited to take out.  Visitors, including second homeowners, are encouraged to leave.  If your life doesn’t look like this already, it may soon.  Hopefully social isolation will quickly become unnecessary, but I have my doubts.

It is chaotic for scientists and students.  Colleges and universities have closed classrooms, moving to distance learning.  Scientific travel is being restricted and universities are analyzing how to support research that could suffer in significant ways if neglected.

RMBL staff have been working from home, a hidden blessing given school closures. Our networking tools allow us to stay in touch for work and mutual support.  Chat feeds include photos of large dancing rabbits, a staff member dressed as a coronacorn (hard to explain, but think pink unicorn), and someone, rumored to be me, dressed as a dancing sun.  At least one of us, who is doing fine, likely had the virus.

We are racing to understand and confront the challenges facing scientists and students.  With federal support, we provide summer stipends to some students who could not otherwise afford a summer in Gothic.  If we cancel the program, will students struggle to pay next year’s school bills or support their families?  We wonder, what might distance learning look like for field science?

RMBL is unique for having the largest collection of long-term studies.  Could losing a summer undermine decades of work?  We wonder, with travel restrictions can we help scientists hire and deploy local research assistants to keep the work going?

While there is a great deal to figure out, there are some things I know.  RMBL is here for the long haul; it will not be easy, or pretty, but we are here for decades to come.  As an organization that supports long-term research and research on environmental challenges, we keep an eye on weathering inevitable downturns.  Also, it will be our community, including you, and not the virus or economic downturn, that will shape RMBL’s future.  No amount of financial reserves can match the passion and caring that our alumni, scientists, students, and supporters bring to RMBL.

Most importantly, I know that whether we are talking food security, human health, or yes, disease, the importance of understanding our world is growing.  While this coronavirus emerged from the interface between humans and wildlife on the other side of the globe, RMBL research matters.

A rapid response to Coronavirus depends upon a fundamental understanding of biological processes.  If, as a society, we had not invested in understanding the structure of RNA, or how viruses work, we would have no hope in developing a vaccine within a year.  In similar fashion, using the Gunnison Basin as a model for understanding the world, however imprecise that model is, better prepares us for whatever environmental challenge the future brings.

As we move through the new few weeks, we must support each other with compassion and thoughtfulness.  But when we pass to the other side of this pandemic, and we will, let’s not forget how important it is to generate the understanding future generations will need to confront upcoming environmental challenges.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL