Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Arizona's Biosphere Tries to Move from Theme Park to Science Lab

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Arizona's Biosphere Tries to Move from Theme Park to Science Lab

Article excerpt

AFTER years of scorn for emphasizing flashy survival experiments over basic research, the controversial Biosphere 2 project appears to be on the verge of scientific legitimacy.

More than a dozen scientists from Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford Universities, the Smithsonian Institution and other groups recently met at Biosphere 2 to discuss the potential of this self-contained ecosystem-under-glass that lies in the Arizona desert 35 miles north of Tucson. They agreed that studies of the interaction of air, water, soil, rocks, plants, and animals in the sealed structure could provide insights into similar processes on Earth.

"Some extremely valuable work can be done there that can't be done anywhere else," says Walter Adey, director of the Marine Systems Laboratory at the Smithsonian. Mr. Adey, who designed Biosphere 2's miniature ocean before falling out with the project's previous managers, says he is cautiously optimistic about the private company's new willingness to offer the facility to scientists.

December's meeting capped a tumultuous year for Biosphere 2. In April, the project's backer, Fort Worth billionaire Ed Bass, fired the management team that had led Biosphere 2 since its inception in the mid 1980s. Mr. Bass reportedly was dissatisfied with cost overruns at the $150-million project, as well as with the New Age flakiness and failure to adhere to rigid scientific standards.

Bass's new team moved quickly to control expenses and to turn Biosphere 2 from an experimental space colony and tourist attraction into a scientific and educational laboratory.

"We made it less theme park and more science," says acting chief executive officer Stephen Bannon. Tourists are still welcome, but Mr. Bannon slashed the advertising budget, closed some gift shops, and redesigned the tour to emphasize education.

In an effort to attract mainstream institutional support, a nonprofit research consortium was formed between Biosphere 2 and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Bannon also redirected Biosphere 2's business side toward developing and marketing computer software and other environmental monitoring materials.

Then, in September, the seven Biospherians who had been living inside the structure since before the shake-up cut short their mission to allow an evaluation of Biosphere 2's scientific potential. …

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