News Archive

posted 03/01/05

Contact: Mary Tobin
845-365-8607 or

Contact: Ginger Pinholster
202-326-6421 or

Ethnobotanist Who Helped Define Field Receives 2004 AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award

Michael Balick receives award

Michael Balick (above, center), whose 25 years of research helped define the field of ethnobotany, receives the AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award from AAAS President Shirley Ann Jackson, (above, left), and AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, (above, right). Balick is Director and Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden and adjunct professor at Columbia University's Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology.

Michael J. Balick, whose research helped to transform the field of ethnobotany into an internationally recognized academic discipline, has received the 2004 AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award for his tireless efforts to promote scientific collaboration within the field of ethnobotany — the study of the relationship between plants and people across cultures. Balick is adjunct professor at Columbia's Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology and Director and Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.

Balick was cited for his research emphasis "on preserving traditional knowledge and respect for the values of local peoples, and his support for the development of scientific institutions in areas of the world where they are needed most."

Balick’s research has taken him to some of the most remote and biologically diverse sites on the planet. Beginning in Costa Rica, Balick played a key role in building a major botanical garden, then worked on the domestication of native plants in the Amazon Valley and Northeastern Brazil. In Belize, he and his collaborators established critical links between ethnobotany, conservation, local education and economic development. His investigations also have taken him to China, Thailand and India, as well as the Caribbean, where he developed a new program to fund research projects in ethnobotany and economic botany with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

“Over the past 30 years Dr. Balick has developed a shared vision of research with his collaborators in many different parts of the world, working with them to gather essential financial and intellectual resources," said Sherburne Abbott, the Chief International Officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "He has been a leader in revitalizing the little-known field of ethnobotany."

During his accceptance speech, Balick said, “I am honored to accept this award on behalf of my colleagues — the dedicated scientists, students, and indigenous people with whom I have worked in many places around the world. I have been privileged to collaborate with, educate, and, most importantly, learn so much from them. Our model in this scientific research is one of full partnership, ensuring local interest and benefits that will last far beyond the lifetime of the immediate project."

Currently, Balick is working in the Federated States of Micronesia in the Pacific, with a coalition of groups that include The New York Botanical Garden, The National Tropical Botanical Garden, The College of Micronesia, The Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center, The Nature Conservancy, the Pohnpei Council of Traditional Leaders, and Pohnpei State Government. The goal of Balick’s current work is to build a locally based scientific infrastructure that fosters the sustainable utilization of resources while also preserving traditional knowledge, in keeping with Micronesian values.

Balick received his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture and Plant Science from the University of Delaware and his master’s degree and doctorate in Biology from Harvard University. In addition to working as Adjunct Professor in the Ecology Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) department at Columbia University, Balick has worked at The New York Botanical Garden since 1980, and holds other adjunct positions at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New York University Biology Department, and City University of New York. He is a co-founder of the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation in Belize, which promotes the importance of traditional knowledge, conservation and sustainable farming.

“Balick was a leader in opening the dialogue and debate on intellectual property rights, long before it was fashion," said Abbott, who also directs the AAAS Center for Science, Innovation & Sustainable Development. “When he received one of the first collecting contracts from the National Cancer Institute to gather plant samples from Central and South America for screening against AIDS and cancer, he positioned his work with traditional healers in Belize, making them equal partners in the endeavor. He also worked to ensure that local people would benefit from any discoveries that were made from their plants."

Balick, also a MetLife Fellow, a Fellow of the AAAS, and former President of the Society for Economic Botany, has helped to influence the training of many young people in the field of ethnobotany. He serves on the boards of many local and international conservation organizations.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science. AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

The New York Botanical Garden, a National Historic Landmark founded in 1891, is one of the world’s great collections of plants, the region’s leading educational center about gardening and horticulture, and an international center for plant research. The New York Botanical Garden is located at Bronx River Parkway (Exit 7W) at Fordham Road, and is easy to reach by car or by a 20-minute ride on the Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central Terminal.

The Center for Environmental Research and Conservation is a consortium of five leading science and education institutions — Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wildlife Trust—that employs a wide array of resources to train the next generation of environmental leaders charged with conserving Earth’s biological diversity.

The award was given at the 2005 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 2005. 

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor. For more information, visit