ORACLE, ARIZ. — 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.
Biosphere 2 was designed as a miniature model of Earth. It contains seven ``biomes'' over 3.15 acres: an ocean, a desert, a savannah, a rain forest, a marsh, a farm, and human habitat. Water is recycled through a complex, computer-monitored system that allows technicians to ``play God'' by making it rain when and where they want.
Air inside Biosphere 2 is also recycled and is supposed to be self-regulating. But members of the first survival mission, sealed inside from 1991 to 1993, soon found design flaws. Carbon-dioxide scrubbers had to be installed and oxygen pumped in to keep the crew from suffocating.
The elevated greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that persist inside Biosphere 2 could prove useful for scientists studying the greenhouse effect on Earth. First, however, studies must determine exactly what is happening to the air inside Biosphere 2. Science Director Bruno Marino says he suspects microorganisms in the soil may have caused the decrease in oxygen and increase in carbon dioxide, but other factors - including the absorption of oxygen by the building's concrete base - must also be considered.
Mr. Marino says 1995 will be an evaluation year for Biosphere 2, as baseline data is collected about how the various systems work. Experiments that might involve perturbing part of Biosphere 2's systems, putting up barriers between the biomes, or establishing control studies outside the facility won't begin until 1996 or 1997.
Human survival missions have been scrapped for now, mainly because such missions strain the facility's resources and do not contribute much in the way of scientific knowledge. Members of previous crews spent most days doing maintenance and raising and preparing food, and had little time to carry out experiments.
Nevertheless, Marino says he hopes some scientists will be able to live in Biosphere 2 on a short-term basis. He says doing so instilled in him not only an appreciation for how complex the Earth is, and how important is our role as caretaker, but, ``it was also a lot of fun.''