Monday, 18 October 2010

A Fading Field?

A year or so ago, The Scientist published an article on "A Fading Field: Traditional taxonomists are an endangered species. Could their unique brand of knowledge disappear, too?". The authors talked to a number of leading taxonomists, including Anthony Cognato and Jiri Hulcr (always good to see the Curculionidae represented!), and have produced a very well-written piece on the lamentable state of taxonomy. There is little here that is new for those of us who follow these things, but unlike pieces, this is actually a good read.

The key issues in my view are jobs and communication. The lack of jobs discourage all interested students from pursuing a career in the field, prefering to become competent in other disciplines (often molecular systematics or bioinformatics) that has better employment opportunities. It would be hard enough if the jobs that were available were being replaced, but it is criminal when instutions of the calibre of the Kew Botanical Gardens do not hire new taxonomists when the previous generation retire. As a scientist-in-training I am experiencing this right now, desperately wanting to devote my time to taxonomic discovery, but having to be realistic enough to forsee that I probably won't be able to get work that is full-time taxonomic research. I also know a number of other students that would be extremely interested in taxonomy, if there was the possibility of getting jobs.

Communication is extremely important, but one that many taxonomists are not particularly proficient at. Taxonomy undergirds the remainder of biology, and the applicability of that biological research often stands or falls on how well the taxonomy that supports it has been done. However, you very rarely hear about it. Biosecurity, pest management, and conservation are all heavily dependant on taxonomic expertise. This needs to be publicised much more broadly. We taxonomists reguarly moan about how little we're valued. Possibly if we inspire others with the beauty and value of our work and how excited we are about it, we won't have to suffer our inferiority complex so much.

2 comments:

Kirsty said...

Indeed!

Kirsty said...

Just seen this paper:

doi:10.1016/j.tree.2010.09.004

Names are key to the big new biology