A Perspective on Remarks Addressing the Proplems In Systematics

Stuart G. Poss sgposs at WHALE.ST.USM.EDU
Wed Nov 27 18:27:42 CST 1996

Richard Zander argues that by permitting systematics proposals (or
presumably other disciplines targeted for special consideration and
benefit) to increase indirect costs would enhance the worthiness of such
proposals in the eyes of university administrators.  There may well be
merit to such a view, but compilation of absolute and relative amounts
are needed, as Richard notes.

        Others can correct me if our institution is not representative, but
here indirect costs (26%) are based on direct costs minus equipment,
with typically the largest category being for personnel (salaries +
fringe).  Differences between salaries for molecularly-oriented
personnel are not much different from those of systematists, but the
costs of equipment and supplies can be vastly different, not to mention
the differences in the number of personnel involved.  Although
systematists might, with some justification, initiate a drive to use
more expensive equipment, this would not appreciably change indirect
costs, without adding personnel.

        In any event, Richard wisely draws our attention to value of taking a
hard look at our budgets, line by line.  Such an approach may well in
time lead us to correct the inadequate support for systematics
collections and facilities, as well as the attendant loss of personnel.
Identification of more appropriate reimbursement for the true value and
maintenance of systematics collections, particularly in the area of
personnel might be a fruitful area for NSF to further investigate.
Certainly, PEET has been of considerable help to those insitutions and
individuals receiving funds.  Perhaps adminstrative overhead might be
better spent by encouraging similar effects within line items of bugets
of proposals submitted for routine systematic research.

        While most individual proposals in systematics and taxonomy may not
utilize the full collection, given the nature of the work, they are
among the few that directly support maintenance of collections as a
whole.  Some accomodation must be made to insure that these facilities
are regarded as state of the art and well curated, so that future study
of all kinds remain possible.  Perhaps some administrators within NSF
and other funding agencies need to give second thought to the full range
of benefits of collections, such as their role in fixing biological
nomenclature and in keeping current our notions about the propinquity of
decent.  Unlike that of other more readily replaceable laboratories and
equipment, such benefits do not accrue predominantly to the
institutions, individual investigators, or specific disciplines alone
but to the continued longterm conduct vital to all science, irrespective
of discipline.

        Thoughtfullness in crafting budgets is needed at all levels and not
just within granting agencies.  Perhaps university administrators need
to more assidiously reflect on the fact that, like libraries,
collections are essential to the basic conduct of science and, as in the
case of libraries. the success of individual studies in large measure
relies on the availability of collections resources that permit ongoing
research projects of all types to correctly place new knowledge into an
appropriate context.  Collections may not always be directly involved,
but they nonetheless play an important indirect role.

        Perhaps as proposal writers we need to collectively be more keen to
identify aspects of our collections and facilities that can be
ligitimately improved to assure longterm maintenance and facilitate use
of collections by students and other scientists.  Likewise as reviewers,
we should be more congnizant of the value of our colleague's efforts to
improve their collections and facilities within budgets of individual
research proposals.  In time these may improve our own.  Perhaps we
should routinely include as bugetary line items, adequate staff support
to insure that data resulting from individual research find their way
onto some suitably and collectively constructed part of the Internet
where a wider audience can make use of this information.  Certainly
there are many excellent approaches to choose from, although more
collective effort could go into their organization.  This would avoid
the need to justify separate submissions to special database or
inventory  programs.  These programs are more appropriate for projects
that solely identify collecting in particular areas or database
construction and computerization as the their primary objective and that
often go only to larger institutions with computer support staff.

        However, we address these issues, we should keep in mind that current
trends are not encouraging.  Among fish collections, the number of staff
needed to adequately curate collections declines, as collections
continue to grow.  In the first survey done by the American Society of
Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (Collette and Lachner, Copeia,
1976:625-642) the ratio of lots to curator/researcher was about 8,000:1.
By the second survey (Poss and Collette, Copeia 1995:48-70) this ratio
was 60,000:1.  The ratios for technical support positions was about
20,000:1 in the first survey and 47,000:1 in the second survey.  The
average fish collection is thus now at risk simply because one person
can only do so much curation.  I suspect fish collections are in
relatively good shape compared to those of other taxa in this regard.
Perhaps NSF and other funding agencies would do well to determine what
acceptable ratios should be and devise reasonable methods to address and
correct notable difficiencies within the context of individual research
bugets, without needlessly diverting energies and resouces to creation
of new programs or reshuffling the scope of existing programs.

        My sense of the "resource problem in systematics" is that at its heart
lies a mistaken perception that facilities, collections, and ideas used
in taxonomic and systematic research are not as valuable as those of
other laboratories or disciplines in terms of their impact on future
scientific discovery.  This misconception is all too often shared by
administrators, the broader scientific community, and even too
frequently by many in the systematic community itself.  We certainly
can't fault students for being infected by this reasoning and picking up
on the implications.

        Failure to address to full costs of maintenance and facilities
enhancement issues within the context of individual research proposals
fuels such misperceptions, because it leads to the loss of specimens (=
knowledge), loss of critical local taxonomic expertise about biotas that
form the strengths of individual collections, and as significantly, the
disuse of these irreplaceable scientific resources (not to mention
demoralization of those most directly responsible for maintenance and
use of these collections).  Like a vampire, this pernicious notion draws
the energy and strength from programs in sytematics and taxonomy that
support collections.  Like vampire hunters, we must be prepared to seek
it out wherever it shows itself and to drive a silver stake through its
heart, if we are to kill it.  Safety in numbers will help, lest we be
charcterized as tilting at windmills.

        Some might argue that collections should simply stop growing as a
solution to the problem of inadequate resources.  That way those at
funding agencies would not have to work as hard or as forcefully and
convincingly argue for increased resources.  Systematists would thus no
longer have to shoulder the burden of labor intensive curatorial and
record keeping tasks, which their colleagues needn't share on their wa
to publication.  Administrators would then acheive organizational bliss
by not have to hear the constant, pitiful lamentations of systematists
on their staff. Others might argue that collections should be merged to
achieve cost benefits by reducing redundancy and permiting only the
strongest and most competetive facilities to survive, an approach of
truely Darwinian merit. However, my experience in the area of utilizing
collections to study environmental change and human impacts on
biodiversity strongly suggests that both approaches will fail.

        Our knowledge about the vast majority of species forming ecosystems
largely rests on the fundamental basis of such collections, which grow
increasingly valuable by the hour, given the loss species and
populations on an hourly basis.  Attempts to map historical
distributions of most species to determine where species occured in the
past and where they remain in more recent times, reveals that available
sample sizes are often far too few to be readily evaluated
statistically.  Large collections while containing more samples often do
not possess sufficient staff to conduct adequate areal or temporal
sampling.  The more complete the collections, the more useful they are
in making inferences and establishing the facts of change.  Collections
are typically most complete for those species taken in geographic
proximity to the collections and that can be sampled on a continuing

        With the loss or merger of collections, there are attendant losses in
the continuity of collecting effort and in areal coverage.  As
importantly, there is also a loss of local expertise that can be called
upon to provide information about the present and historical status of
species in that part of their range.  For a variety of reasons, such
expertise is vital to address species that are inadequately represented
in any collection.  Unfortunately, the use of collections to document
the demise of life for a significant fraction of species on the planet
did not occur to those who made the first collections, or they would
have been more careful in their record keeping.  Nonetheless, all
available evidence suggests that collections and their staffs will be
increasingly involved in this grim role.  Many species are now only
known from collections.

        Because of their role in nomenclature, because of their value in
phylogenetics, because of their role of providing comparative materials
essential to correct identification and assessment of natural
variability, and because of their role in compiliation of distributional
records, collections are in many respects the glue that holds diverse
knowledge about most organisms together.  As they and associated staff
and faciliities are lost or diminished, so is our ability to fully
understand the incredibily complicated consequences of change to the
ecosystems that were sampled through human history to produce them.
Should this glue weaken, so will the ability of science to save and
sustainably manage ecosystems upon which we all depend.

        No one would seriously argue that for science to progress, scientific
laboratories should cease to function or fail to replace obsolete
equipment or ideas. Why should we do so in the case of systematic
collections, which were among the first of all biological laboratories?
If we value our profession, our ecosystems, and indeed the survival of
our own species, clearly we should not belittle, ignore, or
underestimate the importance of such collections and associated
facilities and personnel.  To do so will surely have calamitous

        These consequences will not manifest themselves immediately, as would a
toxic spill or inadvertent release of an infectious agent.  There will
nevertheless certainly be longterm extirpation of natural populations
and of species.  This will at first result in usually unseen effects
that will be typically irreversible, invariably adverse, and EXTREMELY
EXPENSIVE TO MITIGATE consequences.  Over the longterm these factors
will limit our ability to understand, to organize, and to effectively
communicate what is known about the species that form the life-bearing
builing blocks of our ecosystems and that must cope with increasing
human-induced changes.

        It may well be that one of the many areas that systematists might work
to correct mistaken and harmful misperceptions is to celebrate the
landmark accomplishments of collections-based science and  collectively
to improve existing systematics collections, facilities, and paradigms
so that young "gene-cloners and the like", their mentors, as well as
those in other disciplines, perceive the value of applying  their
technological expertise to DO SYSTEMATICS AND TAXONOMY.  This would blur
largely artificial distinctions among biologists, who work at the level
of genes and those who work on whole organisms or those who work on
processes occuring solely within organisms and those who work on
phenomenon that relate organisms to their environment.  All biologists
need collections, systematics, and taxonomy, as they are they provide
some of the most important tools and ideas in biology.

        Many facts can be marshalled to dispell the false notion that
systematics and collections will be less important in the future than
they have been in the past.  However they are employed, I sugget that
the stake be driven hard and deep by using our collective creative
talents, while there is still some time left to conserve a significant
fraction of the world's genetic biodiversity.  Perhaps then molecular
biologists, systematists and others in many other disciplines, who in
some way presently feed off this diversity, will have something to look
forward to appreciating together.

Stuart G. Poss                       E-mail: sgposs at whale.st.usm.edu
Senior Ichthyologist & Curator       Tel: (601)872-4238
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory       FAX: (601)872-4204
P.O. Box 7000
Ocean Springs, MS  39566-7000

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