What are we going to do about this?

Alan Harvey aharvey at AMNH.ORG
Thu Oct 24 11:54:19 CDT 1996

Well, yeah, that was the (tired) idealist in me ranting yesterday. The
pragmatist, however, holds no "Ozian" illusion that taxonomy can find its
salvation in the largess of corporations or other institutions in which
chronically urgent deadlines and the "bottom line" conspire to generate the
Pareto Principle, namely that "80% of the outcome (of a decision) can be
made with 20% of the facts." For the taxonomist, this might mean that if
the typical biotic inventory, or "best available taxonomy," correctly
include, say, 20% of the taxa actually present (the remaining taxa missing
through errors of omission, misidentification or nomenclature), it will be
hard to generate much additional interest or support from such agencies.

Even if inventories and taxonomies contain significantly lower proportions
of reliable information, which I suspect is often the case, the time and
money constraints will limit avenues of overt support to taxonomists.
Hiring enough taxonomists to reduce the burden on the current small pool
would increase reliability of information and eventually save time, but is
likely to be  expensive and initially slow. Supporting traditional
monographic studies would increase reliability, but the payoff is probably
slow in coming and small in scope. Paying taxonomists to simply identify
specimens based on the best available taxonomies would at least increase
the reliability of biotic inventories, but is likely be slow given the
acute shortage of taxonomists. Paying taxonomists to produce keys or other
identification aids, based on best available taxonomies, that are suitable
for use by non-taxonomists, probably approaches an acceptable compromise
between speed and cost, but the appearance of proprietary keys suggests
that there are caveats to this approach as well. Again, I do not mean to
imply that these kinds of organizations do not support each and every one
of these approaches, but rather that the degree of this support will always
be severely limited by time - money constraints (duh!), and that their
"good enough" quality of information will _always_ be far lower than a
taxonomist's. So we will always be frustrated at the quality of the
taxonomic and biotic data used to make critical policy decisions, and by
the apparently limited interest in taking the steps necessary to improve
the data.

Are there any institutions remaining that are not bound by _both_
chronically urgent deadlines and severe bottom lines? Universities,
non-policy government branches, museums, private foundations? Hopefully
there are others, because taxonomists have of course known about and relied
on these for a long time, and this thread is rife with indications of
structural changes in these types of institutions that do not bode well for
taxonomy, or much of biology, for that matter.



Alan W. Harvey (aharvey at amnh.org)
Assistant Curator of Invertebrates
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024
(212) 769-5638; fax (212) 769-5783

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