What are we going to do about this?

Doug Yanega dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU
Mon Oct 21 19:14:45 CDT 1996

Barbara Ertter wrote:
> Felix Sperling writes:
> >        Doug Yanega might wish to look into the NSF-PEET program,
> >which is essentially what he is wishing for, together with a strong
> >emphasis on training new and competent alpha taxonomists. Also, grants
> >are up to five years in duration.
> Alas, I don't see the problem as much in TRAINING alpha taxonomists, as in
> the dearth of positions available that give alpha taxonomy skills and
> accomplishments more than lip service when it comes to hiring and promotion
> decisions.  I routinely encounter students who would happily focus on alpha
> taxonomy, as the thing that drew them into the field in the first place,
> but who are also aware of what the job market is.  So, it will take more
> than PEET to make me optimistic.

I'd second Barbara's comments, (and also those of Greg Zolnerowich;
someone once likened a systematist to a specialist in a field of law,
with the twist that a lawyer gets paid MORE as their knowledge becomes
more obscure and specialized) - I'm fully aware of the PEET program, and
know many of the recipients personally - but PEET *stops* when the
student is trained. There is no money there for permanent salaried
positions, which is what I was saying we needed most of all. RIGHT NOW it
seems like much of alpha taxonomy is being done by grad students,
emeritus, and "professional amateurs" rather than tenure-track faculty.
Think about it. This is not an illusion, I'm quite certain...only people
who are not actively seeking employment appear able to afford the luxury
of doing the grunt work of examining specimens and hammering out taxa the
old-fashioned way. What *would* it take? Let me toss out a few things
that might help narrow down the possibilities:
(1) trying to have a *single* central place is impractical and a bit
self-defeating - the world's museums are quite adequate for our purposes,
they are simply understaffed and undercurated (realize too that I work in
entomology collections, which are probably the worst examples of the
dismal ratio of curators/taxonomists to specimens) - rather than pull
staff away from such institutions, we need money that will pay to PUT
people on the staff of major collections and KEEP them there.
(2) This raises the question of whether University-based collections
would even be willing to accept new staff members, even if the salary is
paid from outside, WITHOUT getting the usual massive overhead money that
comes with a grant-attracting faculty member? In an institution with
little office space to spare, would they be willing to take on someone
who is not raking in the overhead dollars? I can imagine there being no
small amount of resistance; "Why take on Personage X who will generate
little profit for our esteemed institution when we could hire Personage Y
whose grants can cover their salary *and* net us a generous profit in
addition?" Again, perhaps I'm unduly cynical, but I doubt that
administrators at most institutions think of themselves as in the
business of doing charitable deeds, and I'll bet that most places with an
empty slot would prefer to fill it with someone who generates as large a
profit as possible (has it ever been otherwise?). If *that* is what we
have to fight, in addition to simply finding the money, I'm not sure how
far we can get.
(3) There *are* popular non-profit institutions that support biological
research (e.g. Nature Conservancy, WWF, etc.); is it possible to convince
any of these to set aside "biodiversity money" specifically targeted for
alpha taxonomy, or would we be forced to go a-begging from the public and
the concerned commercial interests (e.g. agriculture paying for insect
and plant taxonomy, pharmaceutical companies likewise) on our own? How
does one drum up money in the first place? Tap a few wealthy celebrities
and start an endowment? Heck, the *interest* on two months' salary for
Michael Jordan could support a taxonomist in perpetuity...it'd be a
return to the old Victorian model of wealthy patrons. The topic of naming
species for pay has been raised here before, too, and we perhaps can
steer clear of it for now - maybe we can at least agree that for ethical
reasons alone, it would probably be a last resort (although it would
certainly do wonders for entomological systematics!) ;-)
Still rather despairingly,
Doug Yanega
UFMG, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

More information about the Taxacom mailing list