(Fwd) Re: ATBI "Self-Destructs" and what we do

Doug Yanega dyanega at MONO.ICB.UFMG.BR
Tue May 20 10:23:34 CDT 1997

Nigel Barker wrote:

>Thomas Lammers wrote...
>>[snip]seems to me that what they are saying to us is that the systematics
>>community is spending too much time  and money sequencing molecules,
>>calculating genetic identity values, maximizing parsimony, and
>>determining priority of epithets, and not enough time out in the
>>field learning the organisms and trying to create a workable
>>universal classification system for the world's biota.
>[snip] I would
>like to know how one is going to produce a "workable classification
>system" ... without adopting the principles of parsimony and all it

While I myself use cladistics, it seems to me that science proceeded along
with a "workable classification system" for about 200 years before
cladistics was even invented. Alpha taxonomy can proceed without *needing*
to use the most parsimonious arrangements of purely monophyletic taxa - I
am not claiming it is *preferrable* to do things that way, simply that we
got along for centuries *without* it, and if it comes down to "Put names on
these critters or you're out of a job" then I'll happily scrap the computer
and get back to my microscope - an instrument that has clearly fallen out
of favor these days. It comes down to a hierarchy of priorities, and for me
this hierarchy logically works backwards from the species level and should
*start* with practical research products and *then* worry about the more
esoteric things; I think what Thomas was suggesting was that a systematist
who isn't producing things like keys to species and field guides and such
is contributing little to a "workable classification system". Of course,
one cannot get grant money easily these days unless one is "sequencing
molecules, calculating genetic identity values, maximizing parsimony" and
so forth - so we're damned if we do, and damned if we don't. The perils of
living in a profit-driven world, as the ATBI demonstrates.
        What do we do about this? Well, I suspect the most direct answer is
unfortunately something WE have essentially no control over: to change
funding/hiring priorities. At the risk of offending people here, just
consider which alternative will the average university administration
prefer to hire: (1) a botanist who produces species keys, regional field
guides, has maybe one graduate student, does ID work gratis for dozens of
ecological researchers, and gets by on just their salary or (2) a botanist
who works on chloroplast RNA sequences of a plant family that doesn't even
occur on the same continent, produces genus-level cladograms, and runs a
lab with 5 technicians, 5 grad students (all learning molecular techniques
so they'll be "competitive") and a 2 million dollar budget? The LOGICAL
answer is that the university should hire BOTH researchers; systematics
needs both types of work, and both are valuable in their own right. The
realistic answer is that the bottom line is the budget, and we will never
have a "workable classification system" if alpha taxonomy is allowed to die
for want of support.
        If there is money to do ecological studies, for example, then why
aren't taxonomists included in these grants? Part of the answer, I think,
is above, seen in the phrase "does ID work gratis for dozens of ecological
researchers". Why would anyone ever bother to include money for a
taxonomist in their grant, except as a personal favor, or out of pity, when
they can get everything IDed for free if they look hard enough? The problem
here is one of an ESS, as it were: if one taxonomist tries to charge for
IDs, then the person needing IDs will simply locate a taxonomist who does
NOT. Charging for IDs is not a viable strategy unless *every* taxonomist
adheres to the policy, and yet many of us are explicitly prohibited from
charging fees for administrative reasons, so it's a Catch-22. We are told
we cannot charge for our services, and then the people telling us this
complain that we do not bring in enough revenue. Anyone here see an easy
way out? This isn't the first time we've pondered this topic, and it
doesn't look like we've come up with any solutions yet (at least nothing
we've found we can all rally behind).


Doug Yanega    Depto. de Biologia Geral, Instituto de Ciencias Biologicas,
Univ. Fed. de Minas Gerais, Cx.P. 486, 30.161-970 Belo Horizonte, MG   BRAZIL
phone: 031-448-1223, fax: 031-44-5481  (from U.S., prefix 011-55)
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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