Systematics and Taxonomy are NOT cheap science.

Stuart G. Poss Stuart.Poss at USM.EDU
Tue Oct 5 10:31:42 CDT 1999

While I would agree with much of what Robin has said has been true in the past,
this need not be the case if systematists and taxonomists make a greater effort
to transform their profession to take greater advantage of information
technologies.  It is often said that we live in an information age and the
economies of the future will be built on gathering, processing, and making use
of information.  Given the nature of our discipline, there is no other in
biology that is more focused on synthesizing information about organisms.
Clearly, it all starts with an acccurate identification.

Certainly, we can continue to feel relatively marginalized with respect to many
important environmental issues of our day and act accordingly, or we can seek
to develop new and better integrated ways to build taxonomy and systematics
into "BIG SCIENCE", which in fact it is.  Its just we still organize our
efforts and communicate with one another using a largely outdated paradigm that
perceives these disciples as organized around individual investigators or
individual insitutions.  We need to act in more coordinated fashion, if the
larger public is to recognize and appreicate our collective contributions.  I
would argue that state of the art sciences of taxonomy and systematics can not
be done in a vacuum.  Although there will be always be substantial and
exemplary individual contributions, ours is a collective enterprise.  Taxonomy
and systematics are now, and probably always have been, much too big of an
endeavor to be practiced by individuals or institutions working alone.

Will there be more taxonomists than lawyers or will they be better paid than
plumbers?  Perhaps not, but this doesn't preclude us from getting involved in
redefining our discipline to our own advantage, as opposed to singing the
taxonomist's lament.  If speculators can make billions on the allure and use of
these new technologies, why can't taxonomists and systematists also use them
improve their lot and those who are urgently needed to follow in their
footsteps?  I believe it starts with one's perception of how to interact with
your colleagues and in redefining how systematic and taxonomic information is
generated, used, and made available.

We have to ask ourselves constantly how can we organize this kind of
information so it is more valuable to ourselves and to society.  I would argue
that there are a great many new ways that did not exist just a few years ago.
Further, we had better start using them, if there is to be much of a biota left
to study.  This in an of itself makes our profession extraordinarily valuable,
since one could hardly contemplate managing or preserving what left of the
natural world without state of the art taxonomy and systematics.  Yes, it may
be a long time before the average guy on the street or in the legislature
recognizes this, but lets face it, if we wait for them, much of the natural
world is doomed.  Taxonomists and systematists make the world safer for
grandchildren.  That is both important and valuable.  If people pay riduculous
prices for an incredible array of unneeded junk that usually gets thrown out
without much use or for services that do little more than appeal to their
vanity, then they will also be willing to pay for our essential services as

If I do reject what Robin has just said, it is the notion that systematics and
taxonomy are cheap sciences and that all we need is a microscope and some
specimens.  Yes, one can do good quality work with these tools and many have
proved this in the past.  However, times have changed and there are a great
many other tools that we should also be using, including molecular techniques,
electron and confocal microscopy, GIS, laser imaging, computational and
networking technologies, etc. that must also be used to move the integration of
systematic and taxonomic information  forward.  This is critical, if we are to
alter perceptions of our discipline by those in other scientific and
professional disciplines that are also not standing still.  Lets dispel the
notion that taxonomists are largely a "bunch of old foks cloistered in ivory
towers with dusty books and fading specimens".  Its never really been true
anyway.  There's a lot more life and imagination in some of these old geezers
than you think!

When non-systematists make disparaging remarks about our profession, I like to
take time to point out their ignorance of progress in our profession and the
vital role archive collections play in understanding the natural world.  There
is a lot of ignorance regarding taxonomy and systematics and a lot of
sterotyping, based mostly on outdated ideas,  somehow learned in high school or
undergraduate biology.  However, one need not play into these or perpetuate
them.  Remember, our business is not rocket science.  Its a lot more
sophisticated and complex than rocket science.  Indeed, for some classes of
problems we need rocket science as yet another tool of our profession.

Where do you begin?  Start local and focused on the valuable and important
aspects of the biology of the organisms you study.  Then link these in
innovative more efficient and accessible ways to the efforts of other like
minded scientists.   Be willing and eager to learn new techniques.  Especially,
work to improve the value and visibility of your collections.  Remember your
collection is really only part of one large single collection that documents
what we know about the earth's biota.   Collections are truely the crown jewels
of our profession.  Treat them as such and never let anyone else, especially
students, ignore their importance for us all, taxonomists and non-taxonomists

Robin Leech wrote:

> My science is called cheap science.  Essentially all I need are microscopes,
> spiders, a reasonable library, e-mail (yup, the scopes, the library, and
> e-mail all from my own pockets), and I am away.  I can either do my own
> collecting on my own time (as I have been doing for over 30 years), or I can
> work on stuff that others have collected (which I also do).
> Departments want showy science, and they want scientists who can bring in
> big money.


> -

Stuart G. Poss                       E-mail: Stuart.Poss at
Senior Research Scientist & Curator  Tel: (228)872-4238
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory       FAX: (228)872-4204
P.O. Box 7000
Ocean Springs, MS  39566-7000

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