are systematists their own enemy-how do we reverse the decline in systematics?

Gerald R. Noonan carabid at MPM.EDU
Tue Apr 15 15:05:58 CDT 2003

        I apologize for the length of this post but think that below I raise
some questions systematists should ponder.

For more than a quarter of a century I have watched systematics decrease at
colleges and universities. I saw the beginning of the decrease when I was a
graduate student in the 1970s. Ecologists replaced systematists by using
arguments such as that systematists were not real scientists. At one
University, the argument included statements that the former systematist
there had spent much of his time determining specimens for other people.
This was a true statement. Part of those determinations was for
non-systematist colleagues at the same University so that they could use the
names in their research papers. After the systematist was replaced with an
ecologist, I was asked to determine some specimens. Faculty were extremely
shocked when I said that my consulting fees would be several hundred dollars
an hour and that unfortunately my graduate research precluded my having time
to consult.

Some questions I think we should think about:

1.      Isn't it very dangerous if we allow systematics to be considered as
a support service?
a.      Why is it expected that systematists should provide free
determinations to other scientists while the other scientists of course
would never do things such as determine the ecological parameters of the
species we are studying, do molecular tests for us on a taxon we are
studying, etc. -- unless they are reimbursed or are working together with us
on a paper?
b.      Isn't it dangerous when we justify systematics as important because
of its service to other disciplines or to colleagues elsewhere?
c.      Shouldn't we instead be saying that systematics investigates one of
the most intriguing scientific topics of all time -- the incredible
biodiversity on the planet Earth?
d.      My point here is that support services are one of the first things
cut during budget problems, and systematics has become identified in part as
a support service rather than as a valid line of scientific inquiry.
Administrators wonder why their institution should be providing free support
to people at other institutions. Administrators want to see cutting-edge
world-class research not support services.

2.      Why do some systematists inadvertently downgrade the discipline with
statements such as - "Well if there aren't systematists in the future, the
amateurs can continue to successfully describe new species and revise
taxonomic groups." I have heard such statements from several colleagues over
the years. Amateurs do make an important contribution. However, if
professional systematists can't do much much better than amateurs, why
should colleges and universities fund the discipline of systematics?

3.      Should we take a more strategic view of how NSF funds should be
distributed? I couldn't help noting that there had been an unsuccessful 1997
NSF proposal requesting mobile shelving for the University of Iowa. The
refusal to provide funding might have started the process whereby
administrators decided to be rid of the collections. Should NSF consider
providing funds to small possibly inadequately funded museums rather than
waiting to provide funds allowing larger institutions to take care of
orphaned collections? If we allow systematics to keep vanishing from
institution after institution, we will end up with systematics present at
only a few larger institutions. Then the administrators at those
institutions will notice that systematics has been cut elsewhere and begin
their own cuts.
a.      We need a strategic assessment about how NSF and other funding
agencies could work to halt the increasingly rapid vanishing of systematics.

4.      What if anything can we do about the grant situation at NSF? It's
great that the systematics program has started a new subprogram for
revisionary work but this may not be enough. In recent years, it's become a
truism that funds from systematics would be available only for things like
molecular studies, studies of genomes, and occasionally molecular
systematics studies of the cladistics of supraspecific taxa. Monographs and
taxonomic revisions just weren't fundable for a while. When I joined the
Milwaukee Public Museum in 1975, it was reasonable to believe that a good
grant proposal for monographic work would be funded. I received my first NSF
grant less than a year after joining the museum. Since then the number of
systematists has decreased and -- except for the new revsys subprogram -- it
has become much more difficult to say the least to obtain funds for
monographs. And except for the PEET program systematics grants tend to be
small compared to those in many other scientific disciplines. Put another
way, the much loved (by administrators) indirect costs generated by
systematists are much lower then those generated by scientists in other

5.      Are systematics grants generally less well funded than those for
some other disciplines? This is my general impression. Example: A few years
ago a student began part-time work with me and assisted me well into his
graduate studies. He decided to go into molecular biology. After he became a
graduate student he began going to many conferences and meetings. He told me
that his major professor had various funds left over in her grants each time
and therefore provided him with travel money. How many systematists ever
have money left over from a grant? It's difficult to get adequate travel
funds for the primary investigator to say nothing of graduate students
working on different projects. I could cite other examples.

6.      Is part of the problem a general reluctance by systematists to
embrace new technologies?  I've learned over the years never ever to promise
in a grant proposal to use new ways of studying systematics. The response
would always be something like "that hasn't been done before." Instead I
learned to talk about new techniques only in the grant proposal section that
discussed prior grant research progress. My last successful NSF research
proposal -- some years ago admittedly -- requested funds for among other
things a GPS unit so that I could accurately record latitude and longitude
for collecting localities. During the expected budget reduction negotiations
I was told the within the slightly smaller financial parameters I could
allocate funds as I desired except of course for the GPS unit. Reviewers and
the panel had felt that that was "science-fiction". There were no other new
ideas for reviewers to object to because I had carefully and painstakingly
pruned out mention of anything new in the successful proposal.

7.      Should systematists be meeting together regularly as systematists
rather than attending general entomology meetings, mammalogy meetings,
herpetology meetings, etc. Would this help us have a more unified voice? If
systematists communicated more among themselves possibly we would have
government funded programs to facilitate systematics. Consider for example
the new and very worthwhile NEON program that will provide essential
resources for ecological studies. Systematists do not seem to be going after
any comparable shared resources for the discipline. For example, I have so
far spent most of today looking up obscure original descriptions and getting
ready to fill out volumes of interlibrary loans. A very worthwhile program
would be for NSF to fund scanning classic out of print out of copyright
articles, journals, books into PDF files that could be accessed online. This
would save a lot of time and effort for those systematists that routinely
deal with taxa described centuries ago. Surely there are many other
worthwhile pan systematics programs that should be considered to improve the
overall discipline of systematics.

I suggest we need to begin trying to figure out basic reasons why
systematics is declining and then devising methods for turning things
around. Unless we do this, systematics will become an extinct discipline.

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