Ah, irony (was: Unknown fruit & other plants...)

Doug Yanega dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU
Fri Jan 17 11:00:29 CST 2003

Maybe I'm in a funny headache-induced mood today, but when Börge wrote:

>This remarkable possibility to benefit from global knowledge is
>surely one of the strongest sides of the TAXACOM list.

It struck me again with a mixture of pride and sadness that this sort
of thing - our collective ability to recognize the living things on
the planet, combined with our willingness, even *eagerness*, to share
that information - is not only our great strength, but our proverbial
Achilles' Heel. If we were lawyers looking up esoteric legal
precedents, or doctors rendering diagnoses of exotic ailments, we'd
be charging several hundred dollars for the sort of specialized
information retrieval that folks here gave Börge for free. Sure,
we're colleagues, and even doctors might share knowledge among
colleagues without assessing fees, but taxonomists (with an admitted
few exceptions) perform such services routinely for people who are
NOT colleagues. I know this has come up here before, and is not a new
concept for nearly all of us on this list, but the impression that
society marginalizes us and our profession is a strong one, and I'm
not alone in thinking that a fair part of that lack of respect stems
from the apparent lack of "value" (in the commercial sense) of what
we do; by refusing to treat our knowledge as proprietary, we imply it
has no real value, that it comes cheaply. Even within our own
community this is evident, in the way that there are still studies
proposed, funded, and published which rely upon taxonomic information
and yet have nothing in their budget to compensate the taxonomists
called upon to assist - or may not even involve taxonomists at all
(especially evident in many of the works which use "morphospecies" as
the foundation of the study).

Among the recurring ideas this train of thought leads me to is one
I've raised here before, and I'm prompted to do so again, though
maybe I can lead into it via a pair of questions: (1) Is there any
particular reason - some hurdle that cannot be overcome - that makes
it impossible for the taxonomic community to form its own
professional association, akin to those of doctors and lawyers? (2)
Would it not be to our long-term benefit if we did so, and
accordingly took the unified stance that our knowledge *is*
proprietary, and we merited compensation for making that specialized
expertise available?

Yes, I realize that question #2 implies adopting a mercenary attitude
contradictory to that spirit of sharing Börge was applauding, and
even I who pose the question would be very uncomfortable with this
(some of you here may know that I'm actively involved in *several*
on-line resources that involve making frequent insect
identifications, purely voluntarily), yet I can't help but wonder if
something along these lines may not ultimately be useful or even
necessary. However, I don't rule out the possibility that the dilemma
could be resolved by finding philanthropic support for our efforts
(in fact, I see it as one of our best hopes), but if you think about
this, it's immediately evident that there does not now exist any
single agency or association to which such philanthropic support
could be *directed* in any meaningful manner, in terms of channeling
this support exclusively to taxonomy. People who want to donate money
for conservation (to *preserve* life on this planet) have SEVERAL
non-profit agencies to turn to, but there is no such agency to which
people can donate in order to *document* life on this planet! In
essence, then, I see question #2 as representing what we might need
as a "bargaining chip" - making a public statement that we can no
longer afford to give out our services for free, so the public and
private sectors need to ante up if they want our continued help -
while question #1 addresses creating a unified front, a single
interface between our community and the user community (a potential
base of support that is largely untapped).

In other words, then, couldn't we some day form a (potentially
non-profit) international society of taxonomists, in order to
directly and visibly promote our profession? Are there steps we could
or should take to bring it about? Or am I the only one who imagines
this would be a good thing?


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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