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

Doug Yanega dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU
Fri Jan 17 16:26:58 CST 2003

Tom Lammers wrote:

>Many of us are public employees.  My salary is paid for by the citizens of
>Wisconsin.  If every time a homeowner came in with a weed to ID I said,
>"That'll be $25 please," I'm sure it would only be a matter of time before
>the legislature started raising holy hell.  It is part of my job
>description to be of service to the citizens of this state.

Right. I'm a public employee, as well - but part of forming our own
organization would be with the intent to get us an entirely different
sort of support base. To continue the analogy, imagine if 95% of the
world's lawyers were employed in a similar fashion, on the public
payroll. It'd obviously be *hard* for them to break off and go into
private practice if people were used to having their services for
free. But that doesn't mean that it couldn't or wouldn't be
*possible* or *beneficial* for them to do so - ESPECIALLY if the
agencies employing them grossly undervalued the work they were doing.
Individual lawyers couldn't do well at private practice under such a
scenario because there would still be too many other lawyers doing
the same work for free. Essentially the only hope would be is if they
all joined together and subsequently - in essence - collectively
renegotiated a different sort of contract with society as a whole.
Part of *that* would be some sort of accreditation, so people would
know that the individuals they were doing business with were living
up to an explicit set of standards - like the Bar Association.
It's not like our services have no value, after all - you yourself
give a perfect example: a homeowner that took their weed to a weed
control firm would probably NOT get an ID for free - it'd be more
like $100 minimum for a consultation which they probably couldn't
even trust, given the conflict of interests. If, on the other hand,
there was a place they could bring their weed (or garden pest, or
whatever), pay 50 bucks, and have a professional and unbiased ID
performed, don't you think people would make use of such a service?
Or, perhaps, that a large number of gardening associations and
garden-related businesses would pool their funds to help pay for a
resource they could use that had dozens of plant and insect
taxonomists on staff? I have friends - some of whom are taxonomists -
who left academia to do biological consulting, and they (in essence)
identify insects in the field for $70 an hour, while I manage a
collection of some 3 million specimens, including doing ID work, for
only $20 an hour. There is no logic to this sort of asymmetry;
something's amiss, and I think a large part of that may be that the
people with the expertise are generally not in a direct interface
with the people who are willing to pay for it. I've lost track of the
number of people I've communicated with who had no idea that folks
like County Extension Agents even existed and could be called upon
for help. We, as a whole, are an under-promoted resource. And no,
this thread isn't about my personal gripes - Like Rich Pyle said, I'd
do what I do for half the pay (and I've even done it while
unemployed), just to be doing what I enjoy - but it bothers me
*profoundly* when I reflect upon the state of our profession, and I
can't help but wonder what we could do to improve our situation.

A private response I've received is along similar lines, and might be
worth sharing (with my thanks to the person who sent it):

>Somebody with millions to give away could establish a Systematics
>Foundation and a relatively small body of professional taxonomists
>could administer the funds.  $50 million dollars is nothing to some
>wealthy people in this country, as evidenced by universities that
>receive gifts of 150 million or more from a single benefactor or
>alumnus.  Why are taxonomists not trying to find such a person to
>establish such a Foundation?  Why are we not asking Ted Turner for
>his help?  He gave a billion dollars to the UN, and clearly has some
>reverance for life and understands ecosystem processes.  The
>operation of the Foundation could be simple: Established taxonomists
>who have shown productivity receive $30,000 a year or so for travel,
>publication costs, and other research-related expenses.  That amount
>keeps coming in annually, provided productivity does not wane and
>(perhaps) the recipient is willing to have a "lab" or "herbarium"
>financial audit at any time.
>What taxonomist on the planet would not have a considerable surge of
>productivity if they had $30,000 a year flowing into their research,
>and thus had more time to devote to research that was not wasted
>trying to justify that already estalished, productive program via
>frequent grant proposal submissions?.  At some point, one's
>oustanding publication record and participation in giving papers
>etc. should speak for itself.   Constant grant-writing is a time
>wasting process..... everybody knows this but nobody has tried to
>overcome this monster of a productivity killer.  Surely there must
>be a better way.

These are also good points, and stand on their own merit even if we
can disregard the arguments surrounding "ID-for-fee." I certainly do
hope the ideals behind the All-Species Foundation live on, and can
make a comeback, but still do see a value to some sort of formal


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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