[Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy
jgrehan at sciencebuff.org
Tue Jun 2 12:22:40 CDT 2009
'The Scientist' Volume 23 | Issue 6 | Page 32 ran a nicely depressing
article on the decline of morphological systematics. Something that I
have seen go steadily down the drain over the last thee decades.
Some quotes from the article - including some that show how the PEET
program was like closing the door after everyone already left.
In some sense, administrators are justified in shunning taxonomists when
it comes time to hire new faculty. A taxonomist has access to
essentially a fraction of a percentage of the NSF budget, while a
molecular biologist has at her fingertips the budget from the National
Institutes of Health, typically four times larger than the NSF's. "If
your objective is just to get a job, you probably shouldn't be in
taxonomy at all, molecular or descriptive," said Holzenthal.
However, there are fewer and fewer biologists who practice traditional
taxonomy, or the collection, description, naming and categorization of
organisms through intense study of their physical attributes. In
general, the field of taxonomy, or systematics as it is often called,
has been leaning towards the molecular end of the spectrum since genetic
technology matured in the late 1970s and 1980s, and traditional
taxonomic skills have been dwindling as older taxonomic experts retire.
Many taxonomists blend traditional methods, such as morphological and
behavioral study, with modern molecular techniques, such as DNA
sequencing, to fully characterize their pet taxa. But taxonomists like
Cognato and Hulcr, who rely on fieldwork and morphological study as core
aspects of their taxonomic work, appear to be slowly going extinct.
The PEET program doled out its first round of grants in 1995 in the face
of a rapid decline of experts in the field. An NSF survey conducted in
the mid-1990s found only 940 systematic biologists working at
doctorate-granting institutions, and one quarter of those were only
adjunct faculty members. More than 80% of the institutions that
responded to the NSF survey said that they would not hire systematists
in the future if new positions opened up.2
When Pricila Chaverri arrived at the University of Maryland about a year
ago with a PEET grant in hand, she advertised on campus for
undergraduate students to work on revising the taxonomy of fungi in the
order Hypocreales, which she studies. Herself a graduate of the PEET
program, she waited for the expressions of interest to roll in. None
came. Frustrated, she changed her advertisement to highlight the fact
that students would also learn molecular techniques, such as PCR and DNA
sequence analysis, as they sought to fully characterize fungal specimens
in her lab. "I got, like, a hundred applications," Chaverri recalls.
"And they all wanted to learn molecular biology."
"As it is now," one survey respondent wrote, "[PEET] trains students in
skills absolutely not required by the job market."
Dr. John R. Grehan
Director of Science
Buffalo Museum of Science1020 Humboldt Parkway
Buffalo, NY 14211-1193
email: jgrehan at sciencebuff.org
Phone: (716) 896-5200 ext 372
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