[Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy

Kleo Pullin kleopullin at pacbell.net
Tue Jun 2 19:30:22 CDT 2009

One of the most disappointing aspects of the loss of field work, is that the story about Cognato and Hulcr studying the bark beetles is a compelling transfer of knowledge from the scientist to the public, but the search for GCAT is not so compelling as felling trees and watching for fungi and beetles.  Losing taxonomists, scientists who intensely study the morphology and ecology of organisms, and replacing them by scientists who intensely study the genetic code of organisms may not maintain funding for the sciences in the long run, because it potentially distances federally funded scientists from their audience.  And the audience is not solely or even largely other scientists, it is also the people who use the science to make decisions, and the people who live in the world impacted by the information.  Global biodiversity impacts human beings, but showing policy makers this impact through genetics alone when all the taxonomists are gone will be a hard

I am job hunting after finishing electron microscopy school, and, while I would love to do nothing but shoot electron micrographs of fossil and extant angiosperms, that's not going to happen. The really exciting job I found?  In a light microscopy lab studying the genetics of a model organism.  My first thought, after what a thrilling suite of state-of-the-art light microscopes, was that I could probably also find a way to learn all the state-of-the-art molecular biology techniques if I worked there...  From a student perspective you can't afford to ignore the current direction.

On the plus side, ecology seems to be a more important science today than it was a few decades ago.  

Kleo Pullin, student

--- On Tue, 6/2/09, John Grehan <jgrehan at sciencebuff.org> wrote:

> From: John Grehan <jgrehan at sciencebuff.org>
> Subject: [Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy
> To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> Date: Tuesday, June 2, 2009, 10:22 AM
> '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
> 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
> <http://www.the-scientist.com/templates/trackable/display/article1.jsp?a
> _day=1&index=1&year=2009&page=32&month=06&o_url=2009/06/1/32/1#Reference
> _Anchor#Reference_Anchor>  "
> 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."
> John Grehan
> 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
> Panbiogeography
> http://www.sciencebuff.org/biogeography_and_evolutionary_biology.php
> Ghost moth research
> http://www.sciencebuff.org/systematics_and_evolution_of_hepialdiae.php
> Human evolution and the great apes
> http://www.sciencebuff.org/human_origin_and_the_great_apes.php
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