[Taxacom] article on taxonomy

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Sun Feb 28 15:31:44 CST 2010

The N.Z. funding scheme appears to be exactly the same as the U.S. (probably following it's unfortunate "lead"). This is presumably why molecular biology infrastructures are popping up all over the place - not because research of this kind is any more valuable per se, but because it is more valuable economically. I'm just not quite sure where and how the "bioinformatics boom" fits in to all this?


From: Dean Pentcheff <pentcheff at gmail.com>
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Sent: Mon, 1 March, 2010 8:33:41 AM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] article on taxonomy

[posted from Salt Lake City airport -- if Richard Pyle can keep up on
this conversation between dives in Fiji, the least I can do is an
airport posting. But I'd rather be between dives in Fiji...]

Do I want to save all the world's biodiversity? Bluntly, what I want
doesn't matter much at all. I am not in a policy position. Do I think
we (the largest possible sense of the world "we") should try to save
what we can? Yes.

Policy decision-makers are being charged with making trade-off
decisions. Develop this tract or that tract? Invest in this one 10,000
hectare no-take zone or in these 5 2,000 hectare reduced-take zones?
I'm certainly not naive enough to think that the decisions are always
(or should always) be based on full biodiversity analyses of all
contingencies. But I know for sure that if the biodiversity
information isn't immediately and easily available, it won't enter
into the decision process at all.

That's the sense in which I stand as a stauch advocate of efforts to
make taxonomic information (by itself a small part of biodiversity
knowledge) more accessible, more linked, and less the province of
individuals working in isolation. I think, Bob, that you and I
probably agree fully on that. We may differ on the particulars of
which alphabet-soup agencies we happen to think are doing a good job
at that, and which are redundant preserves of bureaucrats.

On a different (though related note), I keep seeing pleas (or
arguments) here on the need or desirability for academic taxonomy to
receive more funding and more positions. No one has pointed out the
core reason why this will never happen within the U.S. funding scheme
(I can't address other systems, since I don't know them).

The key determinant in the U.S. is not publication impact factor. It
is ability to generate research overhead money. That's where taxonomy
utterly fails to be competitive. It's not the fault of taxonomy or
taxonomists -- it's just the nature of the field.

A taxonomist can conceivably write a US$3million grant for a 5 year
project (or be a collaborator on such a grant). A taxonomist needs a
few thousand dollars of travel money, a microscope, maybe a postoc and
grad student salary, and... um... well... that's about it. With that,
a fine taxonomist can do excellent work.

The institution gets (roughly) 50% of that money for general expenses,
say US$1.5million.

The cancer cell geneticist next door writes a grant at the same time.
She'll need a US$750,000 sequencer, US$500,000 of other molecular
equipment, US$400,000 of reagents, US$250,000 worth of freezers,
incubation rooms, etc., two postdocs to manage the work, 8 graduate
students over the 5 years to do the work, travel money for all of them
for meetings, etc. etc. etc. She'll also do fine work. And the
institution gets maybe US$5million from her grant.

If you're the dean in charge of that department, you are commiting
academic suicide to recommend hiring taxonomists. Taxonomists just
can't spend money fast enough to generate enough overhead to make them
financially worth having in research universities.

It's not a function of the "respect" taxonomy gets. It's not a
function of NSF training initiatives. It's a function of the fact that
taxonomy is intrinsically cheap science. That's why taxonomy is now
dead in U.S. research universities, and won't come back no matter what
support is pushed.

Dean Pentcheff
pentcheff at gmail.com
dpentch at nhm.org

On Fri, Feb 26, 2010 at 11:50 PM, Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au> wrote:
> [This thread is certainly getting people to firm up positions, which is good, but if you haven't already done so, please read the instigating article (Boero on stupidity).]
> Dean Pentcheff wrote:
> "So we have a choice. We can use all our time to inform ourselves about our precious biodiversity as it all vanishes. Or we can use some of our time to hugely multiply the effectiveness of the knowledge we have by making it accessible and useful to the people whose decisions really can save the world's biodiversity."
> It's clear from your post that you want to save as much biodiversity as possible in the aggregate, which is the only reason anyone could possibly need *all* of the world's biodiversity documentation at their fingertips - to make triage decisions. Unfortunately, with most of the world's biodiversity still undocumented, those decisions are going to be massively ill-informed. The people you want to trust to save biodiversity know that, and in any case they do *not* make decisions based on taxonomic niceties. You may not have seen an exchange I had here with Tony Rees on a week ago:
> '"The first thing these managers / policy persons want is to know what biodiversity exists and where." Um, yes, makes them sound like they know what they're talking about in their meetings. But the second thing (what can we *possibly* do about it?) and the third thing (what can we *really* do about it?) have vastly more influence on decision-making than knowing names and locality records. I'm not being cynical here and saying that science goes out the window when deals get done. I'm saying that conservation planning involves a lot more than taxonomy, and it simply doesn't matter how good the taxonomy is when there are vast gaps in knowledge about species biology, biogeography and causes of decline. You're in a particularly good position to know this, being familiar with the debates about marine reserves in Australia. Informed decision-making at those levels has bugger-all to do with getting names right.'
> The choice you offer (above) might be a societal choice, but it isn't a personal one. I argued for a personal ethical stance that puts discovery and documentation well ahead of tinkering with data infrastructure. Smart taxonomists should be doing smart taxonomy. And as for making taxonomic information more widely available, I've argued here for open taxonomic communities that feed on such information and use it to generate new taxonomic work more productively than isolated professionals can. That's a better use for existing taxonomic information than handing it to, or using it to advise, policy-makers who will be quickly marginalised if they keep saying 'no' to developers with booming populations and booming wants behind them.
> The effectiveness of conservation isn't limited by what's known. We won't get dramatically better outcomes if we know more. We know enough: habitats have been and are being destroyed, wild resources have been and are being overexploited, pollution and degradation are steadily getting worse and more and more species are going invasive outside their natural ranges. In an era of extinction the job of a taxonomist (IMO) isn't to stand Canute-like at the shore and say that with better access to taxonomic information we can hold back the incoming tide of massive overpopulation. It's to document what's going extinct.
> --
> Dr Robert Mesibov
> Honorary Research Associate
> Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
> School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
> Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
> (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
> Website: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/mesibov.html


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