[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Thu Jan 27 15:22:38 CST 2011

Hi, Rich.

With respect, I am getting it. The people with money are giving it to acronyms because they want to give it to acronyms. There is no direct competition for money between acronyms and productive taxonomists, and the acronyms are not starving productive taxonomists of funds they would otherwise have received. Agreed?

Taxonomy is not booming (even if we accept Simon Tillier's view that it isn't contracting). Acronyms are booming. The huge host of acronymic projects around the world that strutted their stuff at e-biosphere in London were brand-new efforts with brand-new funding that did not exist 10 years previously. Agreed?

You are hopeful that the boom in acronyms will somehow lead to a boom in taxonomy. The people giving out the money will come to understand that there is a taxonomic enterprise behind the acronymic one, and that the taxonomic enterprise needs help. (Quote: 'But maybe the technology "hook" has brought them close enough to our world that we can plead the case, such that maybe in the future they *will* provide the money we need for the tasks we need to do.') Agreed?

At the moment the acronyms are supporting taxonomy by helping taxonomists with existing information (your octogenarian fish-ologist). They are not supporting field work, lab/museum work or write-up work by existing taxonomists, and they are not supporting the training of new taxonomists - either at all, or to an insginificant extent. Agreed?

Taxonomists are substantially supporting the acronyms. They are generating the information that the acronyms harvest and process. In many cases, they are assisting the acronyms with data checking, not always for pay. They are asked by the acronyms to do more to help the acronymic enterprise (e.g. EOL's invitation to professionals to curate their pages, and the frequently heard rejoinder to complaints about acronymic data quality: 'If you find errors, please tell us so we can correct them.'). Agreed?

OK, if you've got this far with me, then please listen: it is this hugely one-way 'cross-fertilisation' that I see as contributing to the decline in taxonomy. Taxonomists may or may not be assisted in their work by the acronyms - they were quite productive before the acronym boom - but the loud noise from the acronyms in the broader society is not translating into more resources for taxonomy, or for taxonomic training.

Instead, it is IMO creating a belief in that broader society, and in the minds of those funding the acronyms, that the gathering of existing biodiversity information is the main game for the 21st century, that it is the most urgent thing we need to do to conserve and manage biodiversity. Trying yet another metaphor: the taxonomic horse is now and always will be leading the acronymic cart. The amount of money available to this dual enterprise has increased in recent years, but it's gone largely to the cart. The horse is missing out, and getting very hungry.
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
Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/?articleID=570

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