[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Thu Jan 27 17:06:10 CST 2011

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

Not quite.  I didn't say there was no direct competition for money between
what you call "acronyms" (most taxonomists are also employed by "acronyms",
such as AMS, BPBM, USNM, CAS, ANSP, AMNH, NHM, MNHN, FMNH, etc., etc.) and
productive taxonomists.  I'm saying whatever competition there is, is
trivial compared to the *real* problem we face.  

Thanks to Simon for those helpful numbers, but quite frankly I think those
numbers support my point for different reasons than what Simon outlined.
For starters, while it's good to see that rates of species descriptions have
remained more or less steady in recent decades, this doesn't inspire me with
hope.  Even if only a very conservative estimate of 20M species remain to be
described, that still works out to 1000 years before we get them all named.
How many species do you think will go extinct in the next 1000 years?  How
many of those will have never been collected (and hence never be available
for future humans to study)? My fundamental point is, we need to ramp *up*
the taxon documentation process at least ten-fold from what it has been in
recent decades. We're not going to do this by bickering amongst ourselves
for crumbs of funding.  We need to precipitate a sea change in perception
about the importance of biodiversity, relative to the other things we (as a
society) spend our money on (other "big" science, wars, etc.).  

> Taxonomy is not booming (even if we accept Simon Tillier's view that it
> 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?

It depends on what you regard as "booming".  I don't see how the "acronyms"
are booming any more than the taxonomists are, when the collective budgets
for both are grossly inadequate. At the moment the crumbs available to
biodiversity seem comparatively large, but only because these initiatives
tend to be concentrated (taxonomists are spread far, wide, and thin), and
these initiatives tend to make a bigger publicity splash (the media loves
the new technology stuff, and in line with Stephen's earlier point, so do
we).  The truth, I think, is that at this particular moment in history, the
biodiversity informatics stuff is a bit less grossly underfunded than the
taxonomists are (i.e., both need dramatic increases in support; but the
taxonomists need it moreso).

I think a more legitimate restatement of your point above would be something
like this:

"Field-based biodiversity research is not booming. Phylogenetic research is
booming. The huge host of phylogenetic systematists and students around the
world that strut their stuff in scientific journals are relatively new
efforts with  relatively new funding that did not exist 30 years

Although I think this is a much more legitimate case to make (phylogenetic
research dollars *do* tend to come from the same pots as traditional
taxonomy funding, and *do* replace the jobs that used to be held by
field-based taxonomists), and I think the proportion of dollars involved are
even more cause for concern than the ratio of taxonomy:informatics dollars;
this still misses the larger point.  That is, while phylogenetic research is
still grossly underfunded, it is less so than field-based taxonomy.

> You are hopeful that the boom in acronyms will somehow lead to a boom in
> taxonomy. 

Only trivially so. I'm certainly not pinning all my hopes on it.  The only
point I was trying to make is that in the cost/benefit analysis, the
informatics initiatives pretty clearly fall on the "benefits" side for
taxonomy as a whole.  But again, this is a tiny issue.  The big issue is how
we convert the millions of dollars currently spent annually on taxonomy to
billions of dollars.  That's the sort of paradigm shift we need.

> 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?

It sure would be nice.  But don't mistake this footnote as the crux of my
point, because it most certainly is not.  

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

No, not agreed. But again, this is all beside the main point.

> Taxonomists are substantially supporting the acronyms. They are generating
> the information that the acronyms harvest and process. 

Not really.  Except in cases where organizations like EOL directly fund
taxonomists to clean up data, the taxonomists are generating the information
because that's what taxonomists do, and have always done.  The "acronyms"
are simply making it much, much more accessible than it ever was before
(slowly -- because like taxonomists, they don't have anywhere near the
budgets they ought to have).

> In many cases, they
> are assisting the acronyms with data checking, not always for pay. They
> 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
> heard rejoinder to complaints about acronymic data quality: 'If you find
> errors, please tell us so we can correct them.'). Agreed?

Sure -- that part I agree with.  Again, no different from what taxonomists
have always done, since the time of Linnaeus.  The only real difference now
is that their work is reaching a much larger audience than it ever used to.

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

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't; I honestly don't know.  And frankly, I don't
really care.  Because as I have been saying over and over again, this issue
is not how many crumbs the taxonomists get, vs. how many crumbs the
"acronyms" get.  The issue is that in both cases, it's CRUMBS!!!  The only
way we correct this *real* issue is to wake the world up about how important
biodiversity really is, and why it matters so much to the future of
humanity, and why if we don't do something VERY SOON, the future of humanity
will probably be in far greater peril than most people currently understand.
We are still kindergartners in the Library of Congress, and we are still
destroying the books -- not so much because we're malicious, but because we
have almost no comprehension of the value of the information the books
contain.  Those of us who are able to read to the level of "see spot run"
need to tell all the other kids, "Hey, wait a minute... I know it's fun to
build forts and tear pages out and burn all these books, but I think there
might be something really important inside them.  We can only read a few
words now, but the more we learn to read, the more we begin to realize the
value of this information."  At the very least, we should try to capture at
least a few copies of each book and preserve them for future generations,
knowing that they will be in a much better position to read the contents
than we are.

> 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
> thing we need to do to conserve and manage biodiversity. Trying yet
> 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.

I'm not sure I buy the argument that broader society and funders believe
that data management  is the main game for the 21st Century.  I'd be more
inclined to think the opposite: that the publicity generated by the new
initiatives are calling attention to the underlying biodiversity crisis.
But whatever -- we'll probably end up agreeing to disagree on this one.

No disagreements on the rest of the paragraph above.  In fact, I think your
cart/horse analogy is spot-on. For many years we got our work done using
only the horse.  But you can do a LOT more work when you have both a cart
and a horse, than you can with only a horse.  Yes, there has been more money
spent on building the cart in recent years compared with decades prior (by
definition -- because there never was a cart before, and therefore no money
spent building i before). Luckily, given that the horse was already
starving, the money spent building the cart did not reduce the amount of
money available to buy food for the horse, for the most part. 

But the truth is, the horse is not just very hungry, but starving to death.
And the cart is in desperate need of repair (indeed, it is only partially
built).  What we need to do is persuade the villagers that the horse does a
LOT more work for the community than most people realize, and when you add a
functional cart, we can solve a lot of problems.  But the cart will be
useless without a healthy horse, and will also be useless if it's not fully
built -- so let's get the villagers to pitch in to feed the horse *and*
finish building the cart.


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