[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Thu Jan 27 04:24:28 CST 2011

Dear Simon,

Fascinating to hear a contrary view. OK, I'll bite:

1. Does the number of new species described depend on the number of active taxonomists? If it does, and the number of taxonomists is static, then the productivity gains in recent years that Rich Pyle celebrates, from digital tools and faster, easier publishing, may not be very large. If those gains are important (and I think they are), then you can get the same number of species per year (for a time, anyway) from a declining number of active taxonomists.

2. Do 'authors' equal active taxonomists? Is malacology representative of zoology overall? McLain's article gives examples to the contrary.

3. Last year (2010) I published 20 new species. I'm retired, and I was paid zero euros to do this work. Don't you think your multiplication of 18000+ new species by euros-per-species described by a fabulously well-paid fulltime taxonomist might be a little... um, generous?

'I see actually two problems: the first is understanding why we perceive taxonomists as endangered.' It seems to me that we perceive taxonomists as endangered for 3 reasons, all based on observable facts:

1) Training in taxonomy has largely disappeared from universities around the world and has not been replaced by any other kind of taxonomic training. There is a declining 'replacement stock' in taxonomy.
2) Replacements are needed because the existing taxonomic workforce is retired or getting near retirement. A 2008 Australian study reported that 30% of the [taxonomic] workforce consists
  of retirees working voluntarily; a large number of paid taxonomists are nearing retirement (43% of working taxonomists are over 45 years of age...); an average of 4 taxonomists are lost every year and only 1
  taxonomist gained; 50% of the workforce will be lost by 2028.
3) The number of full-time jobs in taxonomy is declining around the world. The reasons seem to be primarily economic:

'Rather, the reality is that taxonomy finds itself mired in a classic tragedy of the commons. Everyone uses the knowledge as a shared reference but no one wants to bear the cost. Other biologists - who are perfectly happy to fork over cash for lab equipment, staff salary, and DNA sequencing - somehow run into trouble budgeting the identification of their study organisms. Museums and Universities know that taxonomists don’t bring in the big grant dollars that medical and genomic sciences do. As those institutions become increasingly focused on their bottom line they cut their taxonomists and replace them with scientists more likely to serve as cash cows.' (http://myrmecos.net/2010/09/07/the-decline-of-taxonomy/)
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

More information about the Taxacom mailing list