[Taxacom] Why Taxonomy does NOT matter
fhaas at icipe.org
Wed May 11 03:53:01 CDT 2011
let me share with you the results and summary of the discussions we had
on why taxonomy does not matter for many donors. See below, a word doc
is also available with nicer formatting.
Pls remember, the whole issue is about opinions and perceptions, and not
about the truth. DFor example, many believe taxonomical knowledge is
available, and so they decide based on their opinion, no matter that if
we have difficulties finding relevant keys - if they exist at all.
Hope we made a step forward in this respect and can move donors a little
better to fund taxonomy.
*Why Taxonomy does not matter?*
Fabian Haas, 2011-05-03, summary of about 100 emails in Taxacom Mailing
List and input be a few other people.
A little while ago, I was on a steering committee meeting of a taxonomic
initiative in East Africa, and we were discussing the issue why it is so
difficult to receive funding for taxonomy, despite support through
institutions and the CBD.
We were exchanging the regular arguments, when it struck me: Had any
body actually talked to the donors why they don't like to fund taxonomy?
In particular, the groundwork, describing species, recording
distributions has had challenging times. If at all, DNA and Internet
related activities are being funded, which do not produce new
descriptions, but are based on them and do more, what I would like to
call 'infrastructure work', making existing taxonomic information
available via internet.
The result was that I wrote an email to two mailing lists (end of this
document), and this paper summarises the responses of these list. It is
obvious that these are personal experiences, and I was asking for that,
and not a systematic questionnaire to donors. So, it is anecdotal
evidence in the first place, but I think, this is important anyway. I
received about 100 responses, which contained discussions about my
email, so not each and everyone is an example of a statement made by a
The word 'donor' should be explained a little more. These are
institutions, private organisations and individuals who have a certain
vision and mission and give money and other support to other
institutions and individuals to achieve this target. We write proposals
to donors and they decide to give money on a competitive basis, or not.
In Europe and other places there are donors dedicated to basic science,
while here in Kenya most of the donors are related to conservation and
development cooperation, which have little interest in basic science
from the beginning. This adds a whole new perspective to funding,
bringing very different interests into the field.
The arguments, /why taxonomy does not matter/, are grouped in three
sections, which appear connected, but otherwise don't establish a
priority list. I took the liberty commenting on them and adding own
observations to them.
It is a pleasure to thank all the participants in the discussion, who
shared their views and experiences for this collection.
1) Most species don't matter
We only connect to a few selected species (often flagship species), and
most, esp. insects and other invertebrates are unknown and unrecognized
in daily life, they simply don't appear to be important. This perception
has nothing to do with reality, like ecosystem service, where linkages
are realized in a wider public only if the ESS fail, like pollination.
With the donor's focus on application and immediate results, this
selectiveness makes it difficult to pay for taxonomic projects, and
since taxonomists have a sense of completeness, no donor wants to
support comprehensive taxonomic projects. After all, many donors say,
People Come First, so why care about some insects.
2) Taxonomy lacks innovativeness
Taxonomists are eager to point out how classical their science is,
however, many donors want to see innovations with possible spin off to
industry. This could be the reasons why everything that has the word
'DNA' and 'Internet' in its name, has a advantage right from the start,
and could explain why such initiatives (e.g. Barcoding, GBIF) did
receive funding, while taxonomic groundwork does not.
On a satirical note I could imagine a dialogue between a taxonomist and
a donor, the former saying that he is part of a tradition of about
250yrs. The Donor might think: Hm, well, wonderful, impressive, BUT they
haven't finished yet? When do I get my results and reports?? So, why
don't they ever apply their knowledge then??? I am not going to fund
them for that time, not even half of it!!!! Would I buy a cell phone
from 10yrs ago? No! I wanna have the latest model, so I want the latest
version of taxonomy too. Lets go for DNA!
3) Taxonomy is over-accurate for most applications
Most (not all) decisions in e.g. modelling and conservation are done and
can be done without complete knowledge of taxa. As it is, decisions for
conservation areas are often based on flagship species (e.g. elephants),
on taxa which have an excellent research background, e.g. birds (IBAs),
on availability of land (e.g. land with a high Tsetse burden),
importance as corridor and other factors, but never on a complete view
on an all biodiversity in a specific area. Even if an inventory existed,
it would be an illusion that we could collect data on ecological
requirements and population dynamics for most of the species necessary
for informed decisions. A complete inventory does not seem to provide an
advantage for conservation.
4) Taxonomy and Classification and Phylogeny
Most donors will consider that none of this is relevant to them. They do
not need to know all species, let alone how they are related. If they
are interested in taxonomy, they are interested in simple species ID. In
some cases, like customs, they are often happy to know what it is not.
5) Taxonomic knowledge is available
Taxonomy is perceived as a public good, as something the states support
and not the project based donors.
I think that has been widely been discussed in the 1990ies and following
years, and so I can keep it short.
6) Taxonomy is stamp collection
It comes also in a variant argument, that research has to be 'hypothesis
driven' and this is the reason, why studies which included
Classification and Phylogeny had much better chance for funding than
studies which focused on 'pure' taxonomic work.
7) Taxonomy small budget research
Which is why administrations are not keen on it, for the small overheads
and amount of money coming in. Compared to other research projects,
non-DNA taxonomy is fairly cheap, brings in little soft money and thus
administrations are only mildly interested in it.
8) Science politics and rating systems
Linked to 5-6) but also see the discussions citation indexes and impact
factors, which taxonomy does not yield.
9) A lack of sense of community amongst taxonomist
There is little cohesion amongst taxonomist, others and myself make that
experience again and again. Lobby work is not appreciated or supported
by the community, rather attacked. My personal impression is that most
of the lobby work for taxonomy is actually not done by taxonomist
themselves, but others who find the topic important.
This is not so amongst other professional groups, in my opinion the best
example are astronomers who argue together, often worldwide, make their
way into science administration and management, and are the decision
makers. Another example is hunters who have extremely well organised
lobby work, and many decision makers are themselves hunters. You see the
My Original question was:
my apologies for the subject of this email, but I thing I have your
attention. I am a taxonomist myself, and working a lot to make taxonomy
matter on various plat forms, so no need to convince me about the
importance of taxonomy.
What I am trying to find out i , why we seemingly have not succeeded in
gathering more support for taxonomy in the last 10 yrs or so? Although
we have high political support for the CBD, a variety of interesting
projects, like EOL and GBIF, and many other plat forms distributing
taxonomic information. These success have little contributed -in my
opinion- to improve funding for the production of taxonomic knowledge.
Instead of lamenting again, and preaching to the converted, I would like
to find out, why the donors dont seem to react, what are their reasons
not to fund taxonomic work, at all, or at a level would be useful. So I
am looking for their reasons, why they dont seem to receive our message
that we need to taxonomy. And also why taxonomic aspects are often
deleted form projects when money becomes tight, more often than other
section. Taxonomy seems expensible.
I do have some suspicions, like they dont know what it is, they simply
dont like the topic, they think everything is known, they thing we dont
need it anyways, its a public good and so available, taxonomy would be
I will certainly try to talk the donors informally to find out what they
think, but what I would like to ask this community, if you have any
first hand experience, first hand statements on that. I will treat all
information confidential if wished, and keep informant and, more
importantly donor, anonymously. It is not about blaming someone, but I
would like to better understand their perspective, with the ultimate
goal to improve our communication strategy, and better address them. We
did work a lot on our/taxonomist communication and I believe all the
necessary answers are ready, collected by BioNET etc, but this change of
perspective -ask the listeners why they dont listen- seems worth wile to me.
So Why does Taxonomy NOT matter??
Best & Looking forward to hearing from you!
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