[Taxacom] Why Taxonomy does NOT matter

Fabian Haas fhaas at icipe.org
Wed May 11 03:53:01 CDT 2011

Dear All,

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.

best Fabian

*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.

*Donor Perspective*

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.

*Science Perspective*

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.

*Community Perspective*

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 
outcome yourself.

My Original question was:

Dear Colleagues,

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

complete, etc.

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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