[Taxacom] The economics of biodiversity database initiatives

Alastair Culham a.culham at reading.ac.uk
Mon Oct 28 04:53:17 CDT 2013

I'm in the final three days of project reporting for i4Life (www.i4life.eu) which is exactly one of the several infrastructure projects around the world that is funded by the public purse.  It has been developing e-infrastructure for Catalogue of Life that has helped link CoL to other publicly funded databases including the European Nucleotide Archive, GBIF, IUCN Red List and others.  One of the key factors I have to report on is the project 'impact' through a variety of measurables including public engagement, value to industry and value to research.  This includes giving specific examples of use in each area and substantiated evidence for the claims.  The reports will become public documents once they have been reviewed by an external panel.  I would not say that getting the money for this project was easy and I am certain I have to justify the expenditure fully.

All the databases I have engaged with are useful tools in my research.  I remember working my way through TL-2 and Index Kewensis (with it's many supplements) in book form, likewise Biological Abstracts and Index Herbariorum, and I would not like to return to that position.  Both in personal research and that of my students at BSc, MSc and PhD level the idea of not having these large publicly funded databases would be like going back to lighting a house with candles rather than electric light-bulbs.  BHL, BHL-Europe and other library resources allow me to quickly and easily find old and obscure books and journals - I spent days on the train going to libraries to find those during my PhD.  Again, the money is better spent delivering those resources via the internet and squandered on travel and time to get to the few major libraries that might hold those works.  I use books and printed journals and very much love the smell, feel and interaction with paper but would never want to lose the major biodiversity databases as resources for active research.

My personal view is that we need to discover why it is so hard to get funds for alpha taxonomy and integrative taxonomy, address those issues and get a funding stream in place.  In the UK we have had three House of Lords reviews of the funding of taxonomy - every one says it is important and should be done, every one has then been treated like a hot potato by our research councils. Most of my non-taxonomic colleagues think there are already enough names out there, far more species than we can identify, that DNA sequences through environmental genomics will solve all our biodiversity questions and that spending money on museums and collections is not science.  Physics now has the Higgs Boson (or thinks it does), a fundamental particle proposed only a little before I was born, but Taxonomy does yet have a unified species concept, or even a unified code of nomenclature.  I was taught that Taxonomy was half science and half art.  My feeling is that it is the art half that is perceived by others and that funding is more on a level of the arts than the sciences.  

As a community we need to decide what will hold us together rather than what drives us apart.



Dr Alastair Culham
Centre for Plant Diversity and Systematics
Harborne Building, School of Biological Sciences
University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading, RG6 6AS

Associate Professor of Botany
Curator, Reading University Herbarium (RNG)
Associate Editor, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society
Programme Director, MSc Plant Diversity
i4Life Coordinator

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