Friday, July 5, 2013

Crumbling foundations

In biodiversity science there is something known as the taxonomic impediment. It describes the situation of lack of taxonomic expertise, resulting from decreasing funding of taxonomic positions and research, impeding downstream biodiversity studies, e.g. those of a phylogenetic, ecological or conservationist nature.

The underlying problem is clear enough and can be observed in staffing decisions of universities and the policy of funding bodies worldwide. While there is a lot of lip service to the idea that taxonomy is critical to understanding the diversity of life, in daily practice taxonomists have to compete for jobs and funding against colleagues who can publish in higher impact journals and/or who conduct research that is much more easily sold as innovative (say, genomics).

Part of the problem is the same as faced by all scientists doing fundamental, basic, non-applied research, but the problem is exacerbated by the fact that taxonomic papers are much less cited than they are used:
  1. First, somebody who consults a state flora or a monograph to identify the samples used in their phylogenetic study or vegetation analysis is generally not required to cite those works.
  2. Even if they did so, floras and monograph series are not included in impact factor statistics because they have too few issues per year (or are one-off books). Impact factors and related stats such as the h index favor areas of research that publish lots of small papers instead of few large ones.
  3. Every time somebody uses a plant name (such as Xerochrysum collierianum A.M.Buchanan) in, say, a phylogenetic or ecological study, they are essentially citing a scientific hypothesis advanced by a taxonomist called A.M. Buchanan in a publication in 2004 when the species was described. However, in contrast to a reference to the publication of some analysis software used in the study, that "A.M. Buchanan" after the plant name is not formally counted as a citation, and thus the use of the hypothesis is not scored anywhere.
Indeed the entire system looks very much as one would expect it to look if it were deliberately designed to minimize the perceived importance of taxonomic work.

It is thus no surprise that scientists working on plant morphology, identification and taxonomy are getting rarer and rarer, and I assume the same would be true in zoology. Why hire a new taxonomist, or replace the last one your university had and who has just retired, when the same money could be used to hire a sixth or tenth "omics" researcher? That is where things are happening these days!

Well, perhaps it is understandable that morphological or taxonomic research is not seen as cutting-edge, but what I don't get is why it is considered acceptable to not even have somebody in the institution who can teach it. Sure, you can have 30 experimental ecologists, molecular phylogeneticists and conservation genomics people (genomicists? Is that a word?) but hey, at some point maybe the students need to be taught how to use an identification key? Maybe they need to learn how figure out what species they have on their experimental native grassland plot in their honours project? Maybe one of them goes on to start a career assessing the conservation value of an area that is considered for inclusion in a national park, or that is scheduled to be turned into an open cut mine?

Of course you can do omics and ecology if you are only ever working on one species, but if you are interested in landscape ecology, phylogenetics, conservation planning or whatnot, you need to understand plant identification, and for that you need to understand plant morphology and plant taxonomy (swap "plant" for "animal" or "fungal" if that is what interests you more). Therefore it would appear reasonable that every university that has a biology program at all should also have at least one part-time lecturer who teaches those things.

But perhaps I approach the issue from the wrong direction. If the taxonomic impediment becomes too big, it will disappear all by itself!

Think about it: when there is nobody left who knows how to properly identify or recognize plant species, then there will be nobody to criticize the ecologist for scoring two different species on their plot as one. There will be nobody to point out that the molecular phylogeneticist has misinterpreted their results because half the herbarium specimens they extracted their DNA from were misidentified. There will be nobody to realize that the open cut mine was once the last population worldwide of this particular species of endangered plant. And everybody will be unconcerned; ignorance is bliss. [/cynicism]

What I wonder though is whether other areas of science and scholarship are as short-sighted as biology. Do contemporary chemistry departments also say, "Ah, we don't need anybody to teach the students about the periodic table or about titration - that is sooo 20th century. Let's hire five more nanotechnology researchers instead!" Or would contemporary geologists find the following convincing? "Who cares whether our graduates know about sedimentation and metamorphism, or know how to recognize different types of rock, let's just limit ourselves to training them in the use of instruments for seismic, gravitic and magnetic surveys, that's where the money is at!"

Perhaps that is also how it works outside of biology, but I would be surprised to hear that.

1 comment:

  1. This was predicted in an article in Bioscience back around 1980. Growth of science was shown to be a logistic growth curve with present conditions being at carrying capacity. Not likely to be another doubling of funding, so some areas would lose the competition and become extinct. Recommended that number of PhD programs be severely curtailed, and no new big labs started. No one paid any attention and here we are, with PhD jobs being scarce, and labs operating on the brink of disaster.

    At about the same time,there was a Science article by Ehrlich and Raven (or vice versa) arguing that taxonomic collections were not really valuable. There was consolidation and abandonment of collections. Museums shifted to exhibition vs research, and jobs in taxonomy became rarer and rarer. I think the consequences will be as you say.