Thursday, August 31, 2006

The taxonomic impediment

I just found a very interesting report on the economics of taxonomic services and "the taxonomic impediment." It was written by the Association of Systematics Collections (ASC) Executive Director K. Elaine Hoagland in response to a public call in the U.S.A. for a solution to the lack of adequate taxonomic resources for country-studies and other work mandated by the Convention on Biodiversity. It addresses some of the issues I mentioned in an earlier post and even recommends some solutions:

"Growing out of a tradition of reciprocity and collegiality, taxonomists frequently do not charge clients directly for their specialized services and products, such as identifications and biodiversity databases, even though the users of these services and products now extend far beyond their fellow taxonomists. These service activities are often ancillary to a taxonomist's basic monographic work, for which he or she receive grant funds, or subsidizes on his own or through his employers. The cost of doing taxonomy is not factored into most biodiversity or ecology projects. Research grants (even in taxonomy) and ecological monitoring activities rarely include funds for the curation and care of voucher specimens, or the establishment and maintenance of museums."

"The result is a classic market failure in which the cost of taxonomy is externalized. Employers are unwilling to hire persons who do not bring in financial resources. In business terms, taxonomists are a net financial drain (opportunity cost) on the organization. Students shy away from the field of systematics in favor of fields that offer more fellowships, grants, and jobs. Courses in taxonomy are therefore under-subscribed, giving universities further incentive to cut faculty positions. The few remaining taxonomists are over-worked and burdened by new tasks, including now being asked to computerize millions of specimen records going back 200 years. At many institutions, taxonomists willingly stay on beyond retirement, doing work that could go to newly-trained individuals, and positions are not filled. Although there is keen interest in taxonomy in many developing countries, there too, emphasis is on areas of science that bring direct financial reward."

Recommendations include:

"Using existing organizational resources such as the Association of Systematics Collections, Systematics Agenda 2000, and/or ETI, taxonomists could work towards the establishment of a Taxasphere -- a network of taxonomists who can be called upon to perform taxonomic research and services in support of biodiversity inventory and management worldwide. The Taxasphere could make use of various databases of taxonomic expertise that are now being developed in several countries. It could be a clearinghouse for requests for taxonomic services and opportunities for funding. It could align research priorities with funding opportunities, and identify training needs based on real jobs and funded programs. Models for the Taxasphere exist. One very good one is ABRS of Australia, which helps set priorities by focusing attention on needed taxonomic work, helping to arrange training when needed, and funding research and publications on a modest scale. Another model is more international although taxonomically narrow: having recognized a problem in the disappearance of frogs and other amphibians, an international group of herpetologists established a clearinghouse for information and opportunities to research that problem. Foundation support has lead to funding of pilot studies and communications among researchers. The Taxasphere would be a larger project, but is conceptually similar. It would be internet-based and minimally bureaucratic."

"Institutions housing systematics resources should develop business plans that bring taxonomic services into the market, and explicitly show how taxonomic infrastructure is supported, as appropriate to the mission and needs of the institution and its clients and funders, including those representing the long-term public interest. Institutional leaders should review internal budgeting and public relations procedures to demonstrate the value that is produced by taxonomic research and resources both within the institution and via collegial exchange of services and information. They should help the staff develop a new outlook on their own value and potential as the economic paradigm shifts to one of taxonomy (including basic research) as a valued commodity. Grant applications, collaborative research projects, and contracts should include direct or reciprocal compensation for measurable taxonomic services such as identifications and curation of voucher specimens. Institutions should educate trustees, donors, government sponsors, and taxpayers that the "public good" of taxonomic services is spread widely across society and hence justifies core funding of research infrastructure and basic research as a social benefit."

Read the entire report here.

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