Evolving Thoughts

Underfunded taxonomy

This week’s Ask a Science Blogger is

What’s the most underfunded scientific field that shouldn’t be underfunded?

In my view, it is taxonomy. We classify species and higher groups for a number of reasons, but the pressing reason right now is that taxonomy is the basis of nearly all measures of biodiversity, and we can’t sensibly measure what is happening in terms of extinctions unless we describe and name the species that exist at present.

Almost no spending is done on basic taxonomy, and yet most biology relies deeply upon it in one way or another. The EU is setting up a general taxonomic database right now, and similar systems are in development elsewhere, but they’ll be useless in the longer term if we don’t describe species that we don’t yet know about. There’s a lot of work to be done, and taxonomy is presently done in the gaps of funded research, as a side thought.


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    October 28, 2006

    If you exclude molecular taxonomy, I’d pretty much agree with you (not totally, though: the most underfunded scientific filed is clearly whatever field my latest grant rejection was in).

    It’s relatively easy to go out an collect specimens from strange places, but identification takes more skill, and we need to invest in that (for the reasons you identify, amongst others). It also seems to me that the web gives taxonomists a great opportunity to make their knowledge more available (e.g. look at Tree of Life. A central “official” repository of this sort, along with identification keys, would be of great use, but needs organising (is this what the EU database is trying to do?) and hence funding.

    Up with old-fashioned science!


  2. #2 TheFallibleFiend
    October 28, 2006

    Out of curiosity, are you thinking in terms of Linnaean taxonomy, or some other scheme? Does it matter? Is the development of a new taxonomy a necessity, or a useless distraction?

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    October 28, 2006

    There’s no single thing as “Linnaean taxonomy”, but a number of different practices and conventions used by differing specialists, all the time under review. I would prefer that any taxonomy, even “old school” style, be done, than none at all. Phylogenetic nomenclature, or the PhyoCode proposal, is arguably not all that different in its alpha taxonomy, the description and recognition of species, to the traditional approach, although there are proposals such as “barcoding” that are quite different (and of questionable use for alpha taxonomy).

  4. #4 Richard Simons
    October 28, 2006

    I agree that taxonomy is seriously underfunded but not necessarily in the research aspects (it might be, I do not know). There is a real need for people who can identify things, be it plants, insects or other organisms. I’ve heard too many stories like the person who had been hired to do an ecological impact assessment and asked the local botany department for a two-day course in plant identification, or the health department that has no-one who can identify the main vectors of disease in their area. A geologist told me there is a similar situation in his field, too.

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