Friday, 25 September 2015

A catastrophic decline in taxonomists?

A recent thread amongst Diptera recording scheme organisers prompted me to develop a few thoughts on the 'decline in taxonomy'. Has there been a catastrophic decline in taxonomists and is that linked to a decline in taxonomic teaching in Universities? Well, at one level we can say that there has certainly been a decline in the teaching of taxonomy; or, perhaps more specifically, anatomy and comparative morphology. I'm not convinced that there was a huge emphasis on systematics in the 1970s when I started, although doubtless it may have been a generation or two previously.

I would argue that embedded anatomical and morphological skills are still the critical foundation for good taxonomic skills, so perhaps the decline in teaching of comparative anatomy and morphology is more crucial because this embeds real transferable skill. When we run courses we find that very few students have much idea of the morphology of Diptera. By comparison, my early years at A-Level (Zoology/Botany) focussed very heavily on plant and animal anatomy and morphology together with a basic understanding of the animal and plant kingdoms. So too did the first and second years of my degree. Through choice I progressed towards entomology/parasitology because there were still such courses and there appeared to be a prospective career. I have a feeling that this sort of foundation knowledge is now much weaker amongst recent graduates and the obvious careers in such disciplines have disappeared. For many would-be zoologists and botanists the careers seem to be more in 'ecology' and conservation rather than in strongly taxonomy-based disciplines.

Why were there such courses? Well, at that time there were still institutes where basic taxonomic skills were needed – at the very last gasps of Empire! The decline in entomologists at CABI is illustrative of the change. There are now virtually no jobs in these areas in the UK so QED we don't need to train people to fill these non-jobs. The money has gone from basic plant and animal taxonomy, biology and ecology because many of the fundamental questions have been answered (or have they?). Those are the questions relating to improved agriculture, animal and human medecine and forestry. The low-hanging fruits have been gathered and now the questions are now more complex. Furthermore, many of the questions have moved into physiology, cellular and molecular levels – primarily in search of solutions to human problems – still within the fields of agriculture, forestry and veterinary and medicinal problem-solving. In biodiversity research DNA plays a much bigger role, with anatomy/morphology-based taxonomy and systematics subservient to its powerful applications. This is the cutting edge so inevitably it is where the money goes.

Traditional taxonomy, meanwhile, attracts little funding in Europe but it is a new and exciting science in the Developing World. Rightly so – if they don't get excited by their own plants and animals then there is no hope for the natural World. So, when one hears howls about the absence of taxonomic training in the UK one really needs to start from the question 'what drives the trends'? Are the Universities missing commercial opportunities because there are no UK centres of excellence to attract overseas students of taxonomy? We might be missing a trick there, especially when one realises just how much of a role UK taxonomists have played in developing current understanding of the plant and animal kingdoms and in stratigraphy. Somebody has certainly missed a trick when it comes to the loss of micro-paleontologists and stratigraphers but does the same apply elsewhere?

Pure or applied science?

The question that then arises is whether taxonomy is just about the classification of plants and animals as a pure science? Are taxonomists a league apart from the wider population – those specialists who beaver away describing new plants, animals and other micro-organisms for their own sakes. Maybe they were in the 18th and 19th Centuries – because in northern Europe and North America there was widespread public curiosity about what there was in the natural World and annoucements of new finds generated considerable public interest. Those low-hanging fruits have been gathered and as time goes by the description of obscure flies, beetles or amphipods has less and less relevance to the man in the street. Inevitably there will be less public and therefore political interest in taxonomy as a strictly descriptive science. Taxonomy has to be an applied science if it is to continue.

Fortunately, there are still many applications for taxonomy. Most of those applications remain within traditional drivers (agriculture, forestry, oil and gas exploration, veterinary and medicinal problem-solving). So, concern about the lack of training to generate taxonomic skills gains traction (as in the House of Lords Select Committee report, 2008). But weaknesses in taxonomic capacity vary in both their importance and economic and social relevance.

A real decline?

We must therefore return to the question of whether there has been a decline in taxonomy? On the one hand we can say yes in terms of pure science – both at the taught level and in jobs. On the other hand, if one argues that taxonomy is a much wider discipline than cataloguing plant and animal life then perhaps not. I strongly believe that there is as much, if not greater interest in identification of plants and animals than at any time hitherto in the UK. The numbers of accessible of guide books are much greater than in past decades, facilitated by cheap colour printing and incredible digital photography. What is possible today dwarfs past achievements. The internet has revolutionised access to traditional taxonomy and its full application but in many ways it has outrun the ability of taxonomy to meet its potential.

From a personal perspective, the big taxonomic challenges within the UK are about improving our knowledge of the biogeography and ecology of lesser known or more obscure taxa. That is substantially a question of access to well illustrated keys that can be used by people who do not necessarily use microscopes. Impossible! Well yes that it true if anybody expects all of the plant and animal kingdom in the UK to be identified by people with limited taxonomic skills. There is no escaping the need for a sound understanding of animal and plant anatomy/morphology and applying this to the careful analysis of preserved specimens. But, for the most part I don't believe that there was once an army of non-vocational specialists recording difficult taxa – that has always been the case as noted by Boxshall & Self ( (2010) .

Relevance to biological recording

For biological recording it is worth reflecting that this is largely a non-vocational discipline that includes amongst its members many whose professional engagement includes relevant transferable skills. A micro-paleontologist, for example, will have the comparative morphological skills that are directly applicable to entomolgy even if they did not start off as an entomologist!

Biological recording can still act as a driver for improving taxonomic investigation; but, as an applied science, we need to think about the sorts of things that are needed by practitioners. A paper in an obscure journal that will only ever be read by other students of obscure journals will never attract public acclaim even if it does attract admiration from a small group of assocaiated specialists. To my mind this is what reinforces the dichotomy between pure and applied science.

In the UK, the big question is perhaps about the range of taxa that can be reliably identified and recorded to a level sufficient to understand how they are responding to envirnmental change. That is why biological recording has gained so much traction amongst certain groups of policy makers. Funding for systems to improve data accumulation is a reflection of this shift from pure to applied taxonomy.

Clearly one part of what is needed is a more comprehesive array of guide books - either web or paper based. My instincts still go to paper because one can flick through a book much more quickly (I think).

Applied taxonomy is arguably where the jobs are and where the skills shortage is. But the real skill shortage is amongst the people that can help taxonomy become applied. It is all very well looking towards web-based tools but somebody has to develop them, and if the majority of competence lies in the non-vocational sector then the chances are that those tools will not be developed very quickly – if at all. They are big jobs that draw heavily upon people's time and perhaps lie way off their interests – after all, a very small minority of non-vocational taxonomists are interested in developing web-based keys. Many are still committed to the printed form and most have limited time to commit to such projects.

So, what about the decline?

It seems to me that the issue of decline is relative – there has arguably been a substantial increase in molecular taxonomy but it is clear from Boxshall & Self (2010) that there are fundamental weaknesses in some aspects of taxonomy and the equipping of students with the necessary skills to apply taxonomy to real-life situations. I fear that in the 5 years since this report the situation has weakened still further with the loss of many regional museum jobs and a contraction in the potential career paths that might develop the leaders of the future. To my mind this is the real problem – short-term economic fixes may well lead to a serious decline in capacity to support and mentor future generations of applied taxonomists.

And so what can be done?

If the issue of declining taxonomic competence is to be resolved, it is essential to address the status and career path of people acquiring taxonomic competence. In many disciplines, taxonomic roles are extremely junior. Through grading is now relatively rare (at least in public service) and salaries are generally poor. People stay in taxonomy only if that is their passion. And Boxshall and Self show that people in taxonomy-related roles are simply passing through, doubtless gaining better salaries by moving on to managerial or other roles. From my perception the real test is demand for courses and research funding. There is very little research funding in UK or northern Europe, and courses are being axed because they fail to make the necessary income to maintain the teaching complement.

The problems faced by the former Birmingham University's MSc in Biological Recording provides a telling story – basic taxonomic skills do not attract the kudos and brownie points required to maintain the top universty's rankings. So, taxonomy is seen as an also-ran where one buys in skills from somewhere else if they are needed. The analogy is the electrical engineering firm that proudly proclaims that it has improved efficiency by axing its apprenticeship system, only to find that ten years later it cannot recruit electrical engineers. One wonders why? Taxonomy is in the same position – skills take time to acquire and the loss of training and succession plans are only felt when it is almost too late.

This is one of the underpinning reasons why Stuart and I have made so much effort to run training courses in both hoverfly and Diptera identification. There is a long lag time between initial training/ enthusing and the development of individuals who are ready to pick up the reins previously held by us and our cohort. Interest in hoverflies will hopefully cascade into wider interest in flies, and perhaps a few new entrants will feel inclined to develop the keen interest needed not only to do the fieldwork, but also to take up the mentoring and succession planning that is essential to maintain non-vocational taxonomy.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Is biological recording a modern phenomenon?

Paul Seligman makes an interesting point in response to my post yesterday – that non-professional biological recording is in its infancy. I wonder if that is true?

There are two aspects to biological recording:

  1. Data development – i.e. actually going out to collect the data; and
  2. Data management.

Data colletion

If one looks at the major datasets, I think we can say with some confidence that the vast bulk of terrestrial wildlife data has been assembled by what I refer to as 'non-vocational' recorders. We must look back to the vast effort made in producing the first edition of the Atlas of the British Flora (Perring & Walters 1962) to see how this amazing body of work was almost entirely achieved by voluntary effort. It demonstrated the depth of botanical skills across the country, and the commitment of those recorders to biological recording.

This first plant atlas was only the start of the process – it showed that it was possible to look at the biogeography of the British Isles using volunteers. Let it not be said that these were 'amateurs' – many were the leading local taxonomists of their day and would give the professionals a run for their money.

The same holds for our modern understanding of bird populations. True, the network of observatories set up at various stages has employed professional ringers. BUT, the vast bulk of ringing data come from volunteers – people who in their daytime jobs might be postmen or university lecturers. They all posess huge skills and have to pass demanding examinations before being allowed to operate independently.

The Wetland Bird Survey data that are used to monitor the health of many of our most important wetlands and underpin designations as Special Protection Areas have similar non-vocational origins. This vast network of local organisers and counters do so on a pretty much voluntary basis and include all walks of life amongst their ranks. This dataset is of course centrally organised and funded, so the data analysis and dissemination is by professionals.

So, let us move on to entomology. A good example of local recording is the Surrey Atlas series, in which I have had some small measure of involvement (see This project now boasts an amazing range of titles, from bees, wasps and ants to hoverflies, shield bugs and both macro-and micro-moths. The authors are almost entirely non-vocational entomologists. Only one had a professional career in entomolgy (as a lecturer). This series was ground-breaking when it was launched and is now the standard to which others aspire.

We finally arrive at the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. When Stuart Ball and I took the scheme on in 1991 it was moribund. The previous organiser had been professionally engaged and ran the scheme perhaps in some of his paid time. Similarly, in the NCC when we were there, Alan Stubbs had within his remit the time to run field meetings where non-vocational specialists visited different parts of the country at their own expense to investigate the Diptera fauna of that area.

This professional organisational capacity was in decline by 1991 – Alan retired when NCC was split up and the focus on engaging with the non-vocational community ceased. Field meetings would have to be run by volunteers if they were to continue. They struggled on for a few years where enlightened line managers allowed some of us to do this as part of the job for a single year, but it was an ongoing struggle to find somebody to take on the massive task of organising accommodation, underwriting the costs and drawing together the data. Various people took the job on for one or two years, but each realised that it was too big a job for a volunteer. I did the job from 2004 to 2015 but have now resigned from it – it is far too big a job for me to carry on with. So, this traditional data collection process is under threat.

The same holds for running a recording scheme. In 1991 when Stuart and I took on the job of running the HRS there were insufficient funds to digitise the data – so we did it in our evenings and weekends. Over 5 years I transformed 2 cubic metres of record cards into machine-readable data. Stuart, meanwhile turned his attention to other sources of machine-readable data. The result was an atlas in 2000 that actually set a new standard. To the best of my knowledge it was the first of its type within the BRC atlas series – with a combination of both maps and phenology historgrams. Our 2011 atlas also broke new ground by including trend analysis although clearly Butterfly Conservation's Millennium Atlas did the same but was professionally produced using volunteer data.

For the most part, biological recording schemes are run by volunteers some of whom, but by no means all, have primary employment in natural sciences. The contributors come from many walks of life. In the case of the HRS we find that very little data come from professional sources and our most oustanding recorders come from a very wide range of backgrounds. One of the best of whom was until recently a dustman.

This very limited suite of examples I hope illustrates the rich and varied postwar tradition of non-vocational biological recording. It is based on a long-standing local network of clubs and societies such as the Yorkshire Naturalists Union, the London Natural History Society and Kent Field Club that have a long tradition of publishing papers and local atlases. Articles in their journals from the 19th Century often provide important modern context. Their authors were not professionals. Indeed, in Dipterology there are several notable names such as GH Verrall and JE Collin who it is reported looked down on the professional community (Collin was Verrall, nephew). Verrall's main occupation was as an official of the Newmarket race course.

We have a long and envied tradition of non-vocational biological recording that is probably only matched by a number of northern European countries such as The Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries. These days, the vast bulk of our taxonomic expertise is vested in this non-vocational pool.

Data management

Whilst biological recording is substantially the territory of the unpaid non-vocational devotee, data management is the preserve of a professional community. This comprises the staff of Local Records Centres, the Biological Records Centre at Wallingford and the National Biodiversity Network, together with employees of such bodies as the British Trust for Ornithology, Butterfly Conservation and the Country Agencies (Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural Resources Wales).

Modern data input facilities such as iRecord are most certainly the preserve of the professionals and to a large extent are dependent upon software specialists.

I shall not dwell heavily on this aspect of recording because it is outside my real knowledge. Suffice it to say that the professional community is almost entirely relient upon the voluntary community for data, whilst the voluntary community to a greater or lesser extent depends upon professional services to provide data dissemination through websites, atlases and other products. There are exceptions such as the HRS, which does a very large amount of its own data management and report production, but we too could not function without BRC for publication of atlases. There is also a developing need for us to seek support in other ways such as software development to support data extraction from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page.

A new paradigm

The big difference between traditional biological recording and today's World is the advent of digital photography and its use in biological recording. In this respect it is an entirely new World Order. Relatively few recording schemes have embraced digital photography in the way the HRS has. In fairness we see considerable engagement from the Tachinidae Scheme – Matt Smith and I cross paths all across the digital highways as we pick up records from soures such as Flickr.

The really big issue is that as digital recording becomes more popular it places a great deal of emphasis on the support services that are required to ensure reliable determinations. In the case of the UK Hoverflies Facebook page there are three members of the Resident Team (Ian Andrews, Joan Childs and Yours Truly). This combined effort almost certainly adds up to 2,000 hours a year – I know my own commitment runs close to 1500 hours a year and I doubt Ian and Joan do any less than 250 hours a year each (and probably a lot more). This is the real difference in biological recording – at one time Ian, Joan and I would be happily doing our field work, peering down the microscope and assembling species lists for recording schemes. Ian and Joan still manage this, but my time as an entomologist is now virtually nil, so the yearly stream of 2,000 hover records and maybe a further 3-5,000 records of other taxa has dwindled to a trickle of perhaps 1,000 records all told!

The paradigm shift that has to be effected is one in which we have developed a new cohort of capable taxonomists and data extracters who can absorb some of this load.

A bigger picture

UK biological records form part of the Global Biological Information Facility (GBIF). If you examine GBIF it is clear that the bulk of the data for Diptera and several other Orders of invertebrates emanate from Northern Europe. Part of that is probably because we are better equipped to capture and disseminate the data. But, the other part is that in most countries biological recording is confined to Universities and techical Institutes. It is highly professionalised with no natural tradition of non-vocational activity.

Our system works and provides an amazing amount of data. These data inform all aspects of wildlife conservation and legislation in the UK. It is a highly under-valued resource. Bearing in mind the incalculable value of the many tens of thousands of contributors, investment in the professional arena is lamentable. In this time of austerity it is demonstrated still further by the shedding of many of the limited number of professional posts. For example all of the Natural History curators in museums in the West Midlands were lost a couple of years back. In doing so, this one act removed the support hierachy for many local non-vocational taxonomists.

For me, the big challenge is how to maintain non-vocational taxonomy in the face of diminishing budgets and increasing expectations that the non-vocational community will fill in the gaps created when paid posts are lost. Would a young Roger Morris now settle on working all hours of his spare time developing skills in the hope of getting a job? – answer – No – why bother when it is clear from the past 30 years that everybody thinks that this can be gained as a free service?

So, rather than looking at non-professional biological recording as being in its infancy, I think we might argue that it is at its zenith. If we are to maintain that position there must be investment in professional development to ensure that there are stimuli for young people who now have far less free time and many more demands made upon them to deliver greater efficiency (i.e unpaid overtime) in their professional lives.

Friday, 4 September 2015

A rationale for caution in photographic identification

There are several schools of thought about the use of photography as a means of biological recording:

1. Those who believe that a record can only be believed if it is supported by a preserved specimen identified by a competent taxonomist.

2. Those who believe that photography can replace traditional methods (identifications produced from preserved specimens, following keys based on museum specimens).

3. Those who believe that photography can be used to improve levels of recording, within definable limits.

There is no 'right' or 'wrong' answer, just a variety of views that reflect a combination of philosophical approaches and practical experience.

On balance it is difficult to see how the strictly taxonomic approach (Group 1) can be followed to ensure coverage of even a small country such as the UK. Professional taxonomists are rare and nobody is going to fund an increase in their numbers; if anything the emphasis is on reducing numbers still further. In the World of Syrphidae in the UK, there is nobody that I can think of that is now paid solely to work on hoverflies, although several University pollinator teams do employ people to identify specimens that are often checked by volunteer taxonomic specialists (I have done a lot of this sort of thing over the years). It is important to stress, however, that hoverflies are unusual: in the UK at least, they include significant numbers that are highly characteristic and that can be identified from one or more angles if the photograph is sharp, of good resolution and without colour bias. The same cannot be said for many taxa where microscopic characters and dissection are critical to a firm identification of possibly already tiny animals.

Conversely, those who think that photography is the answer will find that their views are not supported by experience. Some erect new characters based soley on photographs that are untested against firmly identified specimens (i.e. checked against the original type material or deseignated lectotypes or paratypes). In these cases they will find that they disagree with specialists used to examining specimens. A few move towards a half-way house where they use both photography and take specimens. On several occasions people who have done this have commented how much they subsequently realised that many species could not be done from photographs (and that once they used a microscope they found a much wider range of species).

There is then the issue of a growing demand for data by Government and its agencies. The ongoing theme has been 'how to increase volumes of data', and 'how to increase the numbers of people actively involved in biological recording'. That means that there have to be compromises. One compromise is to accept that the Group 1 (taxonomic approach) cannot be relied upon because it is too costly and socially exclusive. A second compromise is to establish mechanisms where existing Group 1 recorders put their effort into assisting group 2 recorders (with a corresponding reduction in the numbers of full datasets generated). This approach relies upon a cohort of recorders who are prepared to engage and to provide assistance within definable limits. It is the approach that has been embraced by the Hoverfly Recording Scheme.

There are also various groupings of biological recorders:

1. Those for whom an encounter with a particular animal or plant is strictly a personal issue with no real interest in what such records might be used for in a broader societal context. It may include the development of a personal list or even a competitive list amongst peer groups (some 'pan listers'). In these cases, the recorder sets their own confidence limits for the reliability of an identification.

2. Those for whom pleasure is gained from seeing a particular animal or plant, who want to be sure that the identification is as reliable as possible. This may include people who subsequently submit data to local or national recording schemes, but the principal driver is a personal apprreciation of the natural World.

3. People with a firm interest in a particular taxonomic group, who include the production of valid records as part of their fundamental interests.

4. Specialists whose interest lies in the development of datasets that can be used to establish a better understanding of the ecology of a particular group of plants or animals. At the simplest end this may be to improve understanding of biogeography, but there are many other applications for such data, including trend analysis that may be influential in wildlife policy promoted by NGOs or by various tiers of Government.

5. Taxonomists whose primary interest lies in refining the catalogue of plant and animal life. Taxonomic interests may not exclude a parallel interest in species' ecology, but there is usually a strong emphasis on refining identifications to the finest level of resolution.

Each view has its merits and disadvantages but it is perhaps worth teasing out the critical issues from the viewpoint of one person running a national recording scheme.

I have spent the majority of my life working in one (several) of the bodies responsible for delivering UK wildlife policy and governance. This has included a substantial time as a policy-adviser and as the front face of engagement with promoters of major development projects. I still bear some of the scars and am acutely aware of the ways in which data can be undermined to lessen the confidence in the science underpinning conservation policy and delivery. One need only reflect on the ways in which climate change sceptics represent (or perhaps misrepresent) data in order to weaken confidence in scientific predictions. The same situation obtains for outputs generated from biological recording. If there are weaknesses in the data then these can be magnified to undermine the veracity of any political messages that can be derived from trends.

At the moment, the trend data indicate that there have been dramatic declines in the abundance and richness of wildlife in some parts of Britain, and that there have been important shifts in species distribution. For me, these trends largely correspond to what I have seen in terms of hoverfly abundance over the past 30 years. I may be recalling past times with rose-tinted spectacles, but I simply cannot believe that I am remembering a mirage when I now find great stands of hogweed (mainly in SE Engalnd) with barely a hoverfly in attendance! Something has definitely happened and it is really a question of trying to work out the factors responsible for this change. If it has happened to hoverflies then the chances are it has also happened to organisms further up the food chain such as birds. The numbers of birds on red or amber on alert lists tell the story very clearly, but to understand what is happening we need to understand what is happening lower down the food chain – so the fate of predaceous, phytophagous and saprophagous invertebrates is of considerable importance.

A significant part of my interest in running the Hoverfly Recording Scheme lies in developing data that are robust enough to provide a reliable picture of what is happeneing to hoverflies (and by extension other wildlife). The robustness of the data has a very important bearing on the veracity of the messages imparted. If it can be shown that there has been rigour in the data collection process then the outputs of trend analysis are much more likely to be believed. If, on the other hand, it is clear that unreliable characters have been relied upon and determinations can be readily challenged, then the outputs will be weakened.

These are some of the problems that all recording schemes grapple with. One  wants to improve coverage and it is always good to see an increase in incoming records and interest in the taxonomic group. The question is whether this can be achieved without significantly reducing the robustness of the dataset. Setting practical limits on what can and cannot be identified is part of that process. Developing new analysis tools is a further component. Arguably, there is a developing need to be able to split datasets into those elements derived from photographs and those from traditional field work and retention of specimens for microscopic identification. Both have the potential to tell an important story.

For me, the important point about photographs is that they largely involve those species that are most visible to relative novices and can be used to generate much bigger datasets. Yes, there may be identication problems for a few, but the volume of data means that outputs are reliable within defined limits - possible at the level of particular guilds, possibly at generic level or perhaps to species in some cases. The big issue is to define the levels of robustness and to establish the analytical processes needed to achieve this. Within this dataset there are potentially useful indicators and it is really a matter of defining what these are and how best to generate useable data.

It is also clear that interactive forums that encourage photographic recording can substantially increase the numbers of major contribtors to a recording scheme. In the case of hoverflies, over the period from 1976 to 2009/10 a pool of 21 people supplied nearly 50% of the data (out of an average of about 22,000 records per year). In the following 6 years, that proportion has changed - several recorders have reduced their activity or have ceased to be active at all (a very aging group who have often been contributing for 35+ years).

Meanwhile, a significant group of photographic recorders has evolved. So far, just over 13,500 photographic records (to species) have been generated in 2015. Around 40% of these were provided by 24 people and 55% by around 70 people. This new paradigm suggests that there is considerable scope for growth in the dataset and in the constituency of contributors. Unlike other components of the dataset, we do know that these data have been supported by photographic voucher specimens and as such this starts to form a very robust sub-set of the database. It has its limitations, but so too do those data submitted by people who retain specimens.

The supplementary issue is how to establish a long-term philosophical approach that is robust enough to move with the times and yet retain the confidence of those who use the outputs (NGOs and policy makers). In line with this, there is the issue of succession management - it is all very well having a recording scheme, but what happens when the scheme organiser decides that they have run their course? I am firmly of the view that one should hand over the reins in good time to allow new blood to take a lead.

My intention is to start to pull away over the coming two to three years and to generate a new team to take over those parts of the scheme that I lead on. That means recruiting new people to extract data, and possibly additional technical identification skills. I have my eyes open for potential recruits!