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.


  1. I completely agree with everything mentioned here. I am a recently graduated MSc student and taxonomist with 3 years of work experience. I received very little taxonomic training at university in the UK and actually gained the majority of my experience working in Australia. I am currently looking for Diptera or Coleoptera taxonomy job opportunities or potential PhDs in the UK but I have had little success.

  2. I go on a number of FSC courses to learn about taxa new to me, and these courses are always full of new graduates (often already in jobs for biodiversity in county councils and ecological consultancies) who have to use all their free time to make up the skills they did not learn at university. They tell me they don't do ANY botany anymore. How can we study ecosystems without knowing anything about the building blocks? what DO they study at university now? Going by some of the conferences I go to, where PhD students give papers with complex statistical graphics, they have to learn computer analysis of everything. I'm sure that is very useful, but you still need field ID and observational skills to be able to interpret the data.