Monday, 1 February 2016

A loss of field skills?

Martin Harvey recently posted or re-posted a link to an article in The Times Higher Education supplement which lamented the loss of field biology skills and suggested they were on the brink of extinction. I found myself disagreeing profoundly with some of the thesis, and in other places wondering whether the issue of loss of professional taxonomists was being confused with a critical failure in field biology?

So, to disentangle the issues I did a bit of thinking and came up with the following.

The issue of loss of taxonomic skills is a subject I have previously discussed in this blog. (25 September 2015). Clearly, there has been a decline in the teaching of comparative anatomy and systematics in the UK. There has also been a huge decline in the numbers of jobs that might use such skills, so in that respect there is potentially an issue. And, with the loss of jobs comes the loss of a proportion of the long-term pool of competent people who participate in biological recording. Many of these people are potential shakers and movers, but not all will engage in a non-vocational capacity.

But, are we confusing the issues of loss of taxonomy in the academic World and that of taxonomic expertise amongst field biologists? I suspect we are. I see absolutely no evidence that there is a decline in interest in biological recording; if anything, the opposite obtains. There have, however, been some fundamental changes in the way people engage as biological recorders. Electronic media provide much more immediate communication. Some, such as the Facebook pages, provide training and assistance that might otherwise have come from membership of societies. Others, such as iSpot and iRecord mean that there is precious little need for contact between field naturalists and the traditional recording scheme organiser - it can all be achieved electronically without either party ever meeting.

On top of this, it is now so much easier to secure good guide books - compare today with the 1970s and one starts to realise just how much more literature is available and just how good some of it is. In this respect, some of the low-hanging fruits have been picked and the result is a vast expansion of capacity to identify more readily recognised animals and plants. The modern field recorder can get so much off the internet. By buying off Amazon, the traditional society ceases to be relevant to their needs. Or so they think! In reality, today's field biologists who don't join societies are living off the investments of their predecessors; which means that there may not be the same facilities in years to come.

What drives an interest in field biology?

If I look at my own discipline, it is unlikely that there would be the interest in hoverflies that currently obtains, had it not been for the British Entomological and Natural History Society. For, it was that society that bid for grant money to make possible the publication of the first edition of Stubbs and Falk. Had that not happened there would have been no second edition, and as likely as not I would never have become a Dipterist. Thus, there would have been no WILDGuide, no UK Hoverflies Facebook group or the innumerable training events that Stuart Ball and I have run. When we are gone, what will be the mechanism to bring a new generation together and to ask 'how can we improve recorder competency and effort?'

I also reflect that it was not the teaching of taxonomy and systematics that enabled me to become a moderately competent Dipterist. A well-embedded knowledge of plant and animal anatomy has certainly been helpful, but I think I would argue that the most important factor has been mentoring by other specialists, a desire to gain skills in order to secure a job, and an innate interest as a scientist to do a bit more than develop a stamp collection of hoverflies, moths or whatever took my fancy. The link to employment was VERY important in my early years but now it is more a matter of enjoying the countryside, visiting interesting places, meeting kindred spirits and tackling intellectually stimulating issues. It must remain as an issue for the next generation, and in that respect the lack of employment in relevant fields is likely to be an important factor in promulgating field skills.

In my case there is a clear cross-over between academia and an innate interest in natural history, but that is not for everybody. Field skills are not confined to taxonomically trained graduates. Indeed, in my experience the wonder of field biology is the way in which people who do not come from a traditional training in botany or zoology rise to be the leaders in their field - from dustmen to surgeons, with many variations along the way.

What, therefore, is the issue?

It seems to me that we must look at taxonomy in a variety of ways. Firstly, field biology is not confined to the world of academia. Indeed, it is odd that the academic world is expressing any concern about field biology. The 'amateur' natural historian was once a second class citizen but today the academic world sees the 'citizen scientist' as a source of data and as a new research theme. This is a far cry from the days when natural historians were seen as people who had no relevance to real science and field biology was dismissed as 'natural history' i.e. not proper science. I don't think we can link the weaknesses in field biology to a lack of taxonomy in the universities.

To me, the biggest issues concern the differences between modern biological recording and that of two or three decades ago. When I first got interested in natural history I was lucky to encounter the 'greats' of the day. Those wonderful people who gave in great generosity - Jean Byatt helped me as a field botanist; Alan Stubbs and Ian McLean encouraged my interest in Diptera; and Ken Evans, and Jim Porter were willing to provide transport and encouragement to me as a young lepidopterist. Those wonderful people are fondly remembered and I still appreciate their support. But, it is also worth reflecting that my interaction with the leaders of the day was because I joined societies and made an effort to get help. It is a two-way process.

These days, the societies that I joined in the 1970s lack younger members. All too often I see posts on the internet where novices argue that they should have access to information on the Web - free of charge and without contact with experienced specialists. Moreover, one sees far too many comments that suggest that because I am prepared to retain specimens my ethics are dubious. I have a horrible feeling that the mantra 'take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints' has the potential to undermine sound taxonomic recording.

Photographic recording is not the problem either, however. To my way of thinking, it is actually essential that we engage with photographic recorders and develop new ways of working to generate records: hence my commitment to the UK Hoverflies Facebook group. The issue is far more complex and is one where we are witnessing a transition from the 19th to the 21st Centuries.

Modern biological recording

There are those who lament a golden age of biological recording - the days when the first county and national atlases were produced. In some ways, those were halcyon days but we must remember that they were also a time of great novelty. Today, we have a pretty robust idea of what occurs where. Our understanding of biogeography has advanced markedly. There is not quite the same reason to go out square-bashing and yet we continue to need this effort. Also, if one looks at the data in recording schemes, the big growth in recording took place between the 1960s and 1980s - at about the time taxonomy started to fall out of favour in academia.

Similarly, we cannot argue that our knowledge base is so low that there are major finds to be made by simple field work. It is much harder to add a 'new to Britain' and the general standard of knowledge is much higher. So, we must accept that today's luminaries will have to have a far more comprehensive skill-base than the previous generations. That means that there will be far fewer individuals capable of making major advances in the knowledge of our biodiversity.

What is more, I am highly sceptical that there ever was a nirvana in which a generation of field biologists was so expert and generated such immensely valuable data. It is certainly the case that past generations knew one another and that there were towering figures in the field. Part of the problem is that when there are towering figures, there is no space for the next generation. Somehow we have to create that space in time to allow new generations to fill the vacancies before they become available. That is something that the greybeards have to think about - how to bow out and allow the next generation to fill the niches before they are completely vacant. I have no solution to this, but as advanced warning it is my intention to pull away from hoverflies before the Grim Reaper implements the final cut. I do not want, or expect, to be doing what I am currently doing in ten years time.

If we are to hand over to a new generation, we must not assume that they will do precisely what we have done. Circumstances will change and we must expect the next generation to adapt to the conditions of the time. I have yet to find the best way of bowing out, but I do have my eyes open for successors. My real desire is to make sure that my successors are in place well before I have to finally bow out, and to establish a set of principles that succession management is a central part of biological recording. None of us are irreplaceable and if we really want our passion to survive we must learn to let go in time. The big challenge is how to do this? The big issue for all of us is to look at ways in which we can mentor the next generation and establish a network that is capable of taking over from us.

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