Setting priorities – so many questions, so little time

My post a few days ago about my project on arctic flies generated an interesting question from my colleague Brian Brown. With so many possible projects, and so many unknown species, how do I prioritize? Brian and I specialize on very different families of Diptera (Phoridae and Chloropidae, respectively), but those families share many qualities – they are very species-rich and super-abundant, incredibly diverse ecologically, cosmopolitan, most of the species are undescribed or unidentifiable, and most importantly, other people who may not be specialists on these families would love to be able to identify specimens.

Aragara, a chloropid that thinks it's a mantis

A challenge with chloropids is that there are thousands of undescribed species beyond the 2800 currently known, on every continent and many oceanic islands. I could spend the rest of my career describing new species. With all those projects waiting to be tackled, how do I allocate my too-limited effort? What is the best use of my time? Tropical, temperate or arctic? Canada or Costa Rica? Appalachians or Australia?

Although I’d never really thought much about it before, I suppose I go through a triage exercise when deciding where to focus my efforts. There are four questions: 1) can the genera be identified? 2) is there enough sorted material for generic revisions? 3) is there a need for species-level taxonomic resolution to enhance other projects? 4) how do we most efficiently and effectively scale up?

1) Chloropidae are fairly easy to identify to family, most of the time. Genera are the challenge. There is a good generic key in the Manual of Nearctic Diptera (MND), so that was not a major gap when I started working on the family. In Central America, on the other hand, the best we had was Oswald Duda’s 1930 key to genera which is, to put it kindly, incomplete and infuriating.  So that, along with the newly launched Manual of Central American Diptera (MCAD) project, dictated my next priority – I needed to write a key to Central American chloropid genera. This meant getting to know the genera themselves, many of which I had never seen. Fortunately, I had access to a great treasure – Curtis Sabrosky’s unpublished notes on Chloropidae, amassed from the mid-1930s to the 1990s. After a lot of time and effort I was satisfied that my generic key would work, most of the time. I know it is not perfect, and there are already specimens in collections that do not key out, but that’s the nature of taxonomy. With the Central American key now finished, a complete key to Neotropical genera has become an easier objective.

My next priority in this category is Australia, where Chloropidae are one of the dominant acalyptrate fly families (so identification is definitely needed!). Other than a 1986 key to one subfamily (Chloropinae), the Australian chloropid fauna remains very difficult to sort to genus. On a visit there in 1995 I made a good start on a key to all Australian genera of Chloropidae, and I’ve been slowly updating it over the years as I study more material and discover more genera there. It’s starting to look like a more achievable goal. Hopefully sometime soon!

2) Once material in collections can be sorted to genus, revisions and species descriptions start to become more attainable. We did some of this in conjunction with the MCAD project as we discovered new things that we could not assign to known genera. Also along the way we identified a few manageable genera that were just the right size for student projects. On the other hand, some of the more diverse and difficult Central American genera (Apallates, Conioscinella, Pseudogaurax and others) will have to wait until more material accumulates and is sorted. The best indication that a group may not yet be ready for a revision is that too many species are represented only by one or two specimens.

A Neotropical mystery chloropid.

Meanwhile in the Nearctic, we have been collecting a lot of material in a range of projects (and sorting them to genus using the MND key!), and I have spent a lot of time in Washington DC working with the extensive chloropid collection there. We are in a better position to revise some Nearctic genera than those from other regions. Some have already been revised, some are nearing completion, while others (some easy, some difficult) await our attention. How do we choose which genera to revise? All things being equal, I move on to question 3 . . .

3) Taxonomy is not just a service industry, but it does provide a critical service to other fields of biology. One way to enhance respect for taxonomy is to collaborate with ecologists and others when opportunities present themselves. Several of my students and colleagues, for example, are involved in faunal inventories or quantitative ecological projects. If one of those projects generates a lot of unidentifiable species in an unrevised genus, compared to a single common species in another genus, then it makes sense for me, and gives added value to the ecological work, to try to resolve the species in that diverse and dominant genus. My involvement with some of these projects has turned my attention to some genera I thought I would not get around to for a long time, while putting some other strange and small genera on hold for the time being. Those small genera will still be waiting for me or a keen student, and in the meantime more material will accumulate.

And after we’re done describing new species and/or revising genera and/or writing regional keys from Hudson Bay, or eastern Nearctic peatlands, or Fiji, I’ll check back on the Central American genera to see how much great new material has been collected while I’ve been busy on other things.

4) I’ve been talking primarily about one fly family in one region at a time. Of course, there are many ways to scale up our efforts. Regardless of where my focus lies at any given time, if I had the opportunity to, for example, collect Chloropidae in a standardized, repeatable way across a large spatial scale, say from the tropics to the arctic, or across a continent, I would jump at the chance. Such large scale datasets provide great data for both taxonomic projects (many of the genera are widespread) as well as ecological questions.

There is also the question of scaling up to more families. It doesn’t make much sense to train all my taxonomy students in Chloropidae when so many Diptera families remain orphans in North America. Here again, I try to find a balance. Some small chloropid projects are the perfect size for a senior undergraduate project, where I can work more closely with students on learning the characters, the range of variation and the principles of taxonomy, and some more ambitious revisions or phylogeny projects are well-suited for M.Sc. projects. At the other end of the scale, each of my PhD students in taxonomy to date has focused on a different family: Muscidae (Jade Savage); Dolichopodidae (Scott Brooks); Sarcophagidae (Marjolaine Giroux) and Mycetophilidae (Chris Borkent), and current grad student Heather Cumming works on Platypezidae. It’s very convenient being able to rely on these colleagues for identifications across such a range of families. At the same time, many of the current students in the lab working on ecological projects have become very proficient in the identification of other families. My priorities for the next five years include a few chloropid projects with former, current and future students, as well as training new specialists on some other families that I’ve had my eye on for a few years.

I’m sure other colleagues prioritize in very different ways. Perhaps that makes them more efficient and productive than I am and I must confess that my list of manuscripts “in progress” is long and terrifying. Maybe I’ll catch up when I retire and might be able to spend more time on research instead of silly meetings and useless administration (and if not, well, I’ll try to leave good notes).

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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5 Responses to Setting priorities – so many questions, so little time

  1. phoridae says:

    Terry, thanks for the post. I am interested in hearing other people’s way of doing things, because my process has become a lot more cold-blooded lately. My career priorities follow a trajectory mostly around understanding large swaths of phorid biodiversity, and its evolution. Since the New World tropics are the most diverse home of phorid biodiversity, I concentrate my efforts there, but competing interests abound, including worldwide diversity at the genus level, local biodiversity in Los Angeles, and an ongoing fascination with Southeast Asian faunas.

    I have more or less followed some of the business models for priority setting, like in the “Good to Great” book. In order to protect my time, I adopt their “hedgehog” technique, in which you establish the overlap between the things that i) you have a passion for (easy), ii) you can do better than anyone else in the world, and iii) for which you can establish a resource base. Obviously, the passion is in most of us to work on these fascinating and compelling creatures. The idea of something you can do better than anyone else is related to having a passion for it, and also the years of experience, access to a fabulous collection, and having a job for which research is an important component. The resource based part means finding areas that are fundable, but also for which you could attract volunteer or collaborative help. The idea is that once you have established your hedgehog, you ruthlessly excluded anything that doesn’t fit into the area of overlap. This means rejecting fascinating but often unfundable sidelines, things for which you are only lukewarm about (but for which funding is available), and diversions out of your area of expertise.

    This approach may seem less idealistic to some, but you have to really understand that your time is extremely limited, and you cannot get everything done in your lifetime that needs to be done in (for instance) the family Phoridae. If I follow every sideline, acquiesce to every request for identification, agree to every solicitation for a review, I end up with a career following other people’s priorities, not my own. I seriously have had weeks or months of this sort of thing, bowing to other people’s needs before my own, until I had to adopt a priority-management system.

    By the way, I don’t have students, or at least not many of them, so I don’t have some constraints that you do. I think most dipterists are doing an amazing job just getting ANY research done in today’s work environment. My differing approach is not a comment on yours, and everybody will have their own opinion on what works best for them. Thanks again.

    ps. you are too young to be talking about retirement!

    • Brian – I agree – the changing landscape of academia has made it necessary for us to become hedgehogs, or risk being spread so thin that we are pulled apart. So many requests come in from everywhere that I, too, have become a lot more pragmatic than I used to be (although I sometimes forget and say YES to stupid things that I regret almost immediately). But most of the time, if it doesn’t result in publications, opportunities for my students, or real funding for something I already like, then it’s likely not going to make it onto my desk. I’m far enough behind as it is. Part of my current juggling act is that I have to devote time to my own research, that of my students (when they can catch me), and my teaching. On top of that, I walk in two worlds – taxonomy and ecology. Not because I have to; because I want to. It challenges me and I like seeing the links between the two fields. But like a moth stuck between two lamps, I spend a lot of time changing direction.

  2. John Hash says:

    Great post and great comments. As a second year PhD student (one of Brian’s pseudostudents), the realization of my limitations is becoming something I think about. Upon starting this process, I had no idea of the number of non-academic, non-research type obligations that exist. So then I wonder, what will my career look like, and what should I contribute to the growing body Phoridology and systematics? Will describing as many species as possible and collecting in underrepresented localities really push the research forward? At this point, I feel there needs to be a bigger push for people working on the same group to reach a consensus on what the big questions are and what needs to be done to answer them. But maybe those who have been around longer than I have have the answer to those questions and my grad student naivete is restricting.

    • Hey John, Yes, the other obligations and expectations pile up in academia; the key is to be as ruthless as you can in taking things on and do what will benefit you directly. But always make time for research. Ultimately, it’s your research output that makes your CV, not the assorted other things. It’s hard to envision our careers early in a grad program – They evolve more quickly than our organisms. In systematics, I think the key is to aim broadly – describe species, but also do revisions and phylogenies. All three are necessary and one cannot accomplish much without the others. There’s a huge push lately on generating big phylogenies, but if we aren’t also describing species, then the foundation remains weak. So, to answer your question, YES – describing species and collecting will definitely push the research forward, and so will writing keys and building trees. I agree completely about the benefits of consensus to plan the way forward.

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