Rumours of our demise: taxonomy redux

I’m surprised. OK, lots of things surprise me, but this week I’m particularly surprised at the response to my post last week about why taxonomy matters. That post was more “Liked”, shared, tweeted and viewed, by a huge margin, than any other post I’ve written (yes, even the one about forgetting the sweep net handles and looking like a dummy). If I reject the hypothesis that the hits went up because I used the word “sexy” in the title, I am led to one inescapable conclusion:

We’re going to be OK.

Allow me to unpack that . . .

1. As a Masters student in parasite systematics, my supervisor gave me, repeatedly, a key piece of advice: “get out of taxonomy; there are no jobs”. Now, during my time in her lab, she gave me some excellent advice, but I am glad that I ignored her on that one. The 1980s were an era of pessimism about the future of taxonomy jobs, as were the 1990s, and the 2000s (anybody see a theme here?). Yet I’ve known many people over the years who have done grad work in taxonomy and gotten jobs in taxonomy and are still employed in taxonomy. I also know people who do excellent taxonomic research despite being employed in other domains. It is possible to seize optimism from the jaws of despair. It is popular and fashionable for us, as the taxonomic community, to bemoan the loss of taxonomic expertise and employment around the world, and I don’t disagree for a minute that we have taken a beating in recent decades. However, we don’t mention often enough the fact that a lot of excellent new people have gotten good permanent jobs in taxonomy in recent years. Hey, there is nothing wrong with projecting some optimism every now and then.

2. A surprising amount of the positive feedback came from students and amateurs and early career researchers. This is promising because it tells me that the next generation of potential taxonomic specialists gets it. There is great hope for the future of the field.

3. There was a lot of positive feedback and sharing and connecting by people who are not primarily taxonomists. One of the frequently-heard complaints from taxonomists is that “other people” don’t get us, or appreciate our work, or value our discipline. That may be true of some people, but I think it’s also abundantly clear that taxonomy has a lot of very strong and passionate allies out there in the community.

It’s easy to sit sulking in the corner at the big cocktail party of science and complain that nobody talks to us. But it’s also ultimately self-defeating. Taxonomists provide a vital and valuable framework for the rest of the field of biology. Let’s put on a smile, grab a drink, go mingle. People like us. They need us.

One of the things that kept me in taxonomy, despite my M.Sc. supervisor’s coldly realistic advice, was the boundless optimism that emanated from the fly systematics lab just across the road. Everybody over there knew this stuff was important, and fun, and intellectually stimulating. That was all the convincing I needed. I’ve had a lot of great taxonomy students pass through my own lab in the last several years. I’m pretty sure I didn’t recruit a single one of them by moaning about how [funding agencies/managers/ecologists/barcoders/treebuilders/fill in your favorite villain] slag us and undervalue us. It’s counterproductive. And it’s the best way to send some very promising students scurrying off to the next lab.

So here’s what I think we, the community of employed and amateur and apprentice and wannabe taxonomists, should do: stop whining; keep doing good and important work; keep describing the diversity of life on earth; and for pete’s sake – smile!

We’re going to be OK.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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4 Responses to Rumours of our demise: taxonomy redux

  1. Greg Pohl - CFS Edmonton says:

    well said, Terry! Thanks for a positive outlook on a cold monday morning.

  2. Thanks, Greg. As much as we moan about the “crisis” in taxonomy, there are still lots of bright spots to hang onto. And it’s those bright spots that keep attracting great students into the field.

  3. Much appreciated, Terry. This is a great example of a positive attitude being the best thing you can bring to your work. I have spent much time in the tropics, rarely fail to discover an undescribed odonate species and multiple new records on serious expeditions or ecotourism vacations, and how could adding more entries to the great encyclopedia of biodiversity not bring a smile to your face. And the response of professional biologists, amateur naturalists and lay persons alike to my stories of discovery is one of excitement and admiration that someone could actually get to do such work.

    • Very true, Dennis. There’s nothing like the joy of discovering something brand new, whether we collect it ourselves out in the field, or recognize it sitting unidentified in a museum drawer. And that sense of discovery is one of those aspects of our science that translates really easily to non-scientists.

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