Covered by the Globe & Mail:
The morphological taxonomist, engrossed in a single group and identifying its members by visual inspection, is increasingly an emeritus professor or someone near retirement. Younger scientists are drawn to molecular taxonomy, where powerful new techniques in the study of DNA have revealed interspecies connections never before suspected.
Such advances, including the Canadian-pioneered use of DNA barcodes to identify species, while undeniably useful, are “not a replacement for the [traditional] taxonomist,” says Gary Saunders, who holds a chair in Molecular Systematics and Biodiversity at the University of New Brunswick.
“At times, the DNA-generated answer is wrong,” Prof. Saunders says. “A trained taxonomist can look at a molecular result and know that there is cause to question the outcome.”
Like much coverage of the death of taxonomy, the article skirts around the source of the problem. It isn’t that nobody wants to look at morphology now that we’ve got sexy new DNA. It’s that there are no jobs for people trained in morphological taxonomy.
The annoying thing is, morphologists are still plenty useful. All sorts of people- from pest control operators to forensic entomologists- use taxonomic knowledge regularly.
Rather, the reality is that taxonomy finds itself mired in a classic tragedy of the commons. Everyone uses the knowledge as a shared reference but no one wants to bear the cost. Other biologists- who are perfectly happy to fork over cash for lab equipment, staff salary, and DNA sequencing- somehow run into trouble budgeting the identification of their study organisms. Museums and Universities know that taxonomists don’t bring in the big grant dollars that medical and genomic sciences do. As those institutions become increasingly focused on their bottom line they cut their taxonomists and replace them with scientists more likely to serve as cash cows.
So taxonomy languishes.