The Decline of Taxonomy

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.

19 thoughts on “The Decline of Taxonomy”

  1. As a young grad student with aspirations of becoming a proficient taxonomist, this worries me. Then again, working in lepidoptera will help, as museums and universities like to have lep people around. I want to be able to combine morphology and DNA to reconstruct comprehensive evolutionary histories… but I know DNA isn’t the only answer. That would bore me, anyway. I’m all about the organisms themselves, not just the questions we can ask.

    1. It’s hard to know what to tell starting grad students. People in your position are still 8 or so years away (Ph.D. + postdoc) from entering the permanent job market, and prognosticating about the market this far ahead is folly.

      Currently, though, there are two to three times as many science Ph.D.s on the market as their are academic jobs for them. The situation is somewhat worse for taxonomists. This isn’t to say that all taxonomists end up unemployed- they have enough transferable skills to go into industry or start a business or the like- but it’s probably a good idea to pick up a range of skills while getting a degree beyond just what is required to find a tenure-track job in your immediate field.

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  3. Oh, taxonomy. So true, but what can be done? There’s been lots of new funding and research initiatives over the last decade or so, but so little of it is for establishing new research positions. So far as I can tell, there is an endless supply of taxonomy postdocs, but at best a steady loss of permanent job spots as the old guard dies off and their funding line goes to pop gen or -omics or “climate change” research. (Not that these are unworthy avenues, merely that it is a one-way process. Imagine a genomics research position turning into an alpha taxonomy job)

    I think taxonomy can be turned into fantastic honors projects for undergrads, especially at teaching schools where molecular resources may be thin on the ground. I wonder if any schools without an ento dep’t would be able to do this, though.

    1. What concerns me is that it takes a decade or more of experience to build a good taxonomist. It requires either independent wealth so the person can maintain continuity in their studies (as it was in the good old days of Linneaus), or some sort of long-term employment system. It’s going to be near impossible to string together any sort of lasting taxonomic knowledge based on student projects.

  4. “there are no jobs for people trained in morphological taxonomy”

    I think this has always been the case. The job market for biologists even in general, and not only for taxonomists, have been pretty bad for a long time. I recenty read a really old article from a Finnish nature magazine, where the writer lamented about the fact that there are no jobs for the people who study biology (or geography) in universities, and that they should even consider changing their majors or start looking for a job in unrelated fields. And this article was written before the World War II!

    I also know that one of the best taxonomists of Hymenoptera in Finland, studied to become a biologist AND a medical doctor in 1950/1960, because he knew how bad the job market was for biologists. And as a side job or a as hobby, he has published extensively on all hymenopteran groups, from Parasitica to Aculeata to Symphyta. He still does, even though he must be over 80 years old.

  5. I think your hypothesis of researchers as cash cows is well supported by the data. This is also the primary reason that relatively expensive molecular taxonomy will always beat out the less spendy morphological research: larger grants mean more overhead to spend on administrators. Then there is neophilia, our fascination with technology, and our status-obsessed souls.

    Other reasons for the decline in taxonomic positions probably have to do with the low status of the organisms that require taxonomic expertise – if there were a lot of vertebrates without names, there would be more positions. It isn’t just taxonomists that are disappearing, but Departments of Entomology, Nematology, Mycology ….

    There is a bigger problem, though – the overall decline of universities as centers of learning and education as more and more government money has been thrown at them. The origin of the word ‘University’ is not from ‘universal knowledge’ or any such high-minded ideal, but from a guild of academics. A university used to be a place where knowledge and those who profess it were foremost. Universities are now government bureaucracies with the primary purpose of acquiring and spending tax dollars and donations. Keeping young people out of the job market for a few years (or decades in the case of those that choose an academic career) is secondary, and actually educating them to some level of competence is not even on the list.

  6. The job market in the biotech world blows! Big pharma is laying off so many scientists and it floods the market. So a more experienced hire outcompetes a less experienced hire like myself. I guess I should count my lucky stars because I have a job in small pharma(but doesn’t pay nearly as much as big pharma).

  7. First time poster, but I love the blog. I am going to take a rather extreme position here and say that most of the blame for the decline in taxonomy rests with taxonomists. Rather than a tragedy of the commons, morphological taxonomy is an insular and provincial field that does little to make its research available and accessible to the broader scientific community. I am partial to the quote “keys are written for those who can’t use them by those who don’t need them.” I believe this is a fundamental problem that the field cannot really address in its current state. I would argue that, for instance, the intricacies of Dipteran terminalia will never be accessible to non-experts, and so basing identifications on them helps virtually nobody.

    Furthermore, the massive increase in interest and funding for molecular research is not based on “neophilia” but in the ability of researchers to apply an every improving battery of statistics to the data collected, and for that data to be stored, re-visited, and re-analyzed. This allows for repeatability and increased objectivity, which are fundamental to any scientific pursuit. While anybody can find examples of molecular phylogenies that are “wrong”, the same applies to morphology. With molecules, however, a non-expert can question their analysis. Does the alignment truly consist of homologous DNA? Were appropriate models selected? Has hybridization or the vagaries of molecular evolution effected this analysis? With morphology, who is qualified to question any of this? Even in the best of all possible worlds, a very small number of people.

    I apologize for the rant, but I get amped up about this particular topic. Biodiversity is being decimated throughout the world, and we need broadly accessible tools to quantify it and understand the forces that have shaped its distribution right now, not inscrutable keys published in obscure journals.

    1. That’s quite a rant, Noah. There’s truth to the perspective that molecular techniques are more generalizable. But they are only applicable to particular types of questions, and when we sideline knowledge that is specialized to particular lineages we become unable to answer certain other types of questions, especially those related to how an organism interfaces with its environment.

      I would hold that the jargon of molecular systematics is just as difficult and obscure as that of morphology. It’s that the current generation of biologists is trained to understand it so it just seems more accessible. Outside the academic bubble, it’s even more impenetrable.

    2. We’re way too far away from being able to use molecular tools as a substitute for morphological taxonomy. The current taxonomic system is based on hundreds of years of acquisitions and detailed monographic revision after revision. Most of the specimens in these collections are not yet sequenced and probably never will be because the state of the DNA is in such bad condition. Even if we were able to address this issue, the amount of work and expense would be vast to get a molecular taxonomy up and running in place of the morphological one in place.

      More to the point, getting molecular IDs on the stuff you collect in the field is expensive and there isn’t the technology to do it rapidly. With the ability to image specimens cheaply we would be able to send images to the various authorities all over the world (if we had enough paid taxonomists and parataxonomists) and get back more reliable IDs than a sequence that could mean almost anything (barcoding suffers from the problem of being phenetic with respect to identifications, unlike the Linnean system of classification – which relies on synapomorphies). In any case, it would probably be a lot cheaper to use traditional taxonomists than having to start out all over again (which is what is required if we want to make DNA a serious substitute for morphology).

      I think this debate about molecules vs. morphology might be be relevant in fifty or more years from now. But for the time being we have to make do with the traditional way of doing things, whether we like it or not.

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  9. Vanishing taxonomists? Very true. Worst still in the tropical rainforest region, where I live, most people do not even know what a taxonomist is, and yet, as we know, most species are undescribed.

  10. oyerinde akeem abolade

    Good job please keep it up. Kindly assistb the u[p coming taxonomist in africa in terms of grants and joint research in Africa specifically Nigeria

  11. Taxonomy has not declined, but, yes jobs in taxonomy have declined. DNA Barcoding is the Buzz word. It is considered panacea for all Taxonomic problems. My last winter school at PAU, Ludhiana (India), exposed me to this benign field. Molecular taxonomists claim, solving of even species complexes.But my experience says, DNA Barcoding alone, is nothing. It can augment the classical taxonomy based on Morphological features. I am a trained morpho-taxonomist, with specialization in Internal genitalia of Pyraustineae (Lepidoptera). Our policy makers must understand, the time tested morpho-taxonomy can’t be replaced and must create local repositories with trained morphotaxonomists with exposure to DNA Barcoding.

  12. I am doing PhD in morpho-taxonomy of a beetle family in India. Although my progress of research is going great, I have doubt whether I will ever get a job i deserve. I have got one job which is below qualification. I am confused whether I should join this or apply for jobs abroad. I guess the situation is same everywhere! Plz advise.

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  14. Keith Benoist

    I’m a little confused. Or perhaps a lot. Isn’t DNA sequencing the process resulting from a more deeply investigated reach into the integration of taxonomic diversification and differentiation? Isn’t “systematics” the science of determining the evolutionary thrust of a given taxa/taxon? I’m not a scientist, so my interest likely mirrors that of others lacking a higher educational investment into the five (or more) kingdoms of biodiversity: zoological, botanical,
    protozoans, fungi and monera?

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