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The Plight Of Systematists: Are They An Endangered Species?

Systematic biologists, a vital ingredient in the race to identify and protect rare species before they vanish, are themselves a declining academic breed in the United States. A recent survey conducted for the National Science Foundation found that systematics attracts less than half as many students as a decade ago. And an aging population of faculty, many nearing retirement, has left fewer and fewer systematics professors available to train these students. Systematics, the science of collect

Oct 16, 1989
Steve Nash

Systematic biologists, a vital ingredient in the race to identify and protect rare species before they vanish, are themselves a declining academic breed in the United States. A recent survey conducted for the National Science Foundation found that systematics attracts less than half as many students as a decade ago. And an aging population of faculty, many nearing retirement, has left fewer and fewer systematics professors available to train these students.

Systematics, the science of collecting, describing, and classifying organisms and their phylogenetic relationships, was once at the core of any biologist’s education. But that’s no longer the case. The growth of molecular biology has pushed systematists out of the academic mainstream and isolated them in museums and herbaria. Too often, today’s biology students avoid learning about the intricacies of genus and species. At many campuses, plant and animal collections are limping along under the guidance of aging caretakers, while young systematists often find themselves without job opportunities.

That situation needs to change, NSF officials say. Last year NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board, asked Westat Inc. of Rockville, Md., to survey systematics education as part of its two-year inquiry on the foundation’s potential role in stemming the worldwide loss of biological diversity. Its report found a pending crisis in the classroom that will hamper any campaign to preserve the environment.

Though the science of taxonomy is more than two centuries old, only about 1.4 million species have been described even superficially. Estimates of the total number range from 5 million to 30 million. Harvard University entomologist E.O. Wilson has calculated that, at the maximum, the equivalent of 25,000 professional lifetimes—some four times the current number of systematists— would be needed for a full taxonomic accounting of all species, By one, estimate, about 4.000 systemtists work at colleges, universities, or mueseums. Some 2,000 more may work at other large universities around the world. Declining numbers are especially significant, because so many more systematists are needed in the campaign to find, classify, and protect unknown and often rare species.

That dire need is not reflected in current enrollments, however. Although 108 of the 168 universities granting doctoral degrees in the U.S. still offer training in systematic biology, the field has not kept up over the past decade with the overall increases here in the life sciences. The survey found that only 1,154 graduate students are being trained in the field, a figure that includes both master’s and doctoral students. By contrast, an NSF study conducted a decade ago reported more than 3,000 students pursuing graduate work in systematics. “Young people looking for challenges and career prospects are going into fields like molecular biology instead,” says Scott Miller, chairman of the department of entomology at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Retiring systematics faculty are frequently replaced with specialists in other fields, such as molecular biology, or someone who is hired as a systematist but who really is not interested in teaching taxonomy. “If you tried to get the person to teach a local flora class, they’d look at you like you were nuts,” says Victoria Funk, director of the Smithsonian’s Biological Diversity of the Guiana project.

Consequently, those few systematists being trained are often lost to other fields because they cannot find work in their specialties. “There is a widespread perception that there are very few jobs,” says Miller. “A number of devoted people are just hang- ing on from one soft-money job to another. It’s very sad for me to see.”

Funk says the discipline has declined so sharply that she can recommend only five or six schools around the nation to graduate students looking for a strong program. The oases for systematics include Duke, Cornell, and the University of Texas, Austin, according to Funk. Many campuses, she says, are now “a wasteland.”

“It’s a pretty narrow pipeline,” agrees W. Franklin Harris, executive officer for biological, behavioral, and social sciences at NSF. “It’s like the biodiversity crisis itself. You don’t see the loss of one position, just as you may not see the loss of one species. But if you look at the aggregate and realize that there has been this erosion.., then you can begin to see the problem.”

Funk blames part of the problem on federal funding policies that make expensive, equipment-intensive research attractive to university administrators. She says systematics research, by contrast, typically costs less and, therefore, generates less of the desired “overhead” for university coffers.

That problem is a general one in science research, says Harris. NSF provides $20 million or so for systematics work each year, for exam ple, compared with an NIH biomedical research budget that tops $7 billion. “If you’re a university administrator or if you’re a department chairman—and believe me, these universities are as entrepreneurial as anybody—where are you going to hire faculty?” he says.

Elaine Hoagland, executive director of the Association of Systematics Collections, has been working on a related report for NSF’s Biological Resources Research program. That report, which she expects to finish next month, will recommend ways for universities to salvage shrinking programs. Its advice includes obtaining support from other institutions, establishing consortia, and engaging circuit-riding specialist to train personnel and to help care for collections” A lot of times the universities just dont know how important this area is, and the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease,” Hoagland says.

Ironically, the decline in qualified faculty comes at the same time concern about vanishing species promises to increase funding opportunities. That has created a potential bonanza for qualified researchers. “If you handed me a big check today for large-scale biodiversity studies in the Pacific, I’d have a hard time finding trained specialists in several taxonomic areas,” says Miller.

Officials at NSF, which supplies about 90% of all federal funds available for systematics research, hope that a recent report on global biodiversity by the National Science Board will provide the foundation with a road map for increased funding. The report recommends:

" a worldwide species inventory, beginning at a cost of $5 million annually and rising to $20 million;

" initial funding of $8 million a year, rising to $20 million, for microbial systematics and ecology;

" $5 million annually for institutions participating actively in the inventory, with a comparable sum for computerized data management; and

" $2 million to fund biodiversity scientists and institutions in developing countries.

These initiatives can create a “climate of opportunity” that will attract more students, the report states. Explains Hams: “If you put forward the kind of resources we’re talking about for inventory, and conservation, you’re going to bring along the Ph.D. students with it.”

But some experts worry that any infusion of funds may come too late. “We’re getting a lot of specimens in right now, and there is very little manpower to do anything with them,” says Hoagland. “It’s kind of a crime when these species are going extinct, and we can’t even analyze. them for what they might have to offer mankind.”

Steve Nash is a science and environmental writer based in Richmond, Va.

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