Is systematic biology dead?

linkurl:Systematics;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13070/ and linkurl:taxonomy,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22424/ sciences involved with identifying and organizing living things into distinct groups and establishing the relationships between those groups, are in serious danger of going extinct, according to a linkurl:report;http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldselect/ldsctech/162/162.pdf released last month by a committee focused on science in the

Sep 8, 2008
Bob Grant
linkurl:Systematics;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13070/ and linkurl:taxonomy,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22424/ sciences involved with identifying and organizing living things into distinct groups and establishing the relationships between those groups, are in serious danger of going extinct, according to a linkurl:report;http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldselect/ldsctech/162/162.pdf released last month by a committee focused on science in the British Parliament. "We have concluded that the state of systematics and taxonomy in the UK, both in terms of the professional taxonomic community and volunteers, is unsatisfactory - in some areas, such as mycology, to the point of crisis - and that more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline," the report, issued by the linkurl:House of Lords' Science and Technology Committee,;http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/science_and_technology_committee/about_the_committee.cfm reads. It's not just an academic issue: Systematics and taxonomy are crucial for identifying potentially harmful species of insect, linkurl:fungi,;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/52853/ or plant, fully understanding linkurl:ecosystem services;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23277/ analyses, and tracking and combating linkurl:climate change,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54049/ among other roles. "A decline in taxonomy and systematics in the UK would directly and indirectly impact on the Government's ability to deliver across a wide range of policy goals," the report reads. The warning echoes concerns I heard while reporting a linkurl:story;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53881/ on DNA barcoding last year. Several barcoders told me that the taxonomic experts, whom they rely upon to carefully confirm their molecularly-based identifications through good old-fashioned morphometrics and taxonomy, were literally dying off. I was told of grizzled and disappearing veterans of taxonomy such as linkurl:Montgomery Wood,;http://www.canacoll.org/Diptera/Staff/Wood/Wood.htm a Canadian octogenarian and one of the last experts in identifying linkurl:tachinid flies;http://www.geocities.com/brisbane_flies/TACHINIDAE.htm (Family Tachinidae). "It's a matter of changing trends in what's fashionable in universities," linkurl:David Hawksworth,;http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=43323 renowned British mycologist and former director of the linkurl:International Mycological Institute,;http://www.ima-mycology.org/ told __The Scientist__. UK universities no longer offer strong programs in systematic biology, added Hawksworth, who also contributed written evidence to the Science and Technology Committee report. UK mycologists in particular are becoming a dying breed. According to Hawksworth, the International Mycological Institute predicts that there will be no professional mycologists, well-versed in fungal taxonomy, left in the UK by 2012. "Expertise is going to peter out, and it's already petering out," he said. "It's a very sad feeling." As outlined in the report, Hawksworth said that the UK needed a governmental department or an interdepartmental committee to coordinate systematic biology expertise and prompt universities to invest more resources toward supporting systematics and taxonomy. The report also suggested constructing a roadmap for Internet-based taxonomy, taking a census of taxonomists in the UK, and solidifying the importance of funding taxonomic projects in the country. "I don't think there's any quick fix," Hawksworth said. "It's going to be a long haul." The situation isn't much brighter on this side of the pond, according to Canadian DNA barcoder linkurl:Paul Hebert;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/12/1/40/1/ at the University of Guelph in Ontario. "The taxonomic freefall in the UK is not unique; taxonomy is in a similarly critical situation here," Hebert wrote in an Email to __The Scientist__. "Despite possessing the world's longest coastline, Canada has no marine fish taxonomist. Despite possessing more than a million lakes, we have lost our taxonomic specialists for most major groups of freshwater invertebrates. Despite our massive arctic territories, we have no taxonomic workforce dedicated to the study of polar life."__(Editors Note - 09/08/09: The original version of this story stated that Montgomery Wood was an expert in identifying North American black flies [Family Simuliidae]. This has been changed to reflect the fact that Wood is the foremost global expert in tachinid fly [Family Tachinidae] taxonomy. Though he is expert in the taxonomy of both families, his true specialty is tachinids.)__