Friday, November 7, 2014

Where have all the taxonomists gone?

"Erosion of taxonomic experts"
For a good number of years colleagues kept pointing out that taxonomy as science is in decline because of the ever shrinking number of active taxonomists - professionals and amateurs alike. However, all the numbers that were thrown out were mostly not backed up by actual extrapolations resulting from dedicated studies. Well, that has now changed. A study looked at the development of the taxonomic workforce in the past years and also provides projections into the future. The scope of the study was Bavaria, Germany but I am fairly confident that the numbers will look very similar if one would do similar work in other countries e.g. in Europe or North America. Unfortunately, these important findings documented in a 100-page publication are only available in German. I strongly believe the publication should be translated into English and widely distributed as the authors didn't stop at painting a very bleak picture but also provided potential ways to counteract the issues they've detected. Here my humble attempt to provide a summary.

The study surveyed 70 experts of various groups such as environmental assessment companies, land administration offices, universities, NGOs and conservation authorities. The results are alarming as they show a loss of 21% of taxonomic experts over the last 20 years. However, the full scope of the problem is currently concealed by the fact that most of them are older than 60 years and still actively involved. Only 7.6% of the current taxonomists are younger than 30. Within the next 10-20 years the study projects a drastic decline in expertise given that the average age of taxonomists in Bavaria currently is ~50 years.

There are a variety of reasons for the decline of interest in taxonomy, such as a plethora of extracurricular activities for children and youth, a decline of taxonomic knowledge in teachers, dramatic reductions of learning opportunities in schools and universities (entire systematic and taxonomy programs disappeared), and a huge image problem of conservation activities. Naturalists and conservation activists are often disrespectfully called ‘tree huggers’ and perceived as quixotic, anti-economy, and na├»ve.

It is a paradox situation. In recent years everything related to biodiversity gained more attention in media and politics resulting in efforts to protect and preserve our environment. At the same time we are losing the ability to identify, count, and assess what we aim to protect. Even DNA Barcodes can help only to a limited extend by providing legitimate shortcuts to identification.

The authors determined factors that are beneficial for the development of knowledge about species. Motivation at home is a crucial one especially when supported by hands-on experience in natural environments. They identified two stages in a human’s life that are very important for the development of taxonomic expertise, an earlier phase around 13.5 years and a later one at about 22.5 years. A lot of the suggested solutions take these findings into account when it comes to potential target groups.

The list of suggestions is rather long but shows that we are anything but short of ideas to meet the challenges:

- Implementation of strong biodiversity and nature conservation programs at universities
- National coordination centers for taxonomic groups 
- Targeted support of junior staff and students
- Mentor systems for children, youth and seniors in conjunction with conservation authorities
- Options to obtain nature conservancy certifications
- More broader environmental teaching and learning 
- Programs for children and youth to experience nature (not just learn about it)

The authors of the study emphasize that the problem can only be tackled by an interdisciplinary approach. Most institutions don’t have the money to finance new programs which means only a concerted effort will help but they also call for targeted federal funding programs to stop the downward trend.

I really like this study as it puts some numbers to the trend we all witnessed and to all the concerns we voiced over the last years. Time to do something about it.

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