Posted on behalf of Ewen Callaway.
Taxonomy – the science of classifying and ordering the world’s species – could do with more order, says a new report commissioned by the UK government agency that supports some of the work, the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC).
“There has to be a strategic overview of what we’re doing in the UK. It’s such a fragmented discipline in terms of its funder, users, and where the expertise is held,” says Geoff Boxshall, a taxonomist at the Natural History Museum in London, who led a survey of UK taxonomy that accompanied the report.
His team recommends the establishment of a UK Taxonomy Coordination Committee to draw together the myriad government agencies, private charities, businesses and other groups that fund, conduct and take advantage of taxonomy research. The fragementary nature of the field makes basic questions, such as how much money is spent each year, difficult to answer, Boxshall says.
“We don’t think this needs to be an expensive or big thing, but something that can bring together and coordinate the disparate bodies,” says the committee’s chairman Charles Godfray, at the University of Oxford.
A Taxonomy Coordination Committee would also be well placed to address a shortage of professional taxonomists. One recent study estimated that it would take the current legion of taxonomists 360 years to catalogue all the world’s animals. Another recent study estimated that 47% to 66% of undiscovered plants are in herbaria, waiting to be described by trained taxonomists.
“There’s been ongoing concern over 20 years about the decline in expertise in taxonomy in the UK,” says Boxshall. For instance, people trained at identifying microfossils are dearly needed in the oil industry, which uses their distribution to guide drilling. However, all of the UK’s Master’s degree programs in micropaleontology have shut down, Boxshall says.
Image of Carl Linnaeus via Wikimedia Commons