Perceptions of a Sociopathic Taxonomist
Disclaimer: At the outset I will proffer my apologies to those who know me. If anyone asks, I completely understand if you choose to deny that you’ve ever had any association with me, implied or otherwise. The views upheld in this brief note are those of the author alone, not a single other person on the face of the Earth. God help us all if there’s others like this.
“The outcomes and recommendations in this report are aimed at informing the primary stakeholders of Australian astronomy of the current status of the field, the strengths and progress made by the Australian astronomy community, the big scientific questions that Australia is best equipped to answer, and the infrastructure and capability priorities for the future needed to realise this ambition.”
After reading the Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy (DPAA), I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by its content as I walked away from it. Out of some 80 pages, half a dozen, at best, actually outlined any astronomical achievements, as it were, over the preceding 10 year period, and for the next 10 as proposed within the current plan. The underlying emphasis throughout the documentation, from my reading at least, was a focus on infrastructure; incessant reiteration; industry subservience; over-generalized, content-free catch-phrase statements; and collaboration on nationally decentralised projects (i.e. ownership no longer belongs specifically to Australia). One of their own stated objectives was “funding a skilled workforce is critical to exploit the next generation of scientific infrastructure”. That’s all well and good, but the sceptic in me couldn’t get past the feeling that the astronomy discipline has committed the very sin that our working groups have discussed as being one to avoid at all costs – reducing bureaucratic nonsense and other distractions and letting the taxonomists just do their research (not to mention the establishment of long-term research career paths within our industry as well). From what I see, they have devolved from being an astronomy-centric discipline to an institute comprising physics experts who are now acting as engineers for producing low-cost, high-end infrastructure for industry purposes/gains, astronomy hopefully getting some crumbs somewhere down the line:
“The scale of future astronomical facilities demands skills, expertise and technologies beyond the current capabilities of Australia’s academic community. Meaningful industry engagement is required to build partnerships that will design, develop and produce the next generation of astronomical instruments, and to harness the innovation flowing from fundamental research for commercial application.”
Whilst I am well aware that they don’t tell the whole story, and many jobs have been created within the industry, just what are those jobs? The examples they provided of career paths that astronomy PhD graduates can hope to realise all indicated that, after a short initial involvement in the field of astronomy, they invariably go off into other fields e.g. medical, renewable energies. Whilst those are commendable pursuits within themselves, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of Astronomy as a long-term career path, or indeed, the success of their decadal plan as it actually relates to Astronomy. The research focus, where it is broached, is centred on infrastructure and the acquisition of excessively large amounts of data. A glaring omission from the DPAA, Round 2, is any analysis of what existing members of the industry think of their positions, research, prospects and the success of the DPAA itself. Could make for interesting reading.
“The development and effective utilisation of the ASVO and other data-related initiatives will require the astronomy community to foster a new type of scientist, dedicated to data-intensive activities—managing, curating, manipulating, processing vast volumes of data, extracting information from it and making data and information available and accessible to other scientists. Currently these scientists are largely missing from the astronomy community and a challenge for the next decade will be to train such scientists and create career paths for them.”
This sounds a lot more like tech jobs than research positions, as far as the nuts and bolts of astronomy are concerned that is. Forgive me for suggesting that the independence of the discipline has been compromised. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with tech jobs (and we certainly need more in our own science), before anyone gets indignant, we all recognise, I’m sure, that there is an ongoing need for the researchers as well.
On the other, more positive hand, however, the DPAA does purvey an ethos which I feel is almost completely lacking in the taxonomic sphere – they do present a strong sense of self-appreciation and self-value. They very strongly emphasise that they are important as an industry and that their skills are of a high standard, and those skills require a significant investment in education to acquire and apply. For my money, this is the taxonomic industry’s weakest link. I simply cannot get over what I have experienced as being the innate sense of unimportance most taxonomists appear to have. I was once told by a colleague that “this stuff could be done by a trained monkey.” Another said “what we do is nothing more than natural history.”
Well! I’m not sure I am in 100% agreeance with those statements. Maybe I’m even stupider than I originally thought, my perceptions of minimal intellectual competence being nothing more than misdirected self-indulgence. After writing this, there will no doubt be a lot more who agree with the latter. But honestly, why work in the industry if the previous statements are representative of your perspective? More on this later.
Back to the positives: there were three other salient points that were raised in the DPAA which I feel it would behove the ‘Australian Taxonomic Organisation’ (ATO) to adopt:
Australia’s astronomical research excellence rests on continued partnership between astronomical observatories and the universities.
The professional Australian astronomy community has undergone significant growth in the past decade with a rise in research capacity across the entire community, particularly in the training of higher-degree students and early-career researchers.
In the next decade, greater collaboration and partnership among astronomy research organisations and astronomy outreach providers is essential for expanding the public impact of astronomy.
It’s not really a lot out of 80 pages – just saying! Enough of dissing Astronomy though. Time to look in our own backyard.
Taxonomy 2028: Well! Where DO we go from here?
“By 2028, we will have a quality assurance and accreditation system for taxonomy and systematics across Australia and New Zealand.”
This statement (not mine by the way) was relayed in one of the brainstorming sessions Kevin held recently. If I were awarding prizes for the best idea presented, then I think this one would get it.
Quality control and an actual recognition of expertise. That would be nice. If we achieve nothing else, let’s at least aim for that.
It’s interesting to read all the blogs that have thus far been posted on this site. Some are egocentric (as is mine), some are left-field, many are subject-specific, some are measured, some are on the mark and others are unrealistic - at least according to my set of value judgements and set of experiences. Each of you will undoubtedly see it differently. How do we assemble all these differing suggestions and ideas to become an end product with which all stakeholders are at least reasonably satisfied? At the end of the day, what do we collectively want those end products to be and who will use them? More importantly though, I feel, is what to we want our industry to look like a decade from now? What do we want a position description for a taxonomist to look like a decade from now?
That’s the key, I think (pun noted). Collectively! Not as individual researchers. You know! “United we stand…..”. (Isn’t it ironic that it all seems to come back to the lumpers vs. splitters debate?)
The taxonomic/systematic ‘industry’ is a very diverse one – naturally. We study diversity. But just what IS that level of diversity? Scientists had enough problems in agreeing on how you define what a species or taxon is/was when they were only dealing with morphological characters. How do we define that which is arbitrary now? Therefore, on what basis do we enumerate it? Depending on the degree of genetic resolution that you use, each and every one of us is potentially a unique taxon. Only clones would be spared this ignominy, and I only know a few of those, albeit the evil ones. Why not just give us each a number and set us to work on the estate? I’m not entirely convinced (more than happy to be proven wrong) that we can engage the interest and concern of the general public by entreating them with statements like: ‘2,340 barcodes will become extinct if that development goes ahead’. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Makes the argument for the use of scientifically-generated names over common names a bit questionable for the everyday punter.
Taxonomy seems to have devolved into the art of ignoring multiple elephants in the room whilst simultaneously developing new and more complex technologies with which to confuse the science, and all the while spewing forth copious, more meaningless data for which storage issues constantly arise.
‘We have ALL this data!’
Look at it this way - within the lifespan of this proposed Decadal Plan, somewhere in the order of 130 million hectares of land will be cleared globally (based on current rates and assuming no deviation from that rate). That is 1.3 million km squared. That’s about 70% of the state of Queensland, assuming it was completely covered in vegetation to start with. So just how are we assisting conservation goals again? That is one of our mantras after all. Likewise, how on earth do we define rarity under the genetic code regime? Surely that answer will be as diverse as the number of geneticists out there. All this data. No more answers. Fewer workers.
There seems to be a hole in the taxonomic bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza (my sincere apology to anyone who IS actually named Liza and who may end up reading this). A lot of posts here, and responses to the brainstorming sessions, highlight what projects the respective authors consider can be achieved by 2028. Many present a wish list. Good thing the draft document will be ready just before Christmas. In the infrequent event that my left brain cell interfaces with my right brain cell, I can’t help but thinking, fleetingly, that some of the important questions SHOULD be:
How is it funded? (I know – Duh?)
How is it staffed? (Ditto)
Who will train the staff?
What are we producing?
Why are we producing it?
Who really wants it?
Who really cares?
Will the products we are producing now, and the new technologies we are using, still have relevance in 2028?
Come 2028, will our industry be well poised to conduct a second Decadal Plan?
What will a position description look like in 2028? (This is particularly relevant if we refer to our stated objective of an increase in taxonomic positions.)
How do we expect to convince politicians, the general public, and even other scientists that our research is important if we can’t agree on anything (present a united front), and if we are perceived as being a discordant discipline applying arbitrary principles to an ever-shrinking diversity base? How do they gain TRUST in our science and its outputs, and the quality thereof?
On that note – quality assurance – just what is it about taxonomic science that impels us to cut our own throats? I am going to create a LOT of bad blood by suggesting this because it has seemingly become the driving force behind our vocation in recent years, and now a government initiative (why do you suppose that is?), but why are we pushing so many resources into citizen science at the expense of resuscitating/replenishing our own profession? This comes back to the whole self-value/self-appreciation factor that the DPAA got right. Citizen Science, from memory at least, wasn’t addressed in the DPAA. Don’t misrepresent me, however. I do believe they have roles to play, but I think we need to adopt those with more of a self-preserving outlook.
L: Why are there so few taxonomists now employed in Australia?
H: “Because there aren’t the jobs”
L: “But there won’t be either if there’s a workforce doing it all for free”.
H: “That’s OK! We just need someone to train the public”.
L: “But who trains the trainer, and who does the research if the only qualified people are training volunteers? No-one is being professionally trained in this discipline anymore!”
H: “Why not?”
L: “Because there aren’t any jobs”.
Pass the bucket, Liza.
Why are we so amenable to giving everything, especially our hard-fought knowledge, away for free, or next to it? Just because many of us are employed with public funds? If that’s the logic, then no goods or services coming from government departments should incur a charge. Yeah, Right! Why do we blithely accept our lot and hand over our intellectual productivity for public manipulation and misrepresentation just because we’re paid from the public purse? Don’t we have a responsibility to also act as custodians of that information/data? After all, isn’t it allegedly generated in the national interest, much of it feeding into our longer term heritage and prosperity? Just saying!
What good does it do for us to push for university placements if the jobs aren’t there at the conclusion? Are we to become more like the astronomists, producing high-quality graduates for other industries? (What an absolute waste of time for the few experts that we do have). What incentives exist for students to study in this profession, apart from passion? Is there a career path? Is it one where you can still be conducting research at the upper limits of progression? Do students want to spend the best part of a decade undertaking hard work, often under trying circumstances, to end up just handing that expertise over to the public on a plate (that plate being some form of bright, shiny, multi-functional technological marvel which will then have to be replaced almost immediately with whatever technology has been freshly developed at that point), only to have to spend the rest of their career trying to convince the latter that they don’t actually know more than the former (in most cases)?
Really! Why do we sell our science so short? Personally, I consider that to produce quality taxonomic output requires a specific set of skills, the combination of which is not as commonplace as some proclaim (and certainly beyond that of a trained monkey). What is our currency if it isn’t that particular set of skills? If any Joe Average can come off the street and do what we do, and just as well as those who have been trained for years, then why are we bothering with a Decadal Plan? Why WOULD the government bother to create FTE’s and invest funding? Pretty basic really. If you want the government or private industry to invest dollars, you have to have something to offer them that they can’t get elsewhere. So what are we doing/producing that stakeholders can’t get elsewhere?
Something I find to be a particularly noteworthy result emerging from the roadshow brainstorming sessions was the relatively minimal input of ideas on taxonomy itself. Of the 150 summary points recently circulated, only 11 (7·5%) pertained to the combination of the categories of Taxonomy, Nomenclature and Molecular Tools (all the stuff we actually DO), and even then some of those had considerable overlap. Even if you consider the individual contributions themselves, of the 418 put forward, only 36 (8·6%) gave consideration to those three factors. This can be viewed any number of ways, but maybe it’s a positive. Maybe, collectively, we consider taxonomic endeavour in and of itself to be in reasonable shape. Is it just the infrastructure, governance and resourcing of the industry that has fallen into a state of untenable disarray?
Given that no-one is likely to have persisted and read this far (I know I wouldn’t have), I’ll self-preservingly finish with an explanatory note.
Originally, I wasn’t going to bother having any input into this process. I know. Shame on me. It was remarkable, however, how many colleagues shared that viewpoint, considering it to be a waste of time, a pointless exercise producing a document that has little bearing on reality. I figure there’s plenty enough work to be done with the material I’ve got available to me – enough to see me to the end of my career and beyond. Of course, that is a self-centred outlook and one which only serves to achieve my objectives. A different perspective is required however. The task is bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. We all have our part to play, and whilst we may not always agree with each other, we need to be pulling in the same direction as a team. A good friend of mine has spent many years studying for a career in taxonomy. Not only that, the enthusiasm and infectious appetite they have for the science is exemplary and refreshing. If I abstain from involvement, if any of us do, then we rob people like that of their chance to realise a goal, a dream. That’s not fair and it’s not right! So this is my 10₵ worth; my 15 minutes.
This is about the future. There is extraordinary potential in this industry. There is still heaps of work to be done, particularly once you get past the flora and megafauna into studying the important organisms (that should get a reaction). I exhort the planning team to keep sight of what we are about and what we are producing. Let’s do our best to not resorting to prostituting our science as some form of quick fix to a seemingly insurmountable conundrum. We need our stakeholders to come up to our level, not allow them to drag us down to theirs. Above all, we need to keep the science real and avoid the trap of being caught up in the infinite quest to align our output with technology. We’ll never catch up and there’s still more than enough baseline taxonomy to be done to feed into all those wonderful databases and programs. At present, we’re creating products based on a fraction of the potential data which remains to be collected. Let’s focus on that at least as much as we focus on new ways of presenting existing data over and over again.