What are the big questions in plant systematics? - a report of a symposium on the future of global plant systematics

An interesting article in the last issue of American Journal of Botany. See especially the section discussing the big questions in plant systematics, and how we can address them. Thanks to David Cantrill for bringing this paper to our attention.

From the introduction to the paper:

"Forty botanists from 13 countries met this March in Amsterdam at a special colloquium at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to discuss the future of plant systematics (“Beyond the Tree of Life: the Future of Plant Systematics”; Fig. 1). The meeting was funded by the Netherlands Royal Academy and organized by Erik Smets (Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, Netherlands) and colleagues*; it addressed several paradoxes in our field. First, with an ongoing planetary-scale biodiversity crisis, the need for plant systematists has never been greater, and yet taxonomic expertise appears to be in steady decline, as noted by repeated calls for action (e.g., de Carvalho et al., 2007Drew, 2011). Despite this, new plant species are continuously being discovered, and plant systematics as a field has survived and even thrived, thanks to the common overarching goal of building and understanding the Tree of Life, spurred by the availability of new technology and powerful analytical frameworks. Yet, members of the public and colleagues outside biology often express surprise when new plant species are discovered or appear unaware that the Tree of Life is far from being fully resolved. In this context, how do we justify the importance of continued research on plant biodiversity and explain its importance to the general public, university administrators, funding agencies, and policy makers?"

Among other things, the colloquium asked the question "What are the cool, achievable questions in plants sytsematics, and how can we answer them?". Here's their answer:

"The third discussion session aimed at formulating questions and solutions that plant systematists as a community may realistically target in the near future. Four tentative key questions emerged: (1) How is plant life related, and how is diversity distributed in time and space? (2) What are the processes generating biodiversity? (3) How many species are there, and what do we know about them? (4) How do we break the barriers for training and employing systematists in the developing world? To address these questions, we thought that a flagship international project aimed at collecting/synthesizing in public databases, the phenotype, interactome, and genome from 100 specimens each of 1000 species over their distribution range and ecological gradients could attract excitement and major sources of funding and provide significant, novel answers and new questions."

This paper is useful and interesting food for thought for our own Decadal Plan process. The fill paper is at http://www.amjbot.org/content/103/12/2022.full 

The Decadal Plan for Biosystematics and Taxonomy in Australasia

Biosystematics and taxonomy – the disciplines that name, classify and determine the evolutionary relationships of all living organisms – are foundational sciences. Many other disciplines and activities in biology, including ecology, conservation, genetics, biosecurity, and medicine to name just a few, depend on the framework knowledge, nomenclature, and understanding of organisms provided by biosystematics and taxonomy.

Despite this, funding and infrastructure investment in biosystematics and taxonomy are declining. Biosystematics and taxonomy often “fly under the radar” of high-impact science, and their foundational role is often unacknowledged.

The current low base of funding for biosystematics and taxonomy in Australasia means that, in effect, we are drawing on previous investment in this sector (the past two centuries of endeavour and effort to understand and document the flora and fauna of Australasia) but no longer adequately investing in the future (building capacity and knowledge of the many currently known or undiscovered species that have not yet been named, and keeping our knowledge scientifically updated and current). This lack of investment is of particular concern in Australasia, one of very few areas of mega-biodiversity in the world.

Inadequate investment in this sector leads to negative consequences, and often substantial economic costs, for conservation, biosecurity, and sustainable development and growth. Important species will become extinct before they are recognised and their conservation needs and potential ecological and economic roles understood. Emerging biosecurity threats will be recognised too late, compromising early responses and leading to inadequate control measures and increased mitigation costs. These impacts in turn will compromise sustainable development and reduce our ability to minimise the effects of the current global wave of extinctions.

This project seeks to turn this situation around. Led by a core group of leading taxonomists and biosystematists, it centres on developing a Decadal Plan for the scientific discipline of biosystematics and taxonomy in Australasia that will:

  • document current opportunities and risks in the sector;
  • provide a forward-looking vision and roadmap for the discipline, including its impacts on and benefits for biodiversity, society and the economy;
  • provide a detailed investment plan for the next decade; and
  • initiate steps toward implementing the plan through engagement with the sector and its stakeholders.

Decadal Plans have been developed for a number of sectors in Australian science by the Australian Academy of Science - a listing of these can be obtained here

The Decadal Plan for Biosystematics and Taxonomy in Australasia will be a starting point for effecting a real change in the status, visibility and funding of biosystematics and taxonomy in Australasia.

Read the brochure below for more detail