What about the passionate?

You've probably noticed: taxonomists aren't quite like other scientists.

They have a powerful fascination, if not an embarrassingly strong affection, for "their" groups of organisms. As the TV professionals say, they're great talent, because they talk excitedly on camera about their favourite taxa.

They study particular taxa for decades, becoming the experts — the "names" — to whom the biosecurity and agriculture sectors turn for advice.

They get better at what they do as time goes on. Taxonomists hit their stride in late career, peaking in their 50s and 60s and often publishing valuable papers in their 70s and 80s.

They can be relatively cheap to run. Unless they're focused on molecular systematics, the annual costs for their taxonomic work might amount to just a few thousand dollars.

They don't require a lot of formal training. Some of Australia's best taxonomists are self-taught in their specialty.

They can communicate with the public directly about ideas the public already understands: "species", "discovery", "natural habitats", "invasive organisms". Only rarely do taxonomists need a professional science writer to background and explain what they've done.

Granted all this, previous calls for more public support for taxonomy in Australia seem a bit misdirected.

There's the call for more training money in Australia's universities, which gave up teaching taxonomy long ago. Instead the universities turn out PhDs with only the dimmest understanding of the maths behind the sophisticated phylogeny-guessing software they've relied on, and a similarly limited understanding of their study taxon's biology. The door opens, the new PhDs leave and compete with all the other science PhDs for work, leaving behind an interest in the taxa that helped them get a degree.

There's the call for increased infrastructure spending on museums and herbaria, which is great, because taxonomists depend on collections. But if an increased collections spend isn't paralleled by increased taxonomic work in those collections, what's the point? Without more curators and supported visitors, museum managers are justified in asking "Why do you need more than one specimen of each species?" and "How is any of this bringing more people through our doors?"

There's the call for more IT spending to aggregate more collection and other species-tied data, and to put those data at the fingertips of... umm, somebody... with a browser. Who will then spend days cleaning the downloaded data because the IT funding included not one brass razoo for data cleaning at source (disclaimer: I'm a data auditor as well as a taxonomist).

What's missing from these calls? Any mention of the people we need more of, those passionate taxonomists.

Here are four ways those people could be encouraged and supported:

(1) Find them and train them: "We're looking for people who are absolutely fascinated with particular Australian life-forms, and we'll back your passion with taxonomic training. You may not get a career out of this, but we'll give you the tools for a lifetime of satisfying study and of contributions to knowledge of the Australian biota."

(2) Get the collections to reach out. Ensure that museums and herbaria have enough money to host taxonomist volunteers, and to sponsor short-term visits by specialists, including non-professionals.

(3) Reward productive taxonomic work. How about ABRS offering up to 50 $5000 annual grants per annum (up to $250 000 total) to currently publishing taxonomists, renewed every year? The money could be used for collection visits, field work, publishing fees, conference attendance and project-tied costs such as sequencing and SEM work. Unaffiliated and retired specialists would welcome even this small drip-feeding of taxonomic support. The risk per grant (the risk that the money is wasted) is trivial and easily minimised by cancelling payment if there's no evidence that productive taxonomic work was done in the preceding year.

(4) Pay for mentoring. There aren't any succession plans in Australian taxonomy, despite the fact that for every specialist there are dozens of non-specialists with an existing or potential interest in working with what could otherwise become an orphan group. We know those potential mentorees exist: the BowerBird project has brought hundreds of keen non-professionals out of the woodwork. Why not directly support the transfer of specialist knowledge, with travel grants for joint collection visits and field trips?

OK, it's obvious. I don't see taxonomy fitting entirely within an academic framework, which is how many taxonomy promoters want governments and other funding sources to see it. Instead I see taxonomy distributed widely within the Australian community, with weekend, holiday and retired collectors and enthusiasts being part of a broad collaborative effort. That's probably because I'm goal-focused. I want to see increased taxonomic effort in Australia, and that's not the same as an increased number of professional taxonomists.

- Bob Mesibov