Taxonomy is the geometry of nature; it lies at the base of the biological conservation “food chain” consequently without taxonomic capacity environmental governance will become eroded.
Today Australia's taxonomic capacity is in peril. The State of Environment 2001 and 2006 have both pointed this out. The immediate issue is reflected in National Taxonomy Forum Report:
In 2003 about half of Australia’s taxonomists are aged over 45 years,
one third were over 60,
one third of the workforce is voluntary.
Each year there is an ongoing net loss of expertise
Clearly the majority of Australia’s current capacity rests with taxonomists who are either retired or approaching retirement and they are not being replaced. In a system which is increasingly dependent on volunteers and goodwill crisis is inevitable; the only uncertainty is to predict exactly when it will happen.
Today we are mesmerised by big science and have an increasing obsession with virtual models of the bio-physical world. In this environment the organisms which are the foundation stones and infrastructure of nature are lost, as avatars will apparently do the job. We all know that species matter - but they are now, most of the time, below the radar.
Nobody is to blame directly for this problem - because it is nobody’s problem. This is not unique and taxonomy is but one highly specialised niche area of science that has become lost in the increasingly arcane irrational “rational” world of university and scientific funding models.
There are many reasons for our losing national capacity in certain important scientific fields; these range from market forces for hydrologists to a lack of investment in important areas of geosciences.
In the case of taxonomy I could hypothesise that it is because its practitioners are often behind-the-scenes, cryptic and frequently hard to understand. For instance botanical description still requires a working knowledge of Latin. It is too easy to ignore the importance of taxonomists and other core science areas when the pressure is on to rationalise a budget or make the big science announcements.
You may say that everyone has a special plead and taxonomy is no exception. This is true - but I am not a taxonomist. My concerns are informed by my role over the last eight years as Chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, my ongoing involvement in our development of a national environmental data system and the reporting that depends on such a system.
If the taxonomic capacity of Australia is not addressed we really could put in jeopardy environmental governance in this country. Conservation and development outcomes and safeguarding of Australia's natural and rural systems will all be compromised.
The situation is not entirely full of gloom. In 2006 the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facility funded a taxonomic hub and in 2007, the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts provided temporary additional funding for the Australian Biological Resources Survey. These resources are being, in part, spent on work focused on Australia's most significant international hotspot namely South-Western Australia and align with the testing of a new approach to regional planning that will be important in managing biodiversity recovery.
Also in the 2006 budget State of Environment reporting was made part of the budget estimates for the first time which effectively gives it an ongoing bureaucratic life. I would hope that the hard line successive State of Environment Reports have taken on this matter helped but who achieved what is irrelevant; what really matters is what has to be done.
A reading of the National Taxonomy Strategy that has been proposed by the National Taxonomy Forum and FASTS will show that Australia needs 6 to 10 trained graduates each year for a decade least to stop the erosion of and stabilise our national capability in taxonomy. The cost of this and other necessary measures is of the order of $11 million per year, spread over eight museums, eight herbaria, 10 universities, the Australian Biological Resources Survey and the CSIRO. It’s an impossible ask.
With such a spread the challenge of achieving taxonomic excellence becomes one of targeted strategic investments. Australia's taxonomic capacity can be maintained if investments are targeted to needs that are of national significance. The strategy provides a framework and the first steps to progress it further.
The OECD report on Australia's environmental performance was released on March 19th 2008. One of the headlines was that Australia had to improve environmental reporting and governance. The report also acknowledges initiatives Australia has taken and urges progress. However with the environmental investments Australia has now announced it is more important than ever that we ensure that the foundations are sound.
Understanding the geometry of nature is one of the foundation steps. We must catalogue the Nations Natural Treasure - and avoid dying on the job.
Based on remarks made at the Launch of National Taxonomy Forum Report Science meets Parliament FASTS 2008.
Bob Beeton has been chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee since 2000, served on the 2001 SOE Committee and Chaired the 2006 SOE Committee.
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