Taxonomy at a crossroads
Department of Sociology, County College South, Lancaster University, LA1 4YD, UK
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Taxonomy and Biodiversity

The project "Taxonomy at a Crossroads" can be understood against a backdrop of ongoing shifts in the relationship between taxonomy and global biodiversity and policy. An issue of current concern within the natural sciences is the so-called ‘crisis’ of the taxonomic sciences (Royal Society 2004). Since the Rio Convention on Biodiversity in 1992, talk of a crisis within taxonomy has been linked explicitly to the premise that we are rapidly losing the planet's biodiversity, and in particular that we lack knowledge of what is being lost, as well as the means to represent such knowledge in accessible ways to end-users both within and beyond the professional taxonomic community. From 1992 onwards, the commitment of signatory nation states to survey and document the extent of biodiversity on their own territories (and to assist developing countries in doing likewise), put taxonomy and systematics on the policy 'map' in a way that was hitherto unprecedented in the history of these sub disciplines. A decade later, the continuing intensification of concern about global environmental problems (IUCN 2002, Myers and Knoll 2001) twinned with the sobering claim that ‘the living world is rapidly disappearing in front of our eyes’ has put further pressure on taxonomy and systematics to provide an effective and rapid measurement of the extent of global biodiversity loss (Royal Society 2003, 2004).

Within this overarching context (which paradoxically includes both policy pressure upon taxonomy to speedily deliver the facts, whilst acknowledging significant uncertainties within the sciences concerned (Royal Society 2003:3; CBD 2001), taxonomy’s limited capacity to have any notable effect upon biodiversity policy, biodiversity protection, or the so-called ‘taxonomic deficit’ have been matters of concern for some time amongst specialists (House of Lords Select Committee 1992, 2002, HMSO 2004). The ‘deficit’ spells out a new crisis which does not relate only to the loss or extinction of natural species, but also to the loss of human resources within a spectrum of engaged communities who contribute significantly to descriptive taxonomy and whose collective work underpins society’s knowledge of biodiversity. These communities include morphological and molecular taxonomists as well as a partly overlapping community of 100,000 amateur naturalist specialists in the UK alone. Facing these communities as a whole is a ‘lack of prestige and resources that is crippling the continuing cataloguing of biodiversity’ (Godfray 2002:17). Taxonomy’s ‘image problem’ (Hine 1995:3, 2003, Butler 1998: 115) appears to be only part of the picture: Godfray’s influential article in Nature (mentioned above) suggests in no uncertain terms that taxonomy writ large needs to reinvent itself as a twenty-first century information science if it is to survive and flourish as a policy-effective body of science.



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