Our Discovery Mission

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to discover and document all remaining Australian species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms ... in a generation.

How on Earth are we going to do this?

There are two common reactions to the idea that we could launch a grand science mission to discover and document all remaining Australian species in a generation.

The reaction from people outside our sector is almost invariably "Wow - that would be great!"

The reaction from taxonomists inside our sector is often "But that's impossible!"

Hercules moth, north Queensland. Image: Tapio Linderhaus

The difference between these two reactions is instructive. The idea 'we're going to discover and document all remaining Australian species in a generation' is a great outward-facing message. The public, business leaders, politicians and their advisors relate to its clarity, its ambition, its scope and the fact that it implies a goal and a measurable target.

Of course, such people have no idea how hard it will be, what exactly it means, or how on Earth we'll do it.

Nevertheless, it works as an outward-facing message, and taxonomy and biosystematics need good outward-facing messages.

Drosera, Kuranda. Photo: Tapio Linderhaus

So what exactly does 'discover and document all remaining Australian species in a generation' mean? This is tricky. Taken at face value it means that, if we were successful, after a generation has passed we will never again discover another new Australian species, ever.

This of course is ridiculous, not least because species discovery follows a law of diminishing return - discovering new species is relatively easy at first, but gets harder and harder as the goal is approached.

So we won't achieve our goal exactly.

Does this mean we need to change the message to a more accurate one, something like 'we aim to discover and document 90% (or 85%, or 78%) of all Australian species in a generation'?

Unfortunately, while this is more accurate, it's also less effective.

So how about a message 'we want to increase the rate at which we discover and document Australian species'.

This would also be accurate, but again, it's a less effective message. We want to do this for how long exactly, and what will be the end result? How will we measure progress? Isn't this just special pleading from a sector that's always pleading?

There seems to be no alternative to the simple and effective message 'we aim to discover and document all remaining Australian species in a generation'. This workshop aims to work out how we could go about at least getting close to this goal.

Prickly flounder, Swan RIver. Photo: John Huisman

 

Another common response within the taxonomy sector is that we will only be able to achieve this goal wuth a truly massive increase in the number of taxonomists.

While clearly we do need more taxonomists, we need a mix of increases in resourcing, and smarter ways of doing taxonomy. Business-as-usual will not get us even close to this goal, and it's very unlikely we'll be able to convince the community or government to fund a substantially expanded taxonomy sector if business-as-usual is the best we can offer.

So this workshop has the key aim to envision how we will achieve this truly ambitious goal, and to think this through in a way that we've never really considered before.

We need to approach this in the same manner that American physicists approached the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon missions - instead of thinking about all the reasons why it will never work, we need to think instead about all the means by which we can make it work.

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