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.
Part 3 - Whiteboards
The ideas below have been contributed to the whiteboard for discussion during the roundtable breakouts. You can add to them on the Whiteboard ideas page
Roundtable 9: How can we best build the required workforce for our mission?
Taxonomy clearly needs skilled people (at least until AI puts us all out of a job and we can go on a permanent field trip or holiday). And this mission clearly needs more skilled people than we have at present. This roundtable will consider issues around the taxonomic workforce, including:
What type of workforce will we need over the 25 years if this mission?
How will we train and build this workforce?
What important skills are currently in shortest supply, and how will we redress this?
Can we write a TA endorsed multi co-authored synthesis document/paper that summarizes & clarifies the role of type species in species descriptions? It could also clarify all the different forms of types (topotype, epitope etc) & the best-practice approach to follow when a type is lost-destroyed. It could have general intro & subsections (plants, hyper diverse inverts, marine inverts etc) that have more specific group-specific advice tailored to the amount of evidence that is ordinarily available/required to describe app in that group. This document would be a valuable guide for future taxonomists & provide a way to capture the knowledge of existing senior taxonomists.
A recurrent idea is to divide the workflow according to expertise / best skills, rather than asking every taxonomist to master every part of the process, including field work, sequencing (now genomics), phylo-genetic (now -genomic) analysis, macroevolution, and publication (of taxonomic treatments and other papers). However, a key hurdle is the current model of career progress and evaluations, based on the general academic / research scientist pathway, and focused on individual achievements and contributions. Should the team become a better unit of evaluation? (Also, why is taxonomic work not more collaborative and how can it be transformed to become so?).
To echo what Chris said, finding students with an interest in taxonomy is very difficult, especially for more "cryptic" group of organisms. Bringing back systematics and taxonomy (and other more organism-based disciplines) to university curricula is a necessity if we want to recruit and train the next generation of taxonomists. If universities can't offer these courses because of the lack of expertise in taxonomy among their staff, could experts working in collection institutions be subcontracted for that? Could we create a national network of expertise and offer our own courses in taxonomy? Maybe first general lectures delivered online (topical!) followed by hands-on training with an expert in one of the many Australian institutions that have taxonomic expertise?
This is interesting to me. We know that taxonomists are having their time eroded by administration and student teaching workloads, hindering their ability to actually work on taxonomy. I was one of those student distractions but have been unable to get work in the field. There may well be an already taxonomically-minded workforce out here who, like myself, might only be able to describe themselves as 'skilled citizen-scientists'. It would be nice to be able to contribute in a meaningful way, but of course we are also hindered by having to work regular jobs to pay the bills.
A range of taxonomic expertise is now endangered and becoming extinct. It would be beneficial to have programs in place where the new generations of taxonomists can learn from experts before this knowledge is lost. Can this be done through better networking or having a range of grants that allow post-grad students to work and learn from experts for short periods?
I'm interested in the untapped potential of taxonomic skills to be transferable between taxonomic groups. Generally, we think of a skilled taxonomist as being an expert in her chosen group, whether it is a family or two of flowering plants or insects etc. Historically this makes sense as the accessibility of information was more limited it was very helpful to be able to recall a significant amount of information on your specialist group. There is a modern trend away from narrow specialization (in many fields, not just the biological sciences) but I'm wondering how far we can take that idea. If I run out of flowering plants to describe one day can I switch to corals or even something with legs? Is my training as a PhD student preparing me for a transition like this? Do we want a versatile taxonomic workforce that can work across the breadth of the diversity of life?
The ability to collect in remote areas requires some bush skills which are usually not taught but rather acquired. I have been taking other researchers PhD students out into the desert so they are safe and so they can learn some of the skills needed. A network of such people need to be encouraged, maybe through 4WD Clubs, so that students and early stage researchers can learn skills before they adventure forth on their own.
I think we need specialist teams that work together: taxonomist, imaging specialist, bioinformatician/programmer and molecular tech/analyst. Rather than one person who has to do it all, which makes it slow. But how to fund this?
Taxonomic knowledge takes a long time to develop and we need to improve the transfer of this knowledge to upskill the workforce more quickly. A lot of knowledge is in the heads of experienced taxonomists, they just know what is what and why it is. But I've found when I start to curate a new family in the herbarium I need to look through specimens and compile all the literature to start to understand what makes them different/unique. I have been using OneNote to keep it all together and try and make sense of the taxa. I'm sure many before me have already done this type of thing (possibly on sticky notes and scrap paper). If there was a way to sharing this non-published note type taxonomic data I think that would increase our knowledge transfer efficiency. This may also fit under the informatics group too.
More post-docs in taxonomy/systematics are needed. But if these eventuate, these are temporary work stints. Institutions and departments (Quarantine, Biosecurity, Natural Heritage, Primary Industries) use the end products of taxonomic research for identification, and may employ taxonomists. However they often do not allow them to do much or any taxonomic research. These institutions could be encouraged to allow staff with taxonomic training to take unpaid leave from their jobs and do stints of paid taxonomic research as these become available. Could even be a win-win outcome?
I think that Elizabeth Sheedy touches on an important possible source of future taxonomists – people with a deep interest and knowledge of a group of organisms who may not need, want or be able to have a full-time professional career. Not all future taxonomists need come through the degree, honours, PhD pathway, but they must all have a deep interest in their study group. Such people are often highly motivated and have a strong understanding of the biology and ecology of their groups. So why not invest in the skills and knowledge that these people have already acquired? Biology is full of people who have contributed substantially to their field of study but who’s background or original training was not directly related to their taxonomic work. Using the sort of short course training referred to by Chris Cargill, many knowledgeable non-professionals could have their skills improved quickly, enabling them to better contribute to high quality taxonomic work. With a little encouragement, the ranks of museum volunteers and field naturalists might contain some of our future taxonomists.
Key question- how do we RETAIN our trained people? Currently ECRs and MCRs are trained but then need to leave due to no jobs or funding. Or they have to switch groups to get a grant, which means the slow process of learning the group starts all over again=decreased productivity. How do we fix this?
As a bryologist, the skills required to collect, identify, understanding their morphology and anatomy, ecology, taxonomy and systematics of bryophytes is definitely not being taught or passed on in universities or other institutions such as herbaria in Australia. I would also extend that to any of the other cryptogamic groups such as fungi, lichens, algae, slime moulds, etc.
Short courses (10 weeks or so) could be run by experts. Or interested students could be could be paired with experts for a training period on a special short term grant.
Pairing up of older experienced researchers with early career researchers with molecular or other new technical skills to form teams to increase the pace of documentation of biodiversity in these groups.
More (or better) ideas? Add them here.