The Taxonomic Impediment and the Convention on Biodiversity

[Editor’s Note: The following is a White Paper written by ASC Executive Director K. Elaine Hoagland in response to a public call for a solution to the lack of adequate taxonomic resources for country-studies and other work mandated by the Convention on Biodiversity. At its last meeting (Fall, 1995), the Conference of the Parties to the Convention called upon the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) to propose solutions to the taxonomic impediment. ASC responded with this White Paper, which has been sent to SBSTTA and the Convention’s Secretariat. ASC invites comments and hopes that this paper is the beginning of a dialogue both within the systematics collections community and between it, policymakers, and users of biodiversity information.]

K. Elaine Hoagland, Executive Director Association of Systematics Collections

Table of Contents


The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (COP) has requested a report from the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) on ways to overcome the shortage of taxonomists available to inventory and characterize the world’s biodiversity. This shortage has been recognized not only by the COP, but has been documented in many reports around the world (House of Lords Report, UK, 1991; Systematics Agenda 2000, 1994). It was called the Taxonomic Impediment by IUBS/Diversitas, because lack of taxonomic expertise prevents other biodiversity research from going forward. The problem continues to worsen, despite innumerable calls for action issuing from countless meetings on the subject over the past 20 years. The Association of Systematics Collections (ASC) offers SBSTTA and the COP an explanation of the taxonomic impediment and ways to resolve the problem. ASC is the North American organization representing natural history museums, herbaria, and other institutions that maintain biological collections for taxonomic research. We have been developing policy for taxonomic resources for a quarter century.

The Problem

The taxonomic impediment to progress in the study of biodiversity is linked to a worldwide shortage of taxonomists who can be called upon to identify species, describe species that are new to science, determine their taxonomic relationships, and make predictions about their properties. The shortage is expected to worsen, because the taxonomic workforce is aging, coupled with a decline in students being trained in taxonomy. To complete the picture, there is a decline in the number of paid positions that allow a person to spend time doing basic taxonomy. What is NOT lacking is an interest in taxonomy by potential taxonomists. Even the existing number of trained taxonomists are under-utilized due to insufficient commitment of funds to taxonomic study. Every major museum suffers from backlog of unstudied specimens and undescribed new species, while every curator can cite the loss of students who were interested in taxonomy, but could not get sufficient fellowship support or failed to find a paying job.

The decline in taxonomists available to study biodiversity at first appears puzzling. The decade of the 1990’s has promoted the inventory, use, and protection of biodiversity as never before. It is widely recognized that taxonomic information is a prerequisite to understanding biodiversity and maximizing its use and protection. It is also widely accepted that, outside of mammals, birds, and some plant groups, we know only a fraction of the species on earth. The groups that are the least-known are those with the most potential for discovery of products of use to humankind, and for understanding emerging diseases and agricultural pests.

What is the cause of the taxonomic impediment? In short, taxonomy is largely outside the world economy. It is taken for granted as a free good by governments, resource managers, drug and seed companies, and even by many scientists. People want taxonomy, but not enough to pay for it.

Why are Taxonomists Needed?

Taxonomists are needed to perform tasks such as to:
  1. Name and identify species. While parataxonomists and others can be trained to make “first-cut” species identifications, it is necessary to rely upon a taxonomist with worldwide expertise in a group of organisms in order to provide key elements of training, develop identification manuals, and review the taxonomic work of parataxonomists, especially to deal with species that are as-yet undescribed or are members of difficult-to-identify species complexes.
  2. Recognize exotic pests and disease organisms. Only taxonomists with broad knowledge of their taxon can recognize non-indigenous taxa, when first encountered, that may put native biota (including mankind) at risk. The taxonomist is the first line of defense against economic losses from exotic species.
  3. Improve knowledge leading to efficient use and protection of biodiversity. Taxonomists determine phylogenetic relationships among species that, combined with local knowledge and biotechnological tools, can advance the use of biodiversity by predicting the chemical and behavioral properties of species. Taxonomic information also provides insights that are used by ecologists and management authorities to understand species distributions, untangle species interactions and ecosystem structure, rank and justify conservation areas, and plan restoration efforts.

    Collections Infrastructure

    An international network of collections contains the biological specimens that document this work. The collections are visited again and again by taxonomists to unlock new information, hand in hand with ongoing explorations of the natural world. As with systematists themselves, the resources of biological collections are often taken for granted and receive little support for being the scientific infrastructure they truly are.

    Economics of Taxonomic Services

    Historically, the field of taxonomy was developed by amateurs in the best sense of the word — those who work for the love of the discipline, regardless of formal compensation, and this spirit continues to some extent into the modern day. Many taxonomists remain amateurs, or perform their taxonomic studies on their own or borrowed time, peripheral to a scientific career in a related discipline. Most taxonomists who ARE paid for their work as taxonomists are associated with governmental agencies or not-for-profit institutions (universities, museums).

    Growing out of a tradition of reciprocity and collegiality, taxonomists frequently do not charge clients directly for their specialized services and products, such as identifications and biodiversity databases, even though the users of these services and products now extend far beyond their fellow taxonomists. These service activities are often ancillary to a taxonomist’s basic monographic work, for which he or she receive grant funds, or subsidizes on his own or through his employers. The cost of doing taxonomy is not factored into most biodiversity or ecology projects. Research grants (even in taxonomy) and ecological monitoring activities rarely include funds for the curation and care of voucher specimens, or the establishment and maintenance of museums.

    The result is a classic market failure in which the cost of taxonomy is externalized. Employers are unwilling to hire persons who do not bring in financial resources. In business terms, taxonomists are a net financial drain (opportunity cost) on the organization. Students shy away from the field of systematics in favor of fields that offer more fellowships, grants, and jobs. Courses in taxonomy are therefore under-subscribed, giving universities further incentive to cut faculty positions. The few remaining taxonomists are over-worked and burdened by new tasks, including now being asked to computerize millions of specimen records going back 200 years. At many institutions, taxonomists willingly stay on beyond retirement, doing work that could go to newly-trained individuals, and positions are not filled. Although there is keen interest in taxonomy in many developing countries, there too, emphasis is on areas of science that bring direct financial reward.

    This downward spiral is compounded by worldwide government retrenchment at all levels, affecting taxonomists whose jobs are in the public sector, such as agricultural and fisheries resource agencies and national and local government-financed museums. There is a lack of diversity of private organizations that traditionally hire taxonomists, making this discipline particularly vulnerable to government cutbacks.

    The economics of taxonomy in support of biodiversity was examined by Aylward et al (1993) as part of a study of the economic viability of the biodiversity prospecting program at INBio, the institution in Costa Rica dedicated to the understanding, use, and protection of biodiversity. They concluded that INBio, while recognizing the necessity of bringing in taxonomic experts and doing a great job of promoting the importance of taxonomy, still did not fully internalize the cost of taxonomic services. Taxonomic services on the part of world experts was a voluntary contribution of knowledge on the part of the scientists, often in exchange for the privilege of access to Costa Rican specimens for taxonomic study. Aylward concluded that, if the full cost of doing taxonomy and training parataxonomists and taxonomists in Costa Rica were calculated, there would be a shift in the economics of INBio., He generalized, “Market failure in this [taxonomic] input … may lead to a reduced incentive to invest in the broader base of taxonomic knowledge itself. … Whether this unpaid social cost is interpreted as an external factor of production that does not enter the market calculus or as an implicit government subsidy (since most collection facilities are funded by public funds) is not important. The point is that carrying out such activities for free is a drain on already scarce taxonomic resources.”

    Due to the good will and sincere interest of hundreds of worldwide taxonomists, pro bono help is available to INBio and many other projects in developing countries. INBio is proceeding with plans for an exciting All-Taxon Biological Inventory (ATBI), with the deserved enthusiasm of many taxonomists worldwide. However, this one project alone strains the world’s taxonomic resources in many taxonomic groups. If taxonomists are directly compensated for their work with the Costa Rican ATBI, the ATBI will contribute to the solution of the taxonomic impediment in a way that is a visible model to the rest of the world.

    Taxonomists are highly-trained scientists with intellectual skills and investment in formal education equal to or greater than doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other highly-compensated individuals in society. Their knowledge is in demand. Their skills are scarce resources in an economic sense. By all these criteria, market forces should increase the value of taxonomists’ work, and should drive the hiring of more taxonomists. The problem is not the willingness of persons to enter taxonomy from an intellectual perspective. Why, then, is this market adjustment not occurring?


    We must change the tradition of taxonomy as an “off-the-budget” entity supported only by meager public funds to individuals in academic-style institutions. Government agencies that want these services must begin to pay for them or support them within their own staff budgets. Companies and conservation NGO’s that want taxonomic information must begin to factor the cost into their operations. Taxonomists must begin to recognize their own worth and demand payment for services. They must even be willing to provide an accounting for the value of their services to each other, while retaining a collegial reciprocity where appropriate.

    The insertion of taxonomy into the market will increase the accountability of taxonomists to their funders, be they private or public. There will be more incentive for taxonomists to work on problems that are of immediate relevance to society, and to improve performance as well. Taxonomists will be recognized in society as relevant and valuable, and biodiversity itself will be more highly valued. Currently, taxonomists receive material to identify that may sit for years, while higher priority work is done. Work on monographs may last a lifetime before work is published, because there is no one calling for delivery of an interim product. A market approach will change the dynamics of taxonomic research to the benefit of taxonomy providers and users alike.

    We are not suggesting that taxonomy be entirely privatized. Market-driven revenues can never replace long-term government funding of collections and taxonomic infrastructure. The value of taxonomic research and information resources is spread over many generations of users, and is not concentrated enough for infrastructure costs to be covered by an identifiable set of current users. Specific taxonomic services and products such as identification manuals and databases are built upon an infrastructure of collections, databases, and fundamental monographic research that will always be up to enlightened individuals and governments to support on behalf of the broader public. There is also cultural value in natural history institutions. Therefore, governments that are concerned about their biological resources need to invest in taxonomic infrastructure and human resources, much as they do in basic biomedicine and other aspects of health and safety. However, within the existing worldwide publicly-supported taxonomic research system, market forces and business plans should be used to identify and increase the value of the research and those who do it.

    In every country, there should be at least one national museum, as well as taxonomic resources distributed among agricultural, natural resource management, and other governmental divisions at national and local levels. These institutions should be staffed by taxonomists with world-wide expertise on their taxonomic group, as part of a worldwide network of taxonomic groups covering the world’s major taxa (the “Taxasphere” of D. Janzen, 1993). There should be taxonomic training centers in public and private universities, and governments should, in their role of supporting the public good, help support these institutions.

    Financial incentives and the resulting infusion of new taxonomists (especially in developing countries) will go a long way to solving the taxonomic impediment. The taxonomic impediment will NOT be solved, however, by resorting to short-cuts using local folk taxonomies that stand apart from the world taxonomic framework, by giving suspected new species a serial number and a photograph, or by using ecological groupings of species as surrogates for species delineations.

    There are those who will say that there is no new money available for taxonomy. But if the need is as great as has been said by the COP and others, modest resources can be found. In fact, various foundations are willing to spend substantial funds on conferences and workshops to discuss the problem. It is time to put the same resources into the taxonomic infrastructure.

    Biodiversity Prospecting Legislation and the Taxonomic Impediment

    There is a new impediment to taxonomic research and information, which is an unintended consequence of the Biodiversity Convention itself. Many countries are drafting legislation and regulations that seriously impinge upon the ability of taxonomists to do field work, to obtain specimens for the comparative studies that are imperative to taxonomy, and even to freely publish the results of their taxonomic studies. It is not possible to study and describe new species in one country without reference to specimens of related organisms elsewhere.

    Rather than restrict access to biological specimens for basic taxonomic research, countries should nurture their own comparative collections, where their own scientists will work and contribute to the international Taxasphere. International collaborative work sharing the world’s limited taxonomic expertise should be encouraged, so that we do not have to duplicate the same taxonomic expertise in every country. Mechanisms such as Material Transfer Agreements can be established so that commercial development can be controlled. We must recognize that foreign taxonomists working on the biodiversity of a country are making a positive contribution to the host country, and should be encouraged, rather than being charged a high tariff. It should be clearly understood that taxonomic information is worth nothing to anyone unless it is published and internationally available. The result of restrictive legislation will be to drive taxonomic resources, both foreign and domestic, out of the country, resulting in greater taxonomic impediment and loss of biodiversity information.

    Summary of Recommendations

    In order to remove the taxonomic impediment on biodiversity studies and achieve the objectives of the Biodiversity Convention, the signatories to the Convention, NGO’s, corporations, scientists, and world funding bodies might consider the following actions.
    Using existing organizational resources such as the Association of Systematics Collections, Systematics Agenda 2000, and/or ETI, taxonomists could work towards the establishment of a Taxasphere — a network of taxonomists who can be called upon to perform taxonomic research and services in support of biodiversity inventory and management worldwide. The Taxasphere could make use of various databases of taxonomic expertise that are now being developed in several countries. It could be a clearinghouse for requests for taxonomic services and opportunities for funding. It could align research priorities with funding opportunities, and identify training needs based on real jobs and funded programs. Models for the Taxasphere exist. One very good one is ABRS of Australia, which helps set priorities by focusing attention on needed taxonomic work, helping to arrange training when needed, and funding research and publications on a modest scale. Another model is more international although taxonomically narrow: having recognized a problem in the disappearance of frogs and other amphibians, an international group of herpetologists established a clearinghouse for information and opportunities to research that problem. Foundation support has lead to funding of pilot studies and communications among researchers. The Taxasphere would be a larger project, but is conceptually similar. It would be internet-based and minimally bureaucratic.

    Taxonomic Institutions:
    Institutions housing systematics resources should develop business plans that bring taxonomic services into the market, and explicitly show how taxonomic infrastructure is supported, as appropriate to the mission and needs of the institution and its clients and funders, including those representing the long-term public interest. Institutional leaders should review internal budgeting and public relations procedures to demonstrate the value that is produced by taxonomic research and resources both within the institution and via collegial exchange of services and information. They should help the staff develop a new outlook on their own value and potential as the economic paradigm shifts to one of taxonomy (including basic research) as a valued commodity. Grant applications, collaborative research projects, and contracts should include direct or reciprocal compensation for measurable taxonomic services such as identifications and curation of voucher specimens. Institutions should educate trustees, donors, government sponsors, and taxpayers that the “public good” of taxonomic services is spread widely across society and hence justifies core funding of research infrastructure and basic research as a social benefit.

    Convention on Biodiversity Stakeholders:
    Countries serious about biodiversity inventory and conservation will want to include taxonomic research, collections and databases as part of the infrastructure of biodiversity programs, as Costa Rica and Indonesia have done. Countries might wish to establish and nurture their own national-scope natural history museums as physical nodes for biodiversity studies. These may be governmental museums, NGO’s (a la INBio or the US’s American Museum), or university-based. Countries writing biodiversity prospecting laws and regulations would best keep an eye towards simple mechanisms to promote taxonomic research and infrastructure, such as reciprocity arrangements that encourage foreign taxonomists to help build collections and taxonomic skills within the country as part of collaborative research. Taxonomists should be consulted in writing such laws.

    International funding sources should encourage, grant applications that contain requests for funds to cover taxonomic services. Projects that demand such services but do not contain a mechanism to pay for them should be suspect, and should be returned for clarification and possible adjustment of the budget to internalize taxonomic costs. Biodiversity prospecting arrangements, in addition to supporting indigenous peoples and conservation goals, should be written to cover any hidden cost of taxonomic services, whether in-country or as part of the Taxasphere.

    Conservation NGO’s that use taxonomic data and resources can develop collaborations, contractual relationships, or other mechanisms to insure that they are not inadvertently contributing to the taxonomic impediment by causing an uncompensated drain on taxonomic resources. They can help taxonomists and taxonomic institutions explain their worth to society and funders by speaking on their behalf when appropriate, and avoid direct competition that may lead to the extinction of taxonomic resources. (In other words, there should be niche separation between conservation NGO’s and taxonomic resource institutions.)

    International environmental and legal services NGO’s that work in support of environmental law in developing countries should be aware of issues affecting taxonomists when working on biodiversity prospecting legislation and related issues. Taxonomists from developing countries are available to consult on such legislation. Such consultation will avoid unintended consequences that could discourage international cooperation in taxonomic research benefiting the developing country.

    Corporations such as seed companies and drug firms are beginning to publicly recognize the tremendous debt they owe to taxonomists (as well as indigenous people and farmers). They now must recognize their responsibility to pay their fair share of development costs, including taxonomic services and infrastructure.

    Corporations that ask not-for-profit natural history institutions to serve as middlemen (e.g., collectors) in biodiversity prospecting arrangements, and the institutions themselves who take on such responsibilities, should recognize the complications that such arrangements may cause for taxonomists whose work is not linked to industry. Clear lines of responsibility for compensation to the host country and the museum should be established at the outset.


    Aylward, et al., 1993. The Economic Value of Species Information and its Role in Biodiversity Conservation: Case Studies of Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute and Pharmaceutical Prospecting. A Report to the Swedish International Development Authority. London Environmental Economics Centre. 76 pp.

    House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, 1991. Systematic Biology Research. Session 1990-91. Written Evidence. London. 220 pp.

    Janzen, D., 1993. Taxonomy: Universal and Essential Infrastructure for Development and Management of Tropical Wildland Biodiversity. Proc. Norway UNEP Expert Conference on Biodiversity, Trondheim. O.T. Sandlund and P. J. Schei, eds. pp. 100-113.

    Systematics Agenda 2000, 1994. Systematics Agenda 2000: Charting the Biosphere. Technical Report. NY, American Museum of Natural History. 34 pp.