'Absurdly small': Taxonomy funds shrivel amid rising threats and discoveries

28 January 2018

Fewer people are doing taxonomy as their core business now, and a large proportion of fieldwork is unfunded, and carried out by unpaid/honorary researchers.

Peter Hannam | The Sydney Morning Herald

Claire Rowe sees herself as one of the lucky science graduates among her cohort as she gets to research the upside-down jellyfish now spreading along Australia's east coast.

Visitors to coastal lakes such as Lake Wallis and Lake Illawarra might share in her good fortune too if her work at the Australian Museum improves understanding of the Cassiopea jellyfish and how they might be controlled.​

The jellyfish, which hails from more tropical climes such as Taiwan, attach themselves to the seabed. Swimming over them, especially with flippers, can trigger the release of invisible stinging cells. These can cause extreme itchiness, and stepping on them can sting too.

"I've wanted to be a marine biologist since I first snorkelled at age six," said Ms Rowe, now 23, as she wound her way through the museum's warren of storage rooms that hold 18.4 million natural history specimens alone.

"A lot of my friends that I graduated with are struggling to find science jobs without pursuing postgrad studies, so I am very lucky to have my position at the museum."

While the jobs refrain might be a common one among newly minted scientists, it seems particularly true of specialists in taxonomy. That's the field of classification, or as Cameron Slayter, manager of the museum's Life Sciences, puts it, "the science of species discovery".

Mr Slayter, formerly director of the little-known Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS), sees a marked shift towards short-term, industry-linked funding.

That's a trend at odds with many other nations, and particularly difficult for a science requiring close study of a single taxa and so, is unsuited to switching fields, he said.

'Awesomely committed'

The latest study – released without fanfare late last year by the Turnbull government – found numbers of taxonomists in Australia have remained in the few hundreds since the 1970s even as the population doubled.

Significantly, more than a quarter of the taxonomic workforce in 2016 "identified as being retired/honorary/volunteer positions", compared with 19 per cent in 1975, the report said.


Mr Slayter said the museum had several senior fellows retire in the past year or so - but only nominally.

"They are just awesomely committed," he said. "They come to work five days a week, and when they retire, they still come to work five days a week."

Not only are fewer people "doing taxonomy as their core business now than in previous years", the report also found a large proportion of fieldwork was also "unfunded, and carried out by unpaid/honorary researchers".

Mr Slayter said federal funding of about $2.5 million a year to support taxonomy was "absurdly small" and basically unchanged "since the ABRS was set up by Gough Whitlam".

'Active' support

Josh Frydenberg, the federal environment and energy minister, said Australia was "recognised internationally as a leader in taxonomy", with the government providing more than $2 million annually to researchers through the National Taxonomy Research Grant Programme.​

"This grant programme has a strong focus on supporting early career researchers, in an active attempt to renew the workforce," he said.

However, Adam Bandt, the Greens science spokesperson, said science and research were "under attack in this country".

"Instead of relying on the unpaid work of taxonomists, we should be providing the sector with the funding it needs to conduct vital research on the natural world," Mr Bandt said.

"Taxonomists are overworked and underpaid, and it's not going to be solved by a government which thinks so little of science that it's not represented in the ministry," he said, referring to the dropping of a minister for science by the Turnbull government.


Mr Slayter said taxonomy helped foster a greater understanding of the remarkable biodiversity around us, such as the discovery of a new pygmy seahorse 18 months ago in Sydney Harbour.

The vertebrate had previously gone undescribed despite being a "stunning little thing, a kind of bright coral red", he said

"We're still finding new species all over Australia ... at a staggering rate," Mr Slayter said, adding only about one-third of the estimated 570,000 species in Australia had been described.

In fish alone, there are 5000 species identified in Australia, a number rising at the rate of "two a fortnight", he said.

Despite miserly funding, taxonomy was also "the front-line defence" against new pests, diseases and weeds – including jellyfish.

Mr Slayter cited the example of the discovery of a wheat rust in a shipment to Pakistan that threatened to cripple the sector - until Australia's sole rust expert was able to show the fungal disease was an Australian strain and not an internationally targeted one.

"We need to understand what's around us in order that we can actually continue to subsist on the planet," he said, adding that most things contributed to air, soil and water quality.

"If we don't understand that, we don't have a very bright future," Mr Slayter said. "Climate change is the obvious manifestation of that."

Despite its importance, the number of taxonomy courses in Australia had dropped to only about five from more than 30 a couple of decades ago, he said.

Job smarts

Stephen Mahony, a budding herpetologist studying and conserving the museum's 180,000 herpetological specimens, hopes his range of skills – many of them gained from volunteer work – will keep him employed.

These include photography (see his work here) that has helped showcase a knack of finding reptiles and frogs. Also handy is an ability to combine fieldwork and genetics research - the latter playing a greater role in the field.

"Most of these skills can be directly applied to taxonomy," Mr Mahony, 24, said. "I'm confident I can carve out a career in herpetology."

For Ms Rowe, the aim is to "make a small difference in the world".

"I hope that through having a research career, whether taxonomic or some other form, I can help increase our knowledge and protect our surrounding environment, which we so heavily rely on," she said.