Blog 3: The Taxonomist’s Tales
Not every second of the work day is spent at work; indeed there are often stretches of time where there is nothing to do except talk. Whether during lunchtime, or as you leave work, or even while preparing specimens, there is actually a lot of downtime while working in scientific work. During these times, I tend to speak to Dr. H, not just about taxonomy or other areas of biology, but also about his life, his career, and how the Smithsonian was when he started his tenure as curator there, all the way back in the Reagan administration.
Perhaps the most striking part of any tale told by Dr. H, or any scientist of a certain age, is the difference in funding and job prospects for scientists up until a generation ago. Take the department of invertebrate zoology at the Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution. When Dr. H began to work at the museum back in 1984 there were over twenty curators, with nearly twice as many technicians, and there was nearly no shortage of funding for research. Comparing that situation to today is like an ancient Greek comparing 5th century Athens with the mythical golden age. Today there are seven curators in the department of invertebrate zoology, and this in one of the largest and best funded museums of natural history on earth. There are even fewer technicians, meaning that the few technicians are perpetually overstretched, meaning that research is always occurring more slowly than it ought to. Curators then spent their time actually doing research, instead of spending nearly every hour in the office writing notes trying to convince various funding agencies to give them the money to actually do their job. And all this dismal situation is for those scientists lucky enough to actually find a job doing research. Despite the jeers of every scientist student at Oxford to their humanities friends that they are doing something useful that will get them employed, the truth is far less rosy than common myth. While once anyone with a science PhD could reasonably expect a steady job in academia, nowadays getting a doctorate in biology, or nearly any other science for that matter, is about as wise a decision from a purely practical perspective as it would be to enter history or English literature.
But it isn’t just in terms of funding and staffing that Dr. H’s reminisces of the old museum make a young student yearn for the past; it is also in how collecting specimens used to work. Before the Nagoya protocols, any scientist who was interested in any group on Earth just went to wherever that group happened to be located, collected it, and brought it back to wherever they did their research. It was that simple. A modern biologist is never so lucky—even under ideal conditions they need a small army of lawyers to ensure that the proper forms are authorized from the right people, and failure to dot the i on even the smallest and most anodyne paper can lead to sacking, professional embarrassment, or even prison. And that is in those countries that even allow you to collect specimens—some of the most biodiverse countries on earth, such as Mexico and Brazil, have all but closed themselves off from foreign scientists, making it impossible for any collecting (and therefore any taxonomic, as well as much ecological and biogeographic) work to be done in those countries. This is of the place to argue about the benefits and costs of such laws and treaties; but regardless of whatever merits these laws might have in preventing poaching, they still make a younger scientist yearn for the days of the youth of oldies like Dr. H.
The most rewarding part of speaking to Dr. H is not to listen in rapt jealousy to days of little paperwork, proper funding, and many jobs. Instead, it is to listen him speak about science at its best, when the fundamentally internationalist nature of the scientific enterprise forced otherwise hostile nations to collaborate. In Dr. H’s case, it is to hear him speak about his collaboration with Soviet malacologists during the height of the Cold War. Throughout the 1980s, even as Ronald Reagan demonized the Soviet Union and destroyed the entente which had been built up during the 1970s, Dr. H, alongside several other American and European malacologists, did repeated trips to the Soviet Union in order to further human knowledge. This collaboration reached full fruit in the foundation of Ruthenica, a malacological journal published and edited jointly by American and Soviet (later Russian) malacologists, written in both languages. In this, science proved itself to be above the global battle of domination, and showed that even in such conditions the universal scientific quest trumped the politician’s attempt to divide humanity.