The GrantDoctor: Taxonomy of a Training Program


Dear Readers,

Taxonomy, one of the oldest branches of biology, has a certain gray nobility about it, but in the era of genomics, proteomics, metalomics (yes, there really is such a thing, apparently), and other 'omics, few would call the old field sexy. Taxonomists, after all, rarely start science-based megaconglomerates, make angel investments in promising biotech start-ups, or win headlines and seven- and eight-figure grants from federal funding agencies. Indeed, by reputation taxonomists don't draw attention to themselves; they are quiet, retiring types, happy for a little quality time with an old-fashioned microscope and their organism of choice.

Speaking of retiring, taxonomists, reportedly, have been doing it for years, in sufficient numbers to attract the attention of policymaking bodies such as the National Science Board (NSB). This is hardly news; NSB's report on the taxonomy crisis was issued in 1989.

It seems that retiring taxonomists have been replaced, generally, not by new taxonomists but by molecular biologists and other, more fashionable specialists, who were in better positions than taxonomists to succeed in a competitive funding environment.

Yet even as pollution, habitat loss, and fragmentation led to a dramatic reduction in biodiversity--leaving taxonomists with fewer species to count and classify--the work of taxonomists became more urgent, and for the very same reasons. The rapid and accelerating loss of biological diversity puts a high priority on identifying, classifying, and cataloging species before they disappear. That 1989 NSB report noted the urgency of this task and the lack of taxonomic person-power, and a few years later their suggestions were taken up when the National Science Foundation (NSF) put a program in place to address NSB's taxonomy of concerns.

Why, you may ask, is the GrantDoctor expending so many words on an old funding program and an older NSB report? Because just this month NSF announced the latest in a series of competitions--the sixth overall--called Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET), which, like five similar competitions that preceded it, is intended to stimulate research and (especially) training in taxonomy.

More taxonomists are needed, argued NSF in its first solicitation and continues to argue in the latest, to study and catalog as-yet-unidentified species, especially large, poorly cataloged groups such as prokaryotes, protists, fungi, and most invertebrates. Recognizing that the need is international, the PEET program cleverly used the research-grant mechanism rather than a training mechanism to fund the program, so that training opportunities would not be limited to U.S. citizens. The first PEET competition took place in 1995.

Two years ago, Jeannine H. Cody and current PEET program officer James E. Rodman published a paper in the journal Systematic Biology presenting NSF's assessment of the successes and failures of the program's first funding year, 1995. They note mostly successes.

Cody and Rodman's assessment is incomplete, as should be expected and as they would readily admit. Yet it is useful, providing a partial answer to one of the key questions of any scientific training program: Of the science trainees funded by the awards, how many went on to successful careers as taxonomists? How many found permanent, rewarding jobs?

The 21 PEET awards made in 1995 provided at least partial support for 238 scientists over their 5 years, and in some cases, up to two renewal years. This total included 24 postdoctoral researchers, 56 doctoral students, 38 students who went on to get master's degrees, 119 undergraduates, and one high school student.

From this pool of 238 trainees with some financial connection to the 1995 PEET grants, some 36, at a minimum, had found good full-time jobs in taxonomy--at public and private universities, botanical gardens, government laboratories, museums, and, in one case, in private industry. These aren't just soft-money, dead-end postdocs: As Rodman put it in a recent e-mail correspondence, these are people who "secured staff/faculty positions in a job with taxonomy as part of their duties, whether U.S. or foreign, but excluding those who simply continued into a postdoctoral position." (Rodman notes that he "couldn't always tell for sure" whether the overseas positions were "soft-money quasi-postdocs," but mostly these are good, permanent jobs doing the kind of science these people were trained for.) Three of these 36 now have tenure.

NSF must consider this program to be a great success, at least for the first cohort. NSF's goal with the PEET awards was to train at least two taxonomists with each award it made. As of 2003, 21 awards had yielded 36 taxonomists, who otherwise might not have entered the field (or stayed in it), yet who are now well employed doing important work. By now there may be more than 36 from that cohort with good taxonomy jobs. By this measure PEET's first competition fared very well.

Yet there's another measure--one that's harder to make--that, from a science trainee's perspective, is at least as compelling, and unfortunately NSF doesn't seem to be seeking an answer. Out of 238 science trainees funded by the 1995 awards, 36 have found good jobs, but what about the others? Many of those 238 scientists no doubt had only casual encounters with PEET and a fleeting interest in taxonomy. Yet 56 earned Ph.D.s and 24 did postdocs. That's a total of 80 advanced degrees. How many from that 1995 cohort have so far failed to find satisfying, long-term employment, despite making a serious attempt? How many from more recent cohorts? "As for long-term tracking," writes Rodman, via e-mail, "that is hard to do, and I don't think NSF overall is tracking, in any detail, the fates of people supported off grants, beyond the final report."

The years since 1995 have seen four more PEET competitions, and the fifth was just announced. Yet there haven't yet been any systematic studies of the post-1995 cohorts. Is there still a shortage of taxonomists? How many new taxonomy positions become available in a given year? Has the demand been met? Are "graduates" of the PEET program still finding good jobs in the same proportion? As far as I've been able to determine, no one knows the answer to these questions, and no one is really trying to find out. PEET continues to churn out new taxonomists without knowing whether they are still finding good work.

It's not my intention to single out PEET for criticism; it seems, in almost every respect, a model training program. This kind of outcome assessment is hard and expensive. It takes a long time for science trainees to work their way through the system and into permanent jobs, making short-term outcome measurements virtually meaningless. Furthermore, these criticisms could be aimed at most training programs, at almost any scientific agency, in most countries.

Yet students considering a career in taxonomy need to know how many taxonomists are finding gainful employment. The decision to invest money in training new ones carries with it, I believe, an obligation to do right by the young people the program will train. Next Wave writers have often noted that advanced-degreed scientists are well qualified for many different kinds of work; yet a Ph.D. in taxonomy is a preposterously inefficient way of training, say, a future investment banker.

Policymakers, too, would benefit from this kind of information. Tax dollars would be spent more wisely, and our most precious asset--the minds of our best and brightest--would be allocated with far greater efficiency. It's the right thing to do, not just for young scientists but for science. Here's hoping that NSF takes the time to acquire better data before they issue a seventh solicitation in 2006.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

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