Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Taxonomy in Europe in the 21st century
Report to the Board of Directors
European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy

Here is what the future of taxonomy ought to be. In my humble view, it is written by people who have little insight into the day to day work of taxonomy, or at least their view is dominant. It is also written without taking into consideration the costs: DNA sequencing is becoming cheaper. Yes, it does in the medical sector which might have some impact into our world. But to have a lab that can produce sequence data for just anything, the costs will be exorbitant.

Imagine, we dream we have a MRI and genetic tools to measure every patient, that sounds great. But if there is not doctor who tells you, that you are sick of a particular kind, then this would kill the health service, because everybody would have to go through the system. Similarly, if there is no screeing in the field by experts, you fist would most likely not find your taxa you want to look for, and secondly, you can not go back to it, because you have only a gene sequence.

I wonder, whether the initiation costs to build the underlying sytem is not too high. Initiation costs is the digitization of our legacy data. You could also question the increased overhead needed to produce new data.

I also do not see a convincing case why we need taxonomy. The way I read this report is that it is assumed that taxonomy does something important. There is no scientific driver behind which would want the politicians to support taxonomy, and which would help in many cases to decide where and how money should be spent. We are again saying we do all - and that's not going to work.

The other day I "had" to accompany my son to the chocolate company "Camille-Bloch". All they do is to produce some chocolate bars. It takes close to 200 people and an amazing extremely complex array of machinery, people to produce just a single chocolate bar. In a way I was stunned to see how much it takes to produce something trivial.
But isn't what we do similar? Camille-Bloch didn't start with this complexity, but evolved, which is easily seen in some of their old machinery standing next to high-tech robots; nobody would have the investment capital to build a factory at once, but it only worked because they never lost sight of their product (ie always sold enough) and invested enough to keep up with development.

A similar case might be Amazon.com, which didn't start the couple of years ago as big and complex it is now, but grew by adding every more complexity - a complexity that is a response to their customers requirments.

I slowly think, we lost our customers, because we did not deliver. Now that we have suddenly a huge competitor for funds - the rapidly growing demand for eco-ethanol and raising food prizes - I think we lost one of our dream customer: the governments fighting biodiversity loss.

This report is a short read, and in my view it reflects exactly the problem all these top down operations like BHL and EOL face: they do not know the underlying costs of what they want to do, and thus increasingly have to become more modest and with that not that new and exciting as promised.


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