There's a great article on the Science website that brings up the issue of taxonomy. Taxonomy is the science dealing with the description, identification, naming and classification of organisms. Due to declining funding and a lack of professional practitioners, the article proposes that amateur taxonomists could make significant contributions to understanding the Earth's biodiversity.

The article highlight's the Science Museum's own "professional-amateur" entomologist Ron Huber. Ron's been volunteering his time at the museum since September 1964 and has written a number of scientific publications based on his research on the museum's collection.

Ron Huber
Ron HuberCourtesy Rebecca Newberry, SMM

With 1.4 million animal species scientifically described and with an untold number still to be discovered and described the role of taxonomy is more critical than ever. But there definitely is debate as to whether amateurs are the solution to the problems facing taxonomy. What do you think?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

mdr's picture
mdr says:

I think it's a wonderful opportunity for people who love science to get involved. Throughout the ages, the work done by amateur scientists has been extremely important and often the catalyst for just about every scientific field of study. By the way, two volunteers in the SMM's paleontology department, Neva Key and Becky Huset, were involved in the recent Open Dinosaur Project an analysis of data about ornithischian dinosaurs gathered by a number of amateurs and professionals alike, and overseen by paleontologists Mike Taylor, Andy Farke, and Matt Wedel. Taylor also wrote an interesting tutorial titled, How to Become a Paleontologist. It's simple! You don't need a Ph.D or even an academic affiliation, you just publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. That's the important part - any work done by amateurs must be able to pass review. The Science post mentions this too. Without peer review you could be opening a can of Lumbricus terrestris.

posted on Mon, 04/04/2011 - 10:32am
Niall's picture
Niall says:

In principle, it sounds like a great idea, but natural history has come a long way since the Royal Society published its Directions for Seamen Bound on Far Voyages.

I am less sure about the practicalities. Many of the early naturalists could send back specimens from a region they were exploring and be pretty confident they had a new species. Today, I am more worried about the damage potentially done by destructive sampling carried out by non-experts.

Let's say I go travelling to Panama, or Peru, or Papua New Guinea, and I know that the forests are teeming with wildlife, a good bit of which is probably uncatalogued. It's easy enough to sling a white sheet over a lamp and photograph what comes to it, but for the amateur it is much harder to know what has already been identified and catalogued and, while a good photograph will go a long way it is certainly not going to be sufficient for publication.

For this to work, it needs affordable courses in the skills required for the field work, and I don't see that happening in the imminent future (but if there is one available in Scotland, I will take it!).

posted on Sun, 09/18/2011 - 10:48am

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