In this interview, one of biology's best-known taxonomists, Professor Quentin Wheeler, answers questions from Dr John Richard Schrock.

Quentin Wheeler is Vice-president and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University where he is also Director of the International Institute for Species Exploration and the Virginia M Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment in the School of Life Sciences.

Wheeler's research interests include the morphology, taxonomy and phylogeny of beetles, systematic biology theory, and the role of taxonomy in biodiversity exploration and conservation. In 2007 he created the International Institute for Species Exploration to partner with museums and botanical gardens worldwide to discover and describe Earth's estimated 10 million or more species.

Before going Arizona in July 2006, Wheeler was keeper of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London and was previously a programme officer and division director at the US National Science Foundation as well as a professor at Cornell University where he was chair of entomology and director of the L H Bailey Hortorium. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Linnean Society of London and Royal Entomological Society.

UWN: Your recent book The New Taxonomy proposes that the recent decline in support for descriptive taxonomy is due to the "New Synthesis" that has integrated taxonomy with genetics and molecular biology, and a move to experimentalism at the below-species level. Has feedback from this last year supported or eroded your view?  

Wheeler: From all I have seen and heard, I am more convinced than ever that the precipitous decline in prestige and support for taxonomy in the latter half of the 20th century can be traced to a kind of 'political correctness' that took root with the Evolutionary Synthesis in the 1940s. 

It became an accepted fact that unless you were focused on questions in biology that could be answered experimentally, you were simply not doing science. In reality, taxonomy and paleontology are deeply scientific and their theories are as or more rigorously testable than those associated with any experiment. 

As the severity of the biodiversity crisis becomes more apparent, so too will the sobering consequences of our neglect of taxonomy over the past half century. To state it bluntly, we need to explore the species of our planet before we are armed with the basic information required to intelligently adapt to environmental changes. 

Stated another way, how are we to conserve or sustain species that we do not know to exist?  Any logical approach to the study of biodiversity begins with a thorough inventory of biodiversity. Only by discovering species can we hope to gain a deep understanding of complex ecosystems or of evolutionary history. 

Ironically, the experimental disciplines of the life sciences that have marginalised taxonomy would benefit enormously from knowledge of species and their relationships - knowledge that can only be arrived at by supporting the mission and goals of taxonomy.
UWN: You are enthusiastic about the potential of the internet and new cyber infrastructures to transform science, and especially systematics. Do you see any downsides in implementation?

Wheeler: In the immediate future, I share the concerns of many in the taxonomy community about the permanency of electronic publications. Unlike many fields of science where one can ignore work more than a few years old, the international rules that add stability to the application of scientific names for plants and animals mandate that we access all relevant publications since the middle 18th century. New species described today must be accessible to the scientific community 200 years from now. 

Considering recent examples of sudden swings in support for certain fields, it is not difficult to imagine a future time when no one is willing to fund the conversion of terabytes of taxonomic knowledge into whatever the next electronic data storage medium is. Given appropriate international and governmental level commitments to preservation of electronic taxonomic publications, this will become less and less of an issue. In the meanwhile, having at least a handful of archived printed versions of descriptions will let taxonomists sleep better at night. 

I am also concerned that the incredible power of cyber infrastructure could inadvertently drive the field rather than the core priorities of the science. We have seen waves of new technology in the past overshadow science, whether protein electrophoresis in the 1970s or so-called DNA barcoding today. 

There is a danger that cyber tools could undermine the theoretical strengths of the field and run away with superficial, highly automated alternatives to the rich scholarship associated with species discovery and description. These tools, however, properly married with the theories and goals of taxonomy, have the potential to accelerate the rate of species discovery by orders of magnitude just in time to arm society with knowledge of species as the biodiversity crisis heightens. 

Cybertaxonomy is, however, inevitable. I predict that it will lead to a renaissance in the science of taxonomy and have enormous impacts in the decades ahead. Beyond advancing the science per se, this cyber infrastructure will have unprecedented impacts on the democratisation of biodiversity science. 

Type specimens will be virtually repatriated to scientists in developing nations and citizen scientists as well as students at small, rural institutions will have access to specimens, data, historical literature, and other research resources that were in the past open only to scientists at a few large and well-funded institutes.

UWN: So many undescribed species; so little time! For many groups, the last authority in the field is about to be lost without replacement. There is an efficiency that comes from studying directly under the authority that can be lost when you have to figure out things on your own via abstract print and media.

You document that the funding has narrowed systematics to those projects that involve molecular techniques, and with this has been a major reduction in classical taxonomy. Do you believe that electronic communications can substitute for the expert-apprentice relationships that are being lost? And how can we 'ramp up' a new generation of employable taxonomists when we are at a low starting point? 

Wheeler: Taxonomic research has always suffered from fragmentation of resources. In order to study the species of a group it was necessary in the past to borrow thousands of specimens and visit dozens of museums in as many countries. Collaboration was difficult with experts on one group of organisms few and scattered around the world, communicating infrequently and inefficiently by the occasional letter or telephone call.

It will be possible in the near future to build cyber-enabled research teams that will bring together the world's expertise on particular groups of species in order to make rapid progress in our knowledge. This will require a major shift in how we work and a departure from the single scholar model of the past. 

Video conferencing linked with real time access to specimens, data, instrumentation, and software for imaging and describing species will allow such international teams of scientists and students to work together to vastly speed the discovery of species. A student in Ecuador who falls in love with an obscure group of plants or insects will be able to 'apprentice' with the world's leading authority in France by joining such an online knowledge community. 

It is worth noting that the National Science Foundation's Planetary Biodiversity Inventories are a primitive version of this exciting future. Working with the technology of the past, international teams focused their attention like a laser beam on species of one group and were able to describe or re-describe several thousand species in just five years. Were these teams armed with digital access to type and rare specimens, 250 years of literature, data, instruments, and each other, they could handle 10 times as many species.

UWN: Where do you see the 'PhyloCode' movement to set aside Linnaean ranks going at this point in history? 

Wheeler: I am on record as being strongly opposed to the PhyloCode. The Linnaean Code that has been in use for more than two hundred years has proven itself time and again capable of providing voice to our evolving ideas about biodiversity. The Linnaean Code is not perfect and much work is needed to both improve its rules and practice but it remains fundamentally sound. 

The genius of Linnaeus was in the simplicity and flexibility of his system. There is no reason to suspect that it will not continue to adapt to the needs of modern biology. Rather than tinker with a system that works rather well, we should be paying attention to related bottlenecks that slow down the growth of knowledge of species. 

Let me mention two examples. First, as we have already discussed, we need to move to an electronic form of producing knowledge. By making monographs electronic, it will be possible for users in the future to request 'designer' publications that draw from the data included in a monograph to produce, on demand, field guides, check lists, and other 'publications' of value to user communities. 

Second, the community should get behind the proposed ZooBank which will be a registry of species. Today, it takes years to ferret out all the newly described species in any given year because they appear in thousands of journals around the world, many obscure. ZooBank does not impose censorship, simply letting the world know that your species description exists. 

I believe that ZooBank and a botanical equivalent should be made immediately mandatory and that species' descriptions should be electronically deposited along with associated images, distribution data, etc. Journals could retain copyright to the synthetic and interpretive aspects of publications, sharing species descriptions openly in the interest of science and society.

UWN: From your experience across several continents, do you see the state of taxonomy being better in Asia, Europe or other places?

Wheeler: There are thousands of dedicated scientists, students, and amateurs around the globe working with little support or recognition to continue the centuries-old unbroken chain of scholarship in taxonomy. Because of the rules of nomenclature, taxonomists have a connection with those who came before them not seen in other areas of science. 

It is difficult to overstate the humbling experience of reading a species description from the 18th century while holding the actual specimen that the original author held when he wrote the words. Taxon experts are keenly aware of their responsibility and place in history, receiving the accumulated knowledge of a group of species and passing it on to future generations expanded and improved.  

Regrettably, the trend for diminishing funds and jobs for taxon specialists is evident worldwide, although best documented in the United Kingdom and United States. The time has clearly arrived for a renaissance in taxonomy and in natural history museums, both of which have a uniquely important role to play in science and society. We are going to face many environmental challenges in the 21st century. Our success in doing so will be infinitely enhanced by knowledge of what species exist and where.

UWN: Since release of The New Taxonomy, there has been a global economic crisis and increased economic demands in health care and green energy. Do you still hold optimism for funding a new age in systematics and e-taxonomy?

Wheeler: Yes, I remain very optimistic. Human welfare and the sustainability of ecological services are ultimately dependent upon science exploring and understanding biodiversity.  Trillions of dollars of the global economy rest upon agriculture and the use of biological resources and that enormous commerce is based on knowledge of perhaps as little as 10% of species. 

Given full knowledge of biodiversity would open countless economic and problem-solving opportunities, and would certainly prove beneficial to our green aspirations. Once elements of a taxonomic cyber infrastructure are set in place, the world will quickly see the benefits of accessing knowledge of species. 

From agriculture to conservation biology and ecosystem science, we have made do with fractional knowledge of species because we had to, because even accessing what was known was so inefficient given the nature of natural history collections and their data. The cyber revolution will fundamentally change how we think about and access natural history museums and knowledge of species. Its impacts will be as profound on teachers, school children, and the public as on the scientific community.  

Only by making species known and accessible to people can we expect them to appreciate and protect them. It is no accident that President Theodore Roosevelt was both an avid outdoorsman and the driving force behind our great national parks.