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Just like the organisms taxonomists study, the discipline of systematics and biology as a whole was evolving. By the 1980s, the field of systematics, like many other fields, became entranced by the promise of DNA analysis and its ability to decipher genetic codes, enabling taxonomists to look past an animal's skin and into its cells. Walter Judd, a University of Florida botanist, had a front row seat for this evolution in taxonomy. "When the excitement of molecular analyses hit, people started spending a lot of time in the lab," and less in the field, he says. As younger botanists sought to validate molecular analyses as taxonomic tools, they necessarily focused their study on more well-studied plant species, such as Arabidopsis, rather than seeking out undiscovered taxa in the field, according to Judd.
The PEET program doled out its first round of grants in 1995 in the face of a rapid decline of experts in the field. An NSF survey conducted in the mid-1990s found only 940 systematic biologists working at doctorate-granting institutions, and one quarter of those were only adjunct faculty members. More than 80% of the institutions that responded to the NSF survey said that they would not hire systematists in the future if new positions opened up.2 "There was a strong perception in the scientific community that many of the folks that were doing taxonomics and systematics were getting old and retiring and weren't being replaced by their institutions," according to Scott Snyder, a PEET program officer at NSF. Since its inception, PEET, a biennial program that awards 5-year grants of $750,000 to successful applicants, has helped train hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in taxonomic science. However, there are indications that the dwindling of taxonomy has reached a point of no return, and even this influx of funding may not be enough to reverse the trend.
Ironically, the demise of taxonomy and systematics might be attributable to its most fervent champions. "I think in the past there's been a tradition in classical taxonomy that it's OK to isolate yourself from the world to work in the museum," says Regier. "There has to be somewhat of a shift in culture." Indeed, because it formed the bedrock of biology for centuries, taxonomy carries with it a lot of perceptual baggage. "It's hard to get over this image of the systematist being just a stamp collector," says Cognato. But nothing could be further from the truth, he says. "Properly done, [traditional taxonomy] gets you out in the field and discovering many new things that wouldn't have been found without them."