Category: Blog


Published: August 28, 2013

Species in a world that thinks there is a clear division between basic and applied science

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


Humans are an inconsistent lot, but you would think that might not apply as much when it comes to science, and yet it does.  

Humans are an inconsistent lot, but you would think that might not apply as much when it comes to science, and yet it does.  Even in science are still plenty of ways in which topics lead to opposing and confused viewpoints.  Around my institution these days the terms “applied” and “basic” science are being kicked around at the same time we are discussing “species” as a theme that cuts across research programs.  In terms of birds, this comes just as the much anticipated last volume of Handbook of Birds of the World arrived in the mail (sent to the Bird Division by Lynx Editions because of photos Mary Hennen took from our collection for the volume). The volume includes species accounts for 71 species of birds that have been described since the publication of earlier volumes of the Handbook.  It also includes articles describing 15 new bird species from Amazonia, and as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, Jason Weckstein and I were co-authors on two of these descriptions with Jason overseeing the gathering of DNA sequence data that helped support the descriptions.  In all, ten of these 86 recently described species involve Field Museum staff and collections in some direct way. Then there is also the description of the new species of Hero Shrew, on which I am a grateful co-author based on work by mammalogist colleagues including Bill Stanley, Jake Esselstyn and Julian Kerbis with appeared in Biology Letters several weeks ago.

That is plenty to celebrate about documenting previously unrecognized biodiversity, if only the world were that simple.  Here at The Field Museum, we are about to bring in two new post-doctoral fellows to study species because this is viewed as part of basic science at my institution.  This is well and good, but I worry about species as only basic science.  On the flip side of this, several weeks ago, a colleague shared an e-mail with me about a paper one of his students submitted to The Auk, the leading ornithological journal in North America, if not the world.  The paper was on species limits within a South American bird lineage based on analyses of song variation across geography and the implications for conservation.  It was sent back to the student without review at The Auk with a recommendation that it be sent to The Condor, the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society, which it was announced at the recent AOU/COS meetings in Chicago, will soon to be publishing only “applied science” as the editorial offices of The Auk and The Condor are combined.  The Auk will publish the “basic ornithological advances” and The Condor, "ornithological applications."  How can people be so quixotic about species and whether or not delimiting and describing them is basic or applied science?  For me, this is simply an unproductive dichotomy brought on by humans and their artificial constructs. 

But it is true that basic and applied science have long been out there in academia.  Wildlife management departments have co-existed with biology departments for years at universities.  There are large fisheries science programs side-by-side with ichthyology programs.  Insects and plants have long had applied and non-applied scientific entities at universities also.  The co-existence is not without issues, but it has worked itself out through time (and in many cases the two entities have merged together through time).  When it comes to the ornithological journals, I am concerned that this newly created divide could mean less of the kind of science I care most about (evolution and systematics) will be published (now you have only one of the two journals to submit to).  The problem the editor presumably had with the paper at The Auk was the presence of the words “conservation implications.”  The authors I am sure, chose their title to emphasize that there were conservation implications to delimiting the species they were studying.  Oops, the “c” word makes it applied science then?  In the past, I have reviewed NSF proposals where I have seen proposal writers specifically state that their research into species limits had no conservation value, and it was quite apparent that they did this because a previous reviewer on an earlier submission of said grant had told them not to overstate the conservation implications of the research they wanted to do. But should a characterization such as "basic" or "applied" really be the deciding issue that should determine where new species descriptions are to be published?

I have always emphasized to myself and my students that I would never want to describe a new species based on the desire to conserve something; thus I firmly believe delimiting species is basic science, but the inescapable fact is that understanding species limits is essential for conserving species.  It also is true that many of the species we describe these days have localized distributions that have been reduced or altered by humans.  Camiguin Hanging-Parrot (Lorriculus camiguinsis), Camiguin Hawk Owl (Ninox leventisi), and Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi) have only now been discovered and described by scientists and they occur in the remnant forests of a tiny island off the northern coast of the large island of Mindanao in the Philippines or in the remnants of mid-elevation forests in the Albertine Rift of Africa.  Thus they are new species based on basic science, AND by describing them, this is applied science as well, because they and the habitats they live in are endangered.  It is also true that more basic science beyond just assessing species limits is needed to help manage their populations and those habitats they live in, while also mitigating the threats that inevitably come with habitat degradation and both ecological and evolutionary time (e.g., disease and global climate change).  This has always seemed like a fairly clear set of issues.  In the end, the fact that people struggle to wrap their minds around whether new species descriptions should be applied or basic research does not matter of course, researchers describing previously unrecognized biodiversity need to keep doing the necessary research to describe new species by doing the requisite science necessary, but the concern comes because this inconsistent pigeon-holing of “basic versus applied” can make it so fewer people undertake this kind of work in the future.  In the past either The Auk or The Condor might choose (or be chosen) to publish such a paper.  Now, you have to write your manuscript differently for one versus the other or go to another journal.  That seems rather limiting in an unfortunate way.