Crazy Ants and the Hidden Collapse of Scientific Infrastructure

One of the ridiculous things about many depictions of science in TV and movies is the notion that there’s this huge infrastructure: shiny labs (which are always neat and spacious), high-tech this and that, and an army of workers to solve a problem. The reality is that much of our scientific knowledge in any subdiscipline is held by a few people who are operating on shoestring budgets with inadequate resources. To put it bluntly, we often lose considerable knowledge and materials when an older faculty member or researcher dies or retires (in my own subdiscipline of microbiology, there are several valuable collections that would be lost if a single freezer broke for an extended length of time).

Over at Myrmecos, Alex Wild takes issue with Carl Zimmer’s recent NY Times article on crazy ants (boldface mine):

The slow response to identifying N. fulva was exactly the opposite. Figuring out the origin of invasive ants isn’t anyone’s job in the United States. What happened was that a few ant scientists, in their spare time from whatever their official duties were, have occasionally offered an opinion about these new ones….

In fact, there are really only two people in the United States with appropriate experience to address the crazy ant problem: James Trager and John LaPolla.

contra the New York Times’ insistence that only the Good Ol’ Exterminator boys in Texas had figured it out, James determined [in the 1980s] that the Texas and Florida ants were different species. Yet James never found taxonomic employment, and went on to work for the Missouri Botanical Garden as a staff naturalist. Ant identifications are not part of his job description. He does them now as a hobby.

John is part of the most recent team to work on Nylanderia, the one that actually located the South American origin of the invasion. He works in a primarily teaching position at Towson University, and like James, identifying invasive ants is not part of his job description. He is allowed to research what he wants to, and we are fortunate he picked up Nylanderia out of curiosity.

I don’t see the point of singling out the egghead scientists for being slow to identify Nylanderia fulva when the real trouble is bigger and structural. Americans simply don’t value basic research enough to support a system that rapidly pinpoints emerging pest problems.

If we want to quickly identify new pests, we need to salary thousands of positions for taxonomists where rapid response to emerging threats is part of the job. Instead, we’re doing the opposite. Taxonomists are being laid off. Congress is defunding science. The result is that when a new problem like invasive crazy ants arises, we depend on retirees and hobbyists to volunteer their expertise, if they want to.

In a sense, taxonomic and other forms of biological expertise are just like public health: no one wants to pay for it, until we need it.

And then it’s too late.

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6 Responses to Crazy Ants and the Hidden Collapse of Scientific Infrastructure

  1. Matt Russell says:

    Spot on. Great insight and a sad truth.

  2. dr2chase says:

    Friend of mine and former colleague is the world expert on some random South American wasp. He became the expert when the former world expert died. And it’s a hobby, but he’s got other hobbies, and a day job, and an old house to take care of, etc.

    Yeah, last updated six years ago.

  3. TBD says:

    Carl Zimmer didn’t write the article in the NYT, Jon Mooallem did. Zimmer would have done a much better job.

  4. Robert L. Bell says:

    What you describe is a huge problem. The sub-basement of the MIT science library is a mausoleum to dead knowledge: the fossilized remains of once-vigorous research projects, the intellectual foundations of the technology that we hold so dear. All dead, all gone, never to be recovered. Some dry facts can be strip mined from the yellowing pages of aged journals, but the penumbras and emanations of tacit knowledge and idiosyncratic thought patterns have dispersed into the cosmic void.

    As a case in point, the blueprints to the Saturn V rockets are filed away in some dusty drawer but they are useless to us. No way could we build a working copy, starting from the specifications. The only route forward would be to fire up a research and development program to construct large boosters almost – but not quite entirely – from scratch.

  5. evodevo says:

    Taxonomy and specimen collections have been in the crosshairs since the early ’80’s, when biology went all DNA and micro and it was no longer “sexy”. All the people I knew who had specialized knowledge in these areas are gone now.

  6. mwbugg says:

    And every lab on TV seems working on food colorings.

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