Our Scientific Infrastructure Is Not Robust: The Entomology Edition

Many moons ago, some asshole with a blog noted the following about our 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).

Said asshole with a blog was writing about a response by biologist Alex Wild to an article about identifying a ‘crazy ant’ invasion (‘crazy ants’ are the common name for the ant Nylanderia fulva; 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.

Which brings us to this cheery article about the dearth of mosquito experts (boldface mine):

In the summer of 2016, Jerome Goddard, a medical entomologist in Mississippi, received an email from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with a desperate ask. The agency was conducting an “urgent” search for insect scientists around the U.S. who could take up to a six-month paid leave from work to help the CDC fight the Zika outbreak in the U.S., and possibly respond to areas with local transmission if needed.

“That’s how bad it is—they need to borrow someone,” says Goddard, an extension professor of medical entomology at Mississippi State University. “We can’t find people to investigate an outbreak.”

Medical entomology—the study of insects and arthropods that impact human health—has been a shrinking field for at least two decades, and the lack of bug scientists is now interfering with the nation’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks. The CDC, which has about 12,000 employees, only has 13 medical entomologists on staff…

“We discovered during the Zika response that we didn’t have enough entomologists to send them out and consult,” says Ben Beard, the deputy director of the division of vector-borne diseases at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging & Zoonotic Infectious Diseases in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Not only that, but the states don’t have them and the counties don’t have them. Where have all the entomologists gone?”

Entomology is also one of many scientific fields that has been hit hard by budget cuts. When funding to hire and keep entomologists falls at the federal and local levels, Beard says it drives down the number of PhD candidates at universities who can graduate and find jobs.

That becomes a major problem when there’s an outbreak. During those times, the need for medical entomologists increases, and funding spikes accordingly—but typically only temporarily… But an assessment years later revealed that funding had dropped, and the proportion of states with adequate access to medical entomologists fell about 10% from 2004 to 2012. Those same gaps were clear during the Zika response, as the CDC struggled to find enough entomologists to respond to states’ requests for help.

…In 2017, the agency announced that it was providing nearly $50 million in funding to universities in order to establish centers of excellence to help address emerging vector-borne diseases in the U.S. The five centers are tasked with providing training to rebuild what Beard calls “the next generation of public health entomologists,” as well as research and other partnerships to help the U.S.’s ability to quickly and adequately respond to insect-spread diseases. In total, the CDC is providing $220 million in supplemental funding for state, local and territorial health departments, non-profits and universities to support efforts related to Zika and health outcomes from the virus.

Keep in mind that only part of the $50 million will go for entomology training, but it is better than nothing. And it does no good to train people as entomologists if there are no jobs when they graduate. This needs to be a long-term investment, otherwise we’ll find ourselves in the same situation we did in 2012.

When it comes to public health, you get what you pay for.

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1 Response to Our Scientific Infrastructure Is Not Robust: The Entomology Edition

  1. Kevskos says:

    The state of California Department of Food and Ag has an entomology department. I think they are probably pretty overwhelmed to id all the insects that county and state ag inspectors find to do much research.

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