02 July 2009

Invert science keeps food on table

ResearchBlogging.orgSimon Leather has a good short article about the problems of working with invertebrates in biology. The problems are not intellectual, but structural. He argues that if you work on invertebrates, you really don’t have much of a chance of getting a job at a major research institution. Some of Leather’s claims are backed by references. But phrases like “it is obvious that” crop up, which are always warning signs for opinions trying to pass themselves off as facts.

It contains this short blast:

Unless something is done soon to remedy the situation, it will be too late and the only animals that the general public will be able to recognize will be polar bears and tigers.

Why we should care, according to Leather, is because of insect pests and their effect on agriculture. Leather misses an opportunity to draw stronger links between invertebrate research and food security. I was surprised not to see honeybee pollination mentioned, for instance. Or the importance of invertebrates as a food source in their own right, either for fish (krill are the base of much of the oceans’ food webs, after all) or for humans (for example, lobster fisheries).

As an invertebrate researcher, I share Leather’s concerns. A couple of things may help. First, as I’ve written before, there is always the possibility that vertebrate researchers are going to price themselves out of the market.

Second, not every academic or research institution is a major research institution. Not every academic job will need publications in Nature or Science. Given that not every institution has the same resources, those that can’t support full blown research on large vertebrates could become centers of excellence for invertebrate research.


Leather, S. (2009). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.05.002

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