Friday, February 22, 2013

The end of names? ICZN in financial crisis

Science carries a news piece on the perilous state of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (on Twitter as @ZooNom):

Pennisi, E. (2013). International Arbiter of Animal Names Faces Financial Woes. Science, 339(6122), 897–897. doi:10.1126/science.339.6122.897 (paywall)

Elizabeth Pennisi's article states:

A rose by any other name might still smell as sweet, but an animal with two scientific monikers can wreak havoc for researchers trying to study it. Since 1895, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has helped ensure animal names are unique and long-lasting, with a panel of volunteer commissioners who maintain naming rules and resolve conflicts when they arise. But the U.K.-based charitable trust that supports all this is slated to run out of money before the year's end—and that could spell trouble. "If the trust ceases to exist it will be very difficult for the commissioners to do their work," says Michael Dixon, chair of the trust's board and director of the Natural History Museum in London. If ICZN disappeared "it would be something akin to anarchy in animal naming."

The sums of money are not huge:

The nonprofit organization that formed in 1947 to raise funds and administer the ICZN code and the journal—the International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature—has weathered other crises. But net income from its journal is only about $47,000 a year, and the trust's annual expenses now top $155,000. So reserves are about to be exhausted, Dixon says.

A few weeks ago, he sent an e-mail plea to directors of natural history museums around the world for emergency relief. In it, he proposed establishing a committee that would come up with a new financial model for the troubled organization. "This is not unlike GenBank," the database of genome sequences that receives government support, Coddington says. "It's the same distributed goods [situation], that everyone needs and nobody wants to pay for."


Dixon estimates the trust needs $78,000 or more to make it through the year. No single organization may be able to fund it long-term, but a network of 10 or 20 institutions might be able to kick in enough to sustain it, he says.

Maybe it's time for the ICZN to start a Jimmy Wales-style appeal, or take taxonomy to KickStarter.