A longstanding and crippling problem for the long-term provision of systematic services is the difficulty in replacing the lifelong expertise of specialists who retire or leave government service. Expertise in a group of agriculturally important organisms requires years of intensive training and work in collections. Indeed, 3-4 years of intensive study are required for students to acquire even a rudimentary understanding of the relationships and diversity of their chosen groups. In megadiverse groups such as the fungi, weevils, nematodes and others, a decade may be required before a student gains enough knowledge to significantly contribute to our understanding of evolutionary relationships. Because researchers typically retire without the opportunity to mentor and train a new person, the ability to provide expected levels of services to customers is lost along with more intangible connections to resources such as literature, collections, and colleagues, all of which take years to replace.
Moreover, because of our mission-oriented approach to research ARS almost always seeks new systematists to fill positions in agriculturally important specific taxa. ARS does not have the luxury possessed by some museums or academic institutions of merely looking for a highly qualified systematist who can teach and pursue research on any fundable taxon. Instead, ARS must focus on groups important to quarantine, invasives, biosecurity, biocontrol and other issues that form the core of ARS responsibilities to U.S. agriculture.
It is imperative that we expand and strengthen our efforts in this area so that as our programs expand to meet new challenges we have the necessary human resources to make those programs work. Fortunately, a model exists for how to make that happen. For the past 20 years, the Maryland Center for Systematic Entomology, a joint endeavor of the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, and ARS, has lead the way in training and placing researchers in arthropod systematics. The program has demonstrated that the combination of a leading university-based academic program and practicing world-class researchers results in graduates who are able to compete and fill positions at the highest levels. In two decades the MCSE program has had unparalleled success at placing graduating Ph.D. students in professional positions from Harvard to our own Systematic Entomology Laboratory. In partnership with other universities and departments at the University of Maryland, ARS/BARC and our other cooperating institutions can maintain leadership in training top notch students for federal and private sector employment.
With the reinvigoration of ARS systematics an expanded MCSE-like program could lead the country in training professionals in botany, mycology, nematology, parasitology, entomology, and acarology. The training and mentoring of students should be a major thrust in a newly invigorated ARS/BARC systematics research program.