Systematics is the science that underpins all of biology. As a result, large private institutions and national governments around the world have often assumed responsibility for systematics research and the curation of centralized collections. This is especially true for less charismatic groups of organisms that are important to agriculture but attract less public attention. The rationale for a large and increasing federal role in systematics research of organisms that affect agriculture includes the following:
Although the customers of systematics research and collections often have urgent and critical needs, the financial benefit realized is seldom immediate. Because agriculturally important collections of non-living reference specimens cannot form the basis of a payment system, a large federal investment in curation and research is required. The customers of systematics research are primarily federal or state governmental agencies, university and international scientists or other nonprofit entities. Systematics research should be compared to GenBank. It is an infrastructural resource that serves the entire scientific community and is necessary to move the entire research enterprise forward.
Federal collections and research address the broad systematics needs of the entire country. Organisms have no regard for state boundaries and thus the capacity to deal with pest and disease problems must be maintained at the federal level. Although small and valuable systematics collections exist at state universities and museums and other entities, these collections are sometimes local or regional in scope or do not cover a broad range of organisms within specific phyla. Research at state universities and local museum is usually not a primary activity; when performed, it often addresses local or regional concerns. Additionally, state collections often have an uncertain future when specific faculty or staff members retire or change positions, or when university priorities change. Increasingly state collections are sent for permanent maintenance to federal institutions, which are assumed to possess the long-term fiscal and human resources necessary to maintain and utilize them for research that benefits the public.
Commerce in general and agriculture in particular have become global enterprises during the past few decades. The federal government has obvious roles in ensuring that imports are free of exotic pests and pathogens while exports are free from organisms of regulatory concern to foreign governments. In recent years, foreign governments have become increasingly pro-active in demanding that U.S. exports be free of suspected pathogens; such demands have sometimes not been science-based. Federal action agencies specifically APHIS are charged with preventing the inadvertent introduction of harmful organisms as well as certifying the safety of exports to other nations. APHIS relies on other federal agencies specifically ARS to provide the knowledge base upon which their regulations and actions are based. Only the federal government can respond to the demands of foreign governments by performing appropriate systematics research necessary to detect, identify, and rapidly distinguish existing and new pests and pathogens.
The public is becoming increasingly aware of the value of systematics research. Major issues such as enhancement of national and global biodiversity, minimization of the risk of entry of invasive species and their threats to human and crop health, and the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem can be understood only through the application of systematics. A growing awareness of the possible vulnerability of the food supply from a biosecurity perspective has engendered substantial governmental concern about the ability to rapidly identify pests and pathogens.
The mission of ARS (http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov/mgmt/stratpln/1999/background.cfm#Vision) includes conducting research and associated technology transfer activities to solve agricultural problems of high national priority, thereby resulting in a competitive agricultural economy, an enhanced natural resource base and environment, and high-quality, safe food and other agricultural products. Consequently, systematics research is a vital component of the ARS National Program Plan (http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov). The agency has numerous internationally important collections (/is/np/systematics/systematicintro.htm), some of which are the most comprehensive in the world or represent the culmination of over 150 years of curatorial efforts.
The ARS Systematics collections and their associated research provide the science-based information necessary to solve national and global problems. These collections and research exist only because of the long-term commitment of resources provided by ARS, an agency fully cognizant of the national value of systematics research and collections. Because of increasing globalization and concerns about biosecurity and invasive species, the federal role and the demands upon these federal resources are rapidly increasing.