A Flagship for Science in a New Age of Sail

Karen James, director of science for the The Beagle Project, has published a letter (subscription required) in the taxonomy journal Zoologica Scripta outlining the reasons that The Beagle Project is  a timely, relevant, and necessary scientific endeavour. It is no surprise that Deep Sea News has solidly stood beside The Beagle Project from the beginning. The Beagle Projects stands for inspiring future scientists, public engagement and learning, and original scientific research.

In her letter, Karen makes some excellent well composed points with a wonderfully historical context and modern analogues. She reprinted the letter on The Beagle Project blog and extended it to include many great points that were edited out in the final published version.

Science in the age of sail’ came to a gradual end between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, as sails were first combined with and ultimately replaced by coal-fired steam and then diesel engines—an irony considering that the historic specimens collected on such voyages would ultimately be seen as useful to establish pre-industrial baselines for climate change research.

While a changing source of energy for maritime transport signaled the end of the ‘sail’ in ‘science under sail’, the ‘science’ also suffered setbacks. After a brief but intensive period of specimen collecting on diesel powered expeditions (such as the Discovery expeditions), ocean voyages for scientific discovery under all modes of propulsion declined as research funding was diverted to post-war explorations of both outer space and also the inner space of the cell.

Contrary to public perception, expedition-based science did not decline because the task of species discovery was completed: though 1.8 million species have been discovered and named this figure is estimated to represent only 1-10% of the true total. Moreover, marine organisms are under-represented; the diversity of marine life is still largely unknown to science, especially in the deep sea, of which a smaller percentage has been explored than of the surface of the moon. Exacerbating this dearth of marine knowledge are the increasing threats of climate change and habitat loss, coupled with a decline of taxonomic expertise and resources called the ‘taxonomic impediment’.

Please head over there to read the whole article. If you can, donate a few bucks to a worthy cause and purchase some of the merchandise from their store. Also, stay tuned to the Beagle Project and Deep Sea News for details (soon to be released) of a fantastic upcoming partnership! Try not to fall off the edge of your chair!

5 Replies to “A Flagship for Science in a New Age of Sail”

  1. It is a fantastic letter, and I hope that it helps The Beagle land some major funding. I have hopes that in the near future people will remember the cry “The Beagle Has Sailed!” with the same excitement that I felt when I heard the words “The Eagle Has Landed!”

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