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Pounding Out Differences, ITIS Take Hammer
Released: 2/13/1998

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"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet," said Juliet to Romeo in an impassioned speech. But Gary Waggoner, a pragmatic scientist, is quick to point out that not all roses are scented, so the Bard’s sentiment was sweeter than his science.

And Waggoner, a scientist at the USGS Center for Biological Informatics in Denver, Colo., knows something about names, since he is one of the leaders of an award-winning interagency team that has been working on standardizing scientific names for several years. The team’s work on "what’s in a name" was just awarded one of Vice President Al Gore’s Hammer Awards for Reinventing Government. Roy McDiarmid of the USGS was also a leader of the interagency team.

ITIS, the Integrated Taxonomic Information System partnership, received the award for successfully completing a major reinvention project aimed at providing easy access to the first credible database of scientific names of organisms of North America and its adjacent waters. The system also provides information on the origin and general distribution of these biological species.

Vice President Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government identifies ITIS as a program that will contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of government and its partnerships by reducing the confusion and misinformation that are inevitable when people are unsure what each other is talking about -- or when they don’t know that an animal or plant is known by several names.

The Vice President’s Hammer Award is being given to the ITIS partner agencies for bringing ITIS from concept to reality. Six federal agencies worked together to foster and modernize the system for naming nature’s living organisms: the U.S. Geological Survey, the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanographic Data Center), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Agricultural Research Service and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Each agency, said Waggoner, has a mission to inventory, monitor, research or manage biological resources. This creates a common need for a vocabulary shared through taxonomy, the science of describing, naming and classifying plants and animals. Taxonomic nomenclature provides the most fundamental building block for information sharing on biological resources: the scientific name.

ITIS, says Waggoner, is a grand new tool in the arsenal of environmental research, and for the first time is enabling the scientific community, resource managers, and the general public to have a common vocabulary of species at their fingertips in an online database."It is a deceptively simple notion," Waggoner said. "All we’re aiming for is a unified way of naming the ëthings’ of nature. Good science depends on every party in a discussion getting the message right."

There is a major effort being put forth among scientists and property managers to inventory plants and animals so that there is a reliable measure of existing populations. The need, said Waggoner, is to be able to document changes factually, not simply through speculation and guesswork. "Fundamental to this process is standardized terminology through which we can identify, describe and name what we are discussing," Waggoner said.

"Taxonomy has an honored history in science," Waggoner said, "but the time had come to make this technical speciality more accessible to a broad public and scientific audience. We are proud that we have been able to accomplish all that we have and believe it will make an important contribution in understanding the array of life forms that share our globe with us. Questions of taxonomy will help us define what is native and what has invaded and how numerous each are."

Applying the ITIS system, said Waggoner, can also help both crop and stock farmers identify hazards to their fields, the fishing industry to define the population dynamics of commercial species, and environmental managers to assess the health of natural systems.

Waggoner and his associates at the USGS provided the staff support and direction for the multi-agency development of ITIS, which is accessible on the Internet/World Wide Web through the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) at http://www.itis.usda.gov/itis.

Dennis B. Fenn, Chief Biologist at the USGS, said it is hard to "exaggerate the importance of taxonomy to biologists and those who manage biological resources. The scientific names of organisms are the framework that allows us to connect all biological information. Taxonomy provides the foundation for understanding and integrating the similarities and differences among the world’s organisms, both living and extinct."

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