Select Committee on Environmental Audit Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Institute of Biology

  1.  The Institute of Biology is the independent and charitable body charged by Royal Charter to further the study and application of biology and those bioscientists working to that end. Its individual membership of some 15,000, together with the affiliation of over 70 specialist learned biological societies, and its afore constitutional status, make it ideally placed to address issues such as those by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's enquiry. It is pleased to produce this policy paper for the biological community and also to share these views with the Environmental Audit Committee.


  2.  This document's principal points include:

    (i)  Biology and the biosciences are central to sustainability issues of environmental quality, bio-resource use (such as agriculture) and human well-being (such as biomedicine). The UK biological community considers it a matter of priority that sustainability policy be underpinned by sound science.

    (ii)  The UK has generated much World class science that can be brought to bear on sustainability issues, be it resource management or the identification and development of sustainability indicators.

    (iii)  Despite a series of UK policy commitments to sustainability, policy-driven Departmental research has been in decline in real-terms. This decline has been detrimental to UK science. One example of which is systematics, a specialism important to biodiversity conservation. Another concern is long-term research, an issue on which the Institute previously published a discussion paper.

    (iv)  UK scientists have assisted with sustainability issues overseas. One example was the Darwin initiative, but investment in such programmes has been limited and not been on-going.

    (v)  Irrespective of much good work done in preparing for the 2002 Summit, policy makers would have benefited from the UK letting its investment in sustainability-related science grow with the economy.


Biology helps illuminate sustainability issues

  3.  The study and application of biology and the bioscience illuminate sustainability issues as well as providing us with the fundamental mechanisms by which our technological society and its economy can become more sustainable by improving human well-being, sustainably managing natural resources and maintaining environmental quality. It is not just ecologists (and human ecologists), conservation biologists and environmental scientists who are concerned with sustainability but also those working in the agricultural biosciences (including forestry) and the biomedical sciences that are important. It needs to be remembered that populations (or proportions thereof) that are malnourished or prone to illness do not regard environmental sustainability as of high priority compared to their immediate needs to offset hunger and disease. This applies as much to within the UK as it does to populations overseas.

The UK bioscience community believes that sustainability should be underpinned by sound science

  4.  A recent survey of the UK bioscience community showed that it is actively concerned that sustainability policy is underpinned by sound science. The survey of over 70 specialist learned societies, and groupings thereof, was conducted as to their top policy concerns. The report of this survey was published in 2001 as Science Policy Priorities 2001 at a launch to bioscientists and Parliamentarians, and has since been re-printed as Science Policy Priorities 2001-02. It can also be viewed on UK bioscientists have raised this specific concern because they fear that sustainability policy may not be as underpinned by sound science as it might.

The UK is the home of much World-class science

  5.  UK science is among the most advanced in the World. UK scientists provide the World with many tools with which to assess and nurture environmental stability. For example, to take the sustainability issue of climate change: British ecologists and palaeobiologists are among the World leaders in relating how past climates have determined the nature of ecosystems and how recent climate change combined with human activity has determined the landscape. Bioscientists from a range of specialisms are currently looking at the human ecology of energy exploitation and its potential to affect future environmental change. Their work will provide fundamental information to which policy makers can turn.

Yet investment in Departmental, policy-driven research has been in long-term decline

  6.  Yet despite the availability of such scientific excellence, this scientific resource has not been nurtured over the past one and a half decades. Indeed Government investment in Departmental R&D has shown an overall real-term decline since the mid-1980s (see Forward Look 2001 from the Office of Science and Technology within the Department of Trade and Industry). Of particular (but not sole) concern to the bioscience community is the decline in agricultural R&D over this time. Agricultural activity has a major effect on the rural environment (hence is related to non-agricultural activity be it recreation or tourism (cf. the impact of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic)). Furthermore the scale of agricultural imports means that the UK is having a major impact on environmental sustainability through agricultural activity overseas.

The public is concerned about what are in essence environmental sustainability issues

  7.  Domestic issues such as genetically modified crops and the rural economy generally have demonstrated that the public is genuinely concerned as to how the countryside is managed. Subscribing membership of organizations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and viewing figures for programmes produced by the BBC's Natural History Unit, are further indicative of such support.

Parliamentarians are concerned over the decline in Departmental investment in R&D

  8.  Select Committee reports such as Governmental Expenditure on R& D (2000) and Are We Realising Our Potential (2001) show that Parliamentarians are concerned over the decline in Departmental R&D. Though the Science Base (Research Council funded and Higher Education Funding Council research) has grown more or less in pace with the economy, Government Departments' investment in R&D has not only declined in real-terms from the level it was over a decade and a half ago. Further, as a proportion of a growing economy Departmental R&D has experienced a major drop.

The decline in policy-driven research is despite various Governments' statements as to the importance of sustainability policy

  9.  While the Science Base is responsible for blue skies and fundamental research (which provides the breakthroughs that drive innovation), Government Departments are responsible for applied and policy-driven research. (While industry mainly supports near-market applied research.) Consequently the decline in Departmental Research is all the more of concern due to the steady flow of statements from successive Government's exalting the need and its support for environmental sustainability policies. The statements might be general, such as with the welcoming of the World Conservation Strategy (1980) and the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future (1987). Alternatively they might be embodied in Governmental sustainability-related policy documents such as Sustainable Development: The UK Strategy (1994) or the UK commitments to addressing anthropogenic climate change since the publication of the original Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (1990) through to the Kyoto Summit (1997). All of these commitments and areas of sustainability concern, require a developing understanding of bioscience-related issues from biodiversity and food production through to biofuels and biomedicine.

Of relevance to sustainability is the state of systematics; one casualty of the cuts

  10.  Indeed the decline in Departmental R&D has been sufficient to leave one key scientific specialism, of importance to sustainability, in a parlous state within the UK, that of systematics (the science of species identification and how one relates one species to another in evolutionary terms). The problem currently facing UK systematics was also raised in the report Science Policy Priorities 2001 and is currently the subject of a House of Lords Select Committee inquiry to which this Institute and a number of the specialist Affiliated Societies have responded.


  The Select Committee's specific questions are in (italic)

How has the UK formulated its own contribution to the World Summit, the nature of this contribution, and the range of stakeholders involved?

  11.  The Institute of Biology has not been invited to make any direct contribution to the World Summit nor the Government's contribution. However the Institute of Biology, and indeed many of the specialist Affiliated Societies, have supplied (both jointly and independently) a considerable body of scientific evidence to Government, its Departments and Agencies, as well as to Parliamentary Select Committee on sustainability matters. This evidence might relate to the sustainable management of biological resources (for example fisheries). Alternatively it might address the conservation of biological resources (such biodiversity). Advice has also been provided on issues that relate to the matters that threaten sustainability (for example on energy and environment issues).

  The ability to identify, develop and monitor sustainability indicators and resource management practices has been undermined. The Institute has previously shared its concern over long-term research

  12.  However despite the excellence of UK science, given the above decline in support for policy-driven science, the ability for the UK to identify, develop and monitor environmental, ecological and other sustainability indicators has been undermined. This decline in investment has also meant that the science underpinning the work of Departmental agencies concerned with the sustainable management of UK resources (such as English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Environment Agency to cite but a few) has not been as developed as it would otherwise have been. Such indicators are only of real value if they can be compared on a like-by-like basis over time. Here the state of long-term research is such that it has previously been of concern to the Institute, which in 1999 published a discussion paper to stimulate debate among academics. This earlier discussion paper is appended.

  Consultation with stakeholders has not been satisfactory

  13.  With regards to the involvement of stakeholders since the 1992 Rio Conference could have been far better. Even contributing to UK preparations indirectly, with Government and Parliamentary consultations routinely conducted on extremely short deadlines (for instance typically less than half the minimum time recommended by the Cabinet Office guidelines), it is extremely difficult to properly involve grass-route stakeholders. For instance, we have alluded above to the importance of the countryside and rural economics to maintaining UK sustainability. The recent Cabinet Office consultation on The Future of Farming and Food has obvious bearings on sustainability, and is of considerable socio-political concern, yet stakeholders had just one month and one day to respond (though this Institute's invitation to participate arrived just three weeks before the deadline). Conversely, such is the magnitude of scope for such an enquiry, it might have been expected that more than the minimum three months would have been afforded. Similarly the recent energy review generated a number of `scoping notes' on which comment was expected but adequate time not afforded. This compares starkly to the recent European Commission Green Paper on energy security and sustainability (2001) which was a detailed consultation with several months time allowance.

How is the UK helping to raise awareness of the Summit in other nations and facilitate their contributions to the proceedings?

  UK scientific expertise is used overseas albeit in a limited way

  14.  As the UK comes from a position of scientific strength, it has had the potential to provide scientific expertise overseas both commercially and as a form of aid. In part this has happened. Following the 1992 UN Summit in Rio, and with regards to biodiversity, the UK carried out the Darwin Initiative. This enabled UK biodiversity expertise to be deployed overseas. However the programme was limited both in terms of the amount invested in it and in duration. All nations need science to illuminate their sustainability policies and for their preparations to contribute to the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development.

  DfID investment in R&D is one way and this has grown, but is due decline in the future

  15.  The Government's 2000 science White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity, provides an illustration of how British science can assist in improving sustainability overseas through the Department for International Developments (DfID) R&D programme. This has increased in real-terms and as such is welcome. However the Department's forward-look reveals a decrease planned over the next few years

The extent to which the UK Government has adequately monitored UK progress on sustainable development and the issues mapped out in Agenda 21 since 1992 as part of its preparations for the Summit

  The monitoring of spend of Departmental R&D is shown in the OST's Forward Look.

  16.  This Institute can only comment on the science relating to sustainability. The monitoring of the decline in investment in UK policy-driven science has been properly reported in the OST's Forward Look annual series of publications. The Institute concurs with the Commons Select for Science and Technology in support of this document (Government Expenditure on Research and Development (2000)). However we understand that the printed form of the statistical supplement—which is at the heart of the document—may be suspended. This is of concern.

  The monitoring of indicators has not been as sophisticated or comprehensive as it might have been

  17.  Against the above backdrop of real-term decline in Departmental Research and despite increased policy commitments to sustainability, it is difficult to believe that the degree of monitoring of sustainability indicators (which should be the basis for measuring progress) has been as sophisticated and comprehensive as it might have been. Indeed, as stated above, in some areas such as systematics the UK's ability to continue to provide such expertise has been severely undermined and is in decline.


Sustainability has been on the World political agenda since 1972 and will remain

  18.  We are well aware of the interest in sustainability issues as well as interest in the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development. This is the third such summit and it was clear after the first one (Stockholm, 1972) that sustainability was an issue that would run; just as it is clear that World leaders will need to continue to address these issues subsequent to Johannesburg, 2002.

Much well-intentioned work is being done for the Summit and its ancillary events

  19.  We are also well aware that there are numerous policy statements and analysis that are being prepared for a number of ancillary events to the Summit itself. There are many with excellent intentions.


  20.  The UK has developed much World-class science in recent decades, both in biology and the other sciences too. It is therefore of regret that UK policy-driven R&D has declined by so much in real-terms. Indeed the declines in policy-driven Departmental research have been so great that they have offset the real-term gains in the Science Base! Irrespective of the volume of preparatory work that may have been undertaken for the Johannesburg Summit, this has been a lost opportunity in terms of: (a) identifying, developing and implementing effective monitoring of sustainability indicators, (b) from this being able to better inform policy makers and the public, and (c) for policy makers to have to hand the hard information they require to make the best presentations possible at the summit.


  21.  The Institute welcomes the questions raised by the Select Committee and is pleased to have addressed then for the broader public. It is also pleased to be able to share this document with the Select Committee and would be happy to expand on any point made should the Committee wish.

March 2002

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