Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Natural History Museum

Background and Interests

1. The Natural History Museum (NHM) has a mission to maintain and develop its natural history collections to be used to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

2. In a world where human societies are changing rapidly, there are intense economic and social pressures on the natural environment that is essential for our survival. The rate of change is rapid and potentially unsustainable and the need for understanding, knowledge and effective action is pressing. The NHM has always been closely aligned with humanity’s practical, economic and cultural interests in the environment, but at no other time has the need for the NHM been so great.

3. The NHM’s statutory obligation under the British Museum Act 1963 is to care for and give access to the nation’s natural history collections. The collections comprise over 70 million specimens, ranging from the world’s best collection of meteorites, including those dating back to the formation of our solar system, to DNA samples from mosquitoes collected and stored using the latest technology. The Museum, through its collections, is part of the UK’s science base and a major intellectual infrastructure that is used by its own 350 scientists and over 8,000 annually from across the UK and the globe to enhance knowledge on the diversity of the natural world and addresses some of the major challenges society faces, from biodiversity loss due to climate change to the spread of parasitic disease and to the sustainable use of natural resources. The NHM is the pre-eminent institution in a wide international network of collaboration and common purpose with respect to the natural world. The NHM cares for and develops these collections for future generations to use in ways not currently possible or imagined to help answer future scientific questions of importance.

4. The NHM is a recipient of Darwin Initiative funding from Defra for a range of projects that assist countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives under one or more of the three major biodiversity Conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES); and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), through the funding of collaborative projects which draw on UK biodiversity expertise.

5. The NHM run a number of citizen science facilities and projects which aim to encourage public interest in the natural environment and support that interest using Museum expertise.


1. The Natural History Museum broadly welcomes the White Paper and welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry.

Question 1: Any key elements in the White Paper which are supported?

2. The Museum is particularly encouraged by the cross-Governmental approach in and support for the White Paper. This is vital recognition by Government that natural environmental issues are of interest to a number of Government Departments and progress and success in this crucial area can only be achieved through a unified approach by Government.

3. We strongly endorse the use of evidence and thinking from the National Ecosystem Assessment as a foundation for the future of environmental policy and welcome the commitment to continued research in this framework to support policy development.

4. The Museum particularly welcomes the Department for Education’s contribution to the White paper and the recognition of the importance of biodiversity education for the next generation to ensure the aspirations in the White Paper are realised.

5. We welcome the recognition of the need to further engage individual people and local communities in this area and look forward to being part of the action required to enable this. The Museum will develop its existing collaboration in the UK with local partners: wildlife organisations, universities, museums and others on biodiversity and environment.

6. The Museum supports the value of nature approach in the White Paper: this builds on existing success in using economic value in environmental policy but extends the approach to a broader spectrum of interests and activities. Successful deployment of this approach will require further development and research.

7. The Museum supports the proposed joining-up of protected areas arising from the Lawton report and believes that the Nature Improvement Areas scheme has great promise in progressing the White Paper’s ambitions in this regard. However, we would suggest that this should require scientific assessment as a prerequisite for funding, coupled with ongoing monitoring.

8. The Museum strongly supports the ambition that legislation should be science-based, but it is important that legislative approaches recognise the progressive improvement of scientific understanding. The function of ecosystems and consequent value continues to be investigated: legislation needs to take account of current uncertainties and the prospect of improved understanding in future.

Question 2: Any particular sections which could be improved?

9. The emphasis on the economic value of ecosystem services is important and needs further development. However, it is important also that the limitations of this approach are recognised: the value expressed is most likely to be the value of current services and attempts to trade off different values are likely to be approximate. Incremental and small-scale impacts are difficult to quantify.

10. Potential, intrinsic and future values are far more difficult to assess, particularly with respect to complex biodiversity and genetic resources. In this respect, it is important that policy recognises the pragmatic importance of economic tools, but equally their limitations. Potential value may not easily be accommodated in economic models but may be better safeguarded through the development of ethical considerations or consideration of intergenerational equity.

11. For example, the White Paper’s ambition to move from a position of net loss to net gain of biodiversity is welcome, but we urge the need for caution to ensure that this net gain should not be achieved by an increase in alien invasive species. We would encourage a complex view of biodiversity and the adoption of an ecosystem approach, in line with the CBD definition of biodiversity.

12. The value of biodiversity in effective and sustained delivery of the range of services identified in the NEA is only partially understood. This will require further development in coming years: a dual approach of definition of biodiversity as part of the ecosystems and of the nature and value of the service. In particular, there are some elements of biodiversity—such as micro-diversity, or the genetic diversity of populations—that are likely to have an important value in terms of the quality and resilience of service where knowledge must be improved. 2011, for example, has seen the publication of papers that open up the prospect of a much wider range of fungal microdiversity than was previously suspected. One area of continuing challenge will be intrinsic value of ecosystems.

Biodiversity Research

13. The role of biodiversity research is central to achieving the aims of the White Paper but its role is not given sufficient prominence: we anticipate that this will be addressed to some extent in the Biodiversity Strategy, but it is important that biodiversity research is seen in the broader context of environmental research, both in the UK and internationally.

Biodiversity Indicators

14. Biodiversity indicators need to be appropriately defined and that may mean using different criteria are used for marine versus terrestrial systems. Previous targets were inappropriate for the marine environment because climate changes had ensured that the less diverse coldwater plankton is being replaced by a more diverse warm-water fauna, so species diversity actually increased but this does not mean the system is healthier. While there is a need for better indicators, it is important from a public point of view that the shift of baseline represented by the older indicators is well communicated to avoid a loss of confidence.

Biodiversity Offsets

15. Whilst there is a pragmatic aspect to biodiversity offsets, the Government needs to establish very clear criteria about how this will work. Some ancient habitats are irreplaceable and cannot be offset. The viable size of offsets will also need to be defined.

British Overseas Territories

16. Collectively the British Overseas Territories hold more biodiversity (in terms of numbers of species) than the British Isles, and are home to many more endangered species. Government activities are welcome in this area and need to ensure that Overseas Territories are included in monitoring and reporting processes. The Museum, with its historic collections and expertise, is uniquely placed to support local initiatives but mechanisms will be needed. The Ecosystems Knowledge Network should include Overseas Territories and the Museum is happy to be involved in this development.

Question 3: Any omissions from the White Paper which Defra should rectify?

Integrated Approach

17. Much of the impact of climate change will be perceived by society via its impact on biodiversity loss. The Museum would therefore encourage an integrated approach to biodiversity loss and climate change by Government.

21 June 2011

Prepared 16th July 2012