Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


2 MAY 2002

By the Select Committee appointed to consider Science and Technology.



The Threat to the Science underpinning conservation


In 1992 the United Kingdom signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), ratifying it two years later. Later this year the Prime Minister will follow up this commitment by leading the UK delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Discussions at this summit will include how to tackle poverty and enable economic development alongside conserving the world's rich variety of living things and using it in a sustainable manner.

In order to know which parts of the world have a high level of diversity of living things we need experts to identify such areas. In order to know which species to protect from becoming extinct, we need experts to identify those species. In order to know which species could be of great value or of great harm to humans, we need experts to identify those species. In order to save ecosystems, we need experts to improve understanding of how ecosystems function. Systematic biologists provide that expertise.

The economic impacts of systematic biology are not limited to long term benefits of conservation: systematic biology has a vital role to play in agriculture and health. Ten years ago this Committee expressed concern about a decline in systematic biology research in the United Kingdom. Last year we heard that this decline continues. This inquiry found compelling evidence that the level of systematic biology expertise in the United Kingdom has, despite some areas of increased activity, continued to fall overall.

Despite signing the CBD, grant-in-aid from successive UK governments to the major systematic biology institutions has declined in real terms. This has led to a decrease in research that supports biodiversity conservation. It has also placed the reference collections of specimens comprising a wide range of biodiversity, which are housed at these institutions, at considerable risk.

Our recommendations are two-fold in nature. Some relate to increasing financial support. We recommend an increase in Government grant-in-aid to the major systematics institutions in order to protect the collections of biodiversity housed there and to recognise the increase in work-load which has resulted from the UK's obligations under international treaties. We also recommend an increase in Darwin Initiative funding, which uses UK expertise to develop scientific understanding in developing countries. We suggest that the Darwin Initiative should fund more projects to digitise UK collections in order to make more data available on the world-wide web and thus accessible to a larger number and variety of people.

Our other recommendations are concerned with collaborating and setting priorities. Clear priorities for future systematic biology activity should be developed. These must be drawn up by systematic biologists in conjunction with conservationists and the Government. We envisage the priorities being developed by a co-ordinating body with representatives from all of these groups. This body will also endeavour to raise the profile of systematic biologists in the wider scientific community and to exploit avenues of funding.

We highlight the importance of digitising the systematic biology collections, which will both increase accessibility of these data and help to update the archaic image of systematic biology. We also suggest that the systematic biology community should consider exploring new ways of presenting taxonomic information, in particular through increasing the amount of information available in digital form via the world-wide web, and should consider updating the system of naming previously undocumented species.

Co-ordination between Government departments, systematic biologists and conservationists is fundamental to successful biodiversity conservation policy and action. However, co-ordination alone is not enough. The Government need to ensure that systematic biology is sufficiently well supported, and cannot look to the Research Councils to provide funding for all areas of systematic biology research.


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