Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report

CHAPTER 2: Introduction

2.1 In 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro the Government signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a broad treaty intended to promote the sustainable use and conservation of the wide variety of life on earth[2]. Earlier that year this Committee, under the chairmanship of the late Lord Dainton, published a report[3] that identified a number of threats to the science that enables us to identify and name living things, and understand the relationships between them (see Appendix 4). That science is systematic biology.

2.2 The United Kingdom, along with many other developed countries, has, over the last thirty years, come to realise the importance of sustainable use of biodiversity. This summer, the Prime Minister will lead a delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, where world leaders will discuss poverty alleviation and developments since Rio. Many developing countries that are rich in biodiversity are often poor in the scientific skills needed to identify important species and to implement biodiversity-friendly policies. Such skills are required in order to use biodiversity in a sustainable manner to improve economies and alleviate poverty in the long term.

2.3 Biodiversity relates to the millions of different forms of life on earth. Some countries, notably in the tropics, have an enormous number of species. Animals, plants and micro-organisms together form communities called ecosystems, the species within which depend on each other and on the local environmental conditions for their survival. Many of these ecosystems are very fragile. The removal of a single species or a small change in environmental conditions can upset the balance and disrupt or destroy the ecosystem, threatening all forms of life within it.

2.4 Estimates place the number of species in the world at between five and thirteen million, yet only 1.7 million of these have been identified and described. At the same time, there is evidence that we are destroying species faster than we are identifying them. Does that matter? This Committee believes that it does. Living things are interdependent and human beings are no exception to this rule. They depend for their very existence on other living things. They eat them, clothe and shelter themselves with them, produce medicines with them, use them as transport and develop economies that depend on them. However, human activity constantly upsets the balance of the ecosystems within which they operate. The loss of these ecosystems both threatens the welfare of humans and also threatens other living things for which man, as the "highest form of life", has a moral responsibility. Therefore, threats to biodiversity matter enormously. We have a cultural and moral obligation, as well as a pragmatic economic need, to record and, as far as possible, conserve the diversity of life with which we share the planet. This belief is embodied in the international conventions on biodiversity to which the United Kingdom has subscribed.

2.5 The science that identifies, names and uncovers the relationships between living things is called systematic biology. Within this discipline some systematists, "taxonomists", identify and name organisms and others discover the inter-relationships between them by various means. There is no absolute demarcation between these two sub-disciplines. Indeed, a biologist cannot correctly name a new species without some idea of its relationships to other living organisms.

2.6 Without systematic biology, ecologists and conservationists do not know which species exist within ecosystems, and cannot discover which are thriving and which are under threat of extinction. Man already knows of uses for thousands of the species of living things on the earth. In the future we may find out too late that a species had a particular use, after it has become extinct or is in severe danger of becoming so. The science of systematic biology, therefore, is a vital discipline that underpins the conservation of the earth's biodiversity and is essential to the United Kingdom's own interests and its ability to fulfil its international convention obligations.

The Dainton Report

2.7 The inquiry into Systematic Biology Research chaired by the Lord Dainton, the "Dainton Report", was carried out because of a concern that systematic biology was suffering from poor financial support, particularly in relation to grant-in-aid funding to the major systematics institutions (Natural History Museum[4], Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and Kew).

2.8 A number of short-term measures to stimulate systematic biology were introduced following the Dainton Report. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) developed a Taxonomy Initiative (1994-1998), and the Wellcome Trust set up a Biodiversity Initiative (1993-2002). Both of these schemes were fixed term and have now finished. They provided some stimulus for areas of systematic biology that use molecular techniques and explore relationships within and between species. The UK Systematics Forum was also established in an attempt to provide a focus for this science, but was wound down in 2001.

2.9 The Dainton Report highlighted the importance of the reference collections held in systematics institutions and universities in the United Kingdom (see Box 1). Some of these are "unique and of inestimable value to world science", comprising a wide range of animal, plant and microbe specimens from across the world and dating from up to 250 years ago. The recommendation to maintain Government grant-in-aid funding was envisaged as ensuring that these collections were well-maintained (Dainton Paragraphs 9.18 - 9.24).

Box 1

Collections as raw data

Major specimen collections represent the most comprehensive and detailed source of information for a particular group of plants or animals. They form the body of information that is synthesised and summarised for products such as keys and checklists but also contain specimens of many species not yet included in such identification aids. Taxonomists regularly refer to well-curated collections in order to confirm identification of a specimen.

The United Kingdom has a significant number of very large collections of global importance, containing many "type" specimens—those that are used to fix a name to a species. Many witnesses spoke of the importance of maintaining these collections, as they are "valuable national assets" (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, p 17).

Origin and scope of this inquiry

2.10 Last year this Committee heard that the systematic biology community was still facing many of the same problems outlined ten years ago in the Dainton Report. We were also aware that issues relating to biodiversity conservation would be discussed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, ten years on from the Rio Earth Summit. Partly as a result of Rio, government policy relating to conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity has substantially developed over this period. Since elements of systematic biology provide a fundamental underpinning to sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, we were concerned about reports that systematic biology in the United Kingdom was in decline. If systematic biology were disappearing, how could the Government fulfil its national and international policy commitments?

2.11 We therefore set out to:

(a) establish whether systematic biology is in decline in the United Kingdom and if so why;

(b) clarify whether it matters if systematic biology is in decline, and in particular what impact it would have on biodiversity conservation; and

(c) identify what action, if any, is required.

2.12 The Select Committee set up Sub-Committee I to conduct this inquiry—the members of which are listed in Appendix 1. We met ten times, three of which were public with nine groups of witnesses. We received 48 pieces of written evidence in response to the call for evidence (see Appendices 2 and 3). We are grateful to all those who submitted evidence. We are also most grateful to the Natural History Museum for hosting a seminar on issues in systematic biology and to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for showing us its research facilities (see Appendices 5 and 6). We would also like to thank the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh for offering us the opportunity to visit, which we were unfortunately unable to take up. Finally, we thank our Specialist Adviser, Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for having provided helpful factual information and advice throughout the inquiry.


See Appendix 7 for further information on the CBD. Back

3   House of Lords, Select Committee on Science and Technology. 1st Report, 1991-92. Systematic Biology Research. HL Paper 22-I. ISBN 0 10 480692 3 Back

4   The Lord Oxburgh, Chairman of the Select Committee, is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Natural History Museum.  Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002