Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


CHAPTER 3: IS SYSTEMATIC BIOLOGY in decline?

The definition of systematic biology

3.1 A number of terms were used in the evidence we received to refer to systematic biology and particular areas of systematic biology. For clarity we use the following terms in this report:

(a) Systematic Biology/Systematics: Systematic biology is the scientific discipline in which biologists discover, describe, name and classify living things and investigate evolutionary relationships between them. It includes the study of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes. It covers the broad spectrum of the science ranging from describing new species, defining boundaries between species (alpha taxonomy, see below), to molecular and genetic sequencing. It also includes analysing data to provide information about the variation and evolutionary relationships of a group of species, a task which enables understanding the complex evolutionary relationships between species.

(b) Taxonomy: We use taxonomy to refer to the activities of naming and classifying organisms, as well as producing publications detailing all known members of a particular group of living things.

(c) Alpha Taxonomy: We recognise this as a sub-discipline of taxonomy comprising the task of defining boundaries between species and describing new species. This enables researchers to continue compiling an inventory of life on earth.

A continuing decline in systematic biology?

3.2 In 1992 the Dainton Report expressed concern that systematic biology research was in decline in the United Kingdom, and that it was decreasing significantly at universities (Dainton Paragraph 9.25, see also Appendix 4). The Report's recommendations included that:

(a) Core funding should be maintained in real terms to enable research to continue and for curation of collections in major systematics institutions;

(b) Special funds should be set aside by the relevant research councils for systematics research and by the government body in charge of museums for curation of collections;

(c) A new forum for systematics be created to rationalise holdings and expertise;

(d) MSc courses should be funded to supply trained specialists.

3.3 We set out to establish whether the decline had been halted, whether some areas of systematic biology were suffering more than others, and who, if anyone, had been assessing the changes to systematic biology from outside of the community of systematic biologists.

Systematic biology research since 1992: a mixed fortune

3.4 The area of systematic biology research that focuses on understanding evolutionary relationships appears to have been invigorated over the last ten years. This has occurred partly because advances in molecular biology and gene sequencing technology have provided a wealth of new data on which to base theories about evolutionary relationships. Furthermore, there has been an important injection of funding via two initiatives, the Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) Taxonomy Initiative and the Wellcome Trust Biodiversity Initiative (Professor Paul Harvey p 26, Royal Soc. p 139, Dr Scotland p 83).

3.5 The NERC Taxonomy Initiative was implemented in 1994 with the express purpose of regenerating taxonomy in universities. It funded research fellows to pursue work attempting to define evolutionary relationships (NERC Q 220, Professor Harvey p 26, Professor Parker p 50). The three universities to benefit were Reading, Imperial College and Glasgow. This initiative was designed to be short-term and NERC insisted that it would not run again, as there are many areas of science competing for special initiatives, and it could not continue to divert special funds to systematic biology (Q 219).

3.6 NERC believed this initiative was reasonably successful in stimulating post-graduate training and systematic biology research, having led to five taxonomists in university posts "who would not otherwise have been there" (Q 221). Professor Parker, formerly of Reading, claimed that, in part as a result of the NERC award, Reading still has a "relatively strong" plant taxonomic section, with the plant science departments recently being awarded a 5 in the RAE (p 50, Imperial College p 4).

3.7 The Wellcome Trust Biodiversity Initiative was established in 1992 and prioritised research that applied new methods, such as molecular biology techniques, to systematics. This was also a fixed-term scheme, and has finished this year (p 86-7). Researchers at some of the major systematics institutions benefited from awards from this initiative, and the Royal Society views this scheme as having provided stimulus to this area of systematic biology (p 139).

3.8 Other evidence, whilst welcoming the NERC's taxonomy initiative, expressed concern about its short-term nature and pointed out that it concentrated only on the area of systematic biology that examined evolutionary relationships. This initiative ruled out awarding funds to fellows carrying out research to identify and describe organisms and species, which is an area of research that continues to be under-supported and is arguably the area of systematic biology that is most important for biodiversity conservation (Royal Soc. p 140, Dr Scotland, p 83, paragraphs 4.20-23).

Grant-in-aid funding: a real-terms decline

3.9 The major systematic institutions receive their grant-in-aid funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and from the Scottish Executive: Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD). This is received respectively by the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. DEFRA also provides the United Kingdom's contribution to CAB International[5].

3.10 In response to the Dainton Report's recommendation that grant-in-aid should be maintained in real terms (Dainton Paragraph 9.7) the Government agreed in 1992 to "continue to support systematic biology research and collections from public funds at a level necessary to maintain the United Kingdom's strong position in this field" (Govt. Response, to Dainton Paragraph 2)[6]. However, the Natural History Museum, and Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and Kew all report that their grant-in-aid funding has decreased in real-terms since 1992 with negative effects on research and on collections management and loss of professional taxonomist posts (p 42, p 61, p 67).

3.11 Both Kew and Edinburgh cite a decline of around 15 per cent, which is a fall in grant-in-aid below 1992 levels by 2,500,000 and 1,500,000 respectively (p 61, p 66). The Natural History Museum's grant-in-aid decreased by 27 per cent over the last ten years (p 42). The DCMS states that the NHM's grant-in-aid has increased from 28.4 million in 1993 to 30.4 million in 2000-01, but this increase is much less than inflation. Also, the expenditure for 2000-01 includes a capital grant of 800,000 (p 13).

3.12 CABI Bioscience receives three per cent of its income (or 600,000 per annum) from member government contributions, with the United Kingdom contributing 206,000 via DEFRA. This percentage has declined since 1992, when 11 per cent of its income (1.7 million per annum) was provided by government contributions (the United Kingdom provided 584,000) (p 9).

3.13 There is evidence that this decline in funding to the major systematics institutions and to CABI has had a negative effect on systematic biology in the United Kingdom, both in terms of research and in curation of collections. CABI Bioscience (p 9) insist that:

"To survive within this financial climate . . . taxonomy has paid a high price". CABI Bioscience

3.14 CABI has drastically reduced the number of PhD grade taxonomists in its employ (see table below), and decided to prioritise research in fungi (mycology), in part because of the paucity of fungi specialists elsewhere and the shortage of taxonomic data on fungi. However, even in this priority area the number of taxonomists has halved since 1992. Furthermore, the taxonomic activity of the mycologists is increasingly general with more time devoted to "income-generating but not strictly taxonomic activities" (p 10).

Taxonomists employed by CAB International 1992-2002

 

1992

2002

Bacteriology

1

0

Entomology/arachnology

12

0

Mycology

15

7

Nematology/parasitology

6

1

3.15 In attempts to maintain collections, to provide access to collections, and to develop new taxonomic data, the institutions have diverted resources into fundraising and revenue generation. This has had the effect, in the first instance at least, of directing resources away from those very activities that they are attempting to protect, such as research and the upkeep of the large and globally significant collections housed in these institutions (Nat. Hist. Mus. p 44, RBG Edinburgh p 61, RBG Kew p 67).

"In a diminishing funding regime, the consequences of placing a high priority on collections management and conservation means that fewer resources are available for the basic taxonomy and related research in systematic biology." Natural History Museum

3.16 Individuals and bodies from outside the systematic biology community also expressed concern about the decrease in funding to the major systematics institutions. Professor Lawton, Chief Executive of the NERC, (Q 197) informed us that:

"I chaired the review of Kew's science recently and there is no doubt that Kew is very stretched at the moment to provide the kind of taxonomic advice that other scientists need. I think that it is also true of the Natural History Museum". Professor John Lawton

3.17 In the light of this overall real-terms decrease in grant-in-aid funding, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh recently heard that SEERAD plans to provide extra financial support, following the Gardens developing a financial strategy that focuses on increasing self-generated income. It will see an increase from SEERAD amounting to an extra 930,000 over three years (on top of the annual figure of 6,182,000) (p 61).

3.18 Although there was much evidence of diminishing funding for systematic biology, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Minister for Science and Innovation, argued that the collections in the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are "probably ... financially and administratively stable" (Q 160).

Universities

3.19 In 1992 the Dainton Report warned, "Systematic biology has contracted at British universities to such an extent that it may be in danger of extinction as a sustainable discipline" (Paragraph 9.25). Evidence from Universities UK[7] suggests that this trend has not abated (p 85), supported by the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) Report from the Panel on Biological Sciences, which refers to the disappearing expertise in classical zoology and botany (see www.rae.ac.uk/overview).

... the trends have grown stronger—the discipline of systematics is in crisis ...." Universities UK

3.20 The School of Biological Sciences, University of Manchester explains that systematic research is increasingly poorly represented at Manchester. The RAE places emphasis on attracting external income, and systematic biology, particularly taxonomy research, does not attract large grants. As possible grant income "drives staff recruitment ... it is unlikely that a systematist would apply to, or be employed" by the University of Manchester (p 81). This situation has led to a decrease in numbers of taxonomists in universities and the amount of taxonomic teaching received by undergraduate biology students (Imperial College p 4, British Phycological Soc. p 8, Prof. Mallet p 36).

3.21 Cambridge University is at present "seeking ways to redress the balance and reinstate taxonomy" in its undergraduate teaching programme, in part through recruiting a senior systematic biologist to the Department of Plant Sciences (Prof. Parker p 51).

3.22 There has been some success in developing Masters courses in the last decade: the example most referred to in evidence was the MSc in Advanced Methods in Taxonomy and Biodiversity run jointly by Imperial College and the Natural History Museum. Whilst students are attracted to such courses, it was suggested that it is difficult to pursue a research career in taxonomy beyond that, as there are few PhD scholarships and post-doctoral positions (Imperial College p 5, Nat. Hist. Mus. p 48-9).

Decrease in professional and amateur taxonomists?

3.23 Universities UK expresses a concern that the number of staff engaged in systematic biology has decreased, with research that identifies and describes organisms facing "the greatest threat". This is "most unfortunate", in particular because of the "great collections and resources" which exist in the United Kingdom (p 85-6). Conservation organisations are particularly worried about the lack of taxonomists as they need taxonomists to identify specimens and provide identification aids. The Invertebrate Conservation Trust warns that "systematic biology is virtually dead" (p 28).

3.24 We heard some specific examples of declining numbers of staff, yet we did not gain a clear picture (p 1, p 4,). The Dainton Report carried out a piece of quantitative research, in which 140 institutions were asked about changes in expenditure on systematic biology and changes in staff numbers.

3.25 The current inquiry did not carry out such an investigation primarily because of time constraints. However, we sent out questionnaires, based on those used in the Dainton Report, to ten institutions where systematics is carried out (see Appendix 8). Four of the six questionnaires that were returned report a decline in total staff employed in systematic biology over the period 1995 to 2000. Declines ranged from nine to 14 per cent in each institution or 68 posts in total. The two remaining organisations report increases of six full-time equivalents. Thus the overall impression derived from this small survey is that some institutions have had major losses in systematic biology with a small fraction (< 10 per cent) of this loss being offset by gains in other institutions[8].

3.26 Much expertise on many groups of organisms, such as insects, increasingly rests with an amateur, volunteer community. Yet we heard that there is a shortage of volunteer taxonomists and that there is an "ageing cohort of volunteer specialists" (Prof. Akam p 1, Dr McLean Q 28, National Biodiversity Network Trust p 30, Plantlife p 53). British Phycological Society (p 118) warns that:

"We need to stimulate the interest of the next generation to identify species correctly, otherwise the carefully constructed systematic edifice of previous generations, in which the United Kingdom has played a prominent role, may fall into rapid decline". The British Phycological Society

3.27 If this decline in interested and able volunteers is not reversed and is coupled with a decrease in professional taxonomists in the United Kingdom, then evidence suggests that this country could lose its taxonomic expertise, placing it in a weak position to participate fully in conservation action.

On-going Research Council funding

3.28 Both the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the NERC fund systematic biology, although the NERC funds significantly more systematic biology research than the BBSRC.

3.29 Many systematic biologists view the Research Councils' funding policies as contributing to the demise of systematic biology. In particular some systematic biologists felt that it was difficult to obtain this funding, primarily because the Research Councils do not understand that systematic research cannot always be framed as an hypothesis (Linn. Soc. p 122, Prof Mallet p 36, Sys. Assoc. p 129, Appendix 5).

3.30 Furthermore some witnesses viewed taxonomy as an "enabling science" in that it provides important data for use by other scientists, yet it does not receive Research Council funding on that basis. They noticed that there is some Research Council funding for other enabling sciences, such as star surveys and genome sequencing (Linn. Soc. p 122).

3.31 Neither the BBSRC nor the NERC agrees that they do not fund taxonomy. Professor Lawton told us that (Q 185):

"... it is simply not true that [NERC] do not fund alpha taxonomy; we do". Professor John Lawton

He added that they do not fund open-ended taxonomy, such as a project to document all of a family of beetles, carried out to complete knowledge in that area. As with other areas of research, taxonomy proposals must point to a question in order for to be given funding. This question need not be hypothesis-driven (Q 185, see also Dr Doyle Q 190). There were some criticisms made by the Research Councils of the systematics community in suggesting that applications for funding often do not make explicit the relevance of systematic biology research: they do not answer the question "Why should we fund this?" (Appendix 5, p 37).

3.32 Nevertheless when people apply for funding for taxonomic work from NERC, they appear to do disproportionately well. The average success rate for NERC's responsive mode funding is 19 per cent. Yet out of 33 applications for responsive mode funding for taxonomic work received by NERC over the last two years, nine were funded, equivalent to 28 per cent success rate (Q 186).

3.33 Both Research Councils point out that they do fund enabling science (see Box 2). However the NERC identifies alpha taxonomy as "unusual", for whilst it can be described as an enabling science, there are not "users out there clamouring for significant increases in funding for alpha taxonomy" (p 169). The BBSRC adds another caveat: its funding of genome sequencing is highly targeted and does not contribute to an attempt to "sequence everything" unlike the perception of taxonomy research (Q 224, see Box 2).

Box 2

Enabling science: a monograph contributing to a study about changes in the earth's climate

NERC recently funded the production of a monograph on foraminifera—a group of tiny invertebrates (Q 238). Foraminifera have shells that sink to, and remain on, the ocean floor when the organisms die. These shells contain isotopes of oxygen that can provide evidence about the earth's climate conditions at the time the foraminifera were alive. This particular monograph enabled research into the early history of the earth's climate helping scientists to understand how climate has changed over time.

3.34 The remits of the Research Councils do not include funding basic maintenance of collections in systematics institutions. Their roles are not to cover decreasing grant-in-aid, nor do they wish to duplicate other sources of funding (Q 187; Q 191). Neither the BBSRC nor the NERC provide money to digitise collections in order to make material in collections more accessible, although the BBSRC do provide funds for development of "software and data bases; generic technical development" (Q 212).

The Darwin Initiative

3.35 The Darwin Initiative has provided a source of funding for taxonomists over the last ten years. It was developed by the UK Government in 1992, with the objective of helping to safeguard the world's biodiversity by drawing on UK strengths in this area to assist countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources. Darwin Initiative projects seek to enable these countries to fulfil their commitments under the CBD, including outlining and implementing national biodiversity strategies and undertaking research, training, education and public awareness activities (p 95).

3.36 This scheme is administered by DEFRA and has an annual budget of around 3 million: this figure has not increased in line with inflation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the remit of this scheme has broadened over time to include poverty alleviation and development issues (p 83, Appendix 5 p 39).

Box 3

An example of a Darwin Initiative project

The Natural History Museum, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Kasetsart University in Bangkok and the Ministry of Fisheries, Thailand collaborated to explore the potential of the world-wide-web as a tool for exchange of taxonomic information between biodiversity researchers. The project has enabled researchers to share information about polychaete worms, in order to determine whether specimens found in various places are the same or different species. Polychaetes are segmented worms and are very common marine organisms. Taxonomic information on them is used to monitor marine environmental quality. This Darwin Initiative project has contributed to developing a high quality base of taxonomic information for use by marine conservationists.

Co-ordination, collaboration and priority-setting

3.37 The ultimate aim of systematic biology is a complete documentation of all species in the world with a clear understanding of all relationships between them all. However even after over a century of such research, 1.7 million out of an estimated 5-13 million of the world's species have been documented, with many of those being poorly understood beyond being given a name. Given the estimated huge number of unidentified species, some witnesses, including the Minister and the Chief Scientific Adviser, argued that it was important to develop some priority areas of action for taxonomists (Q 154-6, 158).

3.38 The UK Systematics Forum was established following the Dainton Report and provided some cohesion for the systematic biology community. It developed a database of all systematic biologists and their areas of research and published a document in 1998, The Web of Life, which outlined the importance of systematic biology to the United Kingdom and attempted to establish some priority areas.

3.39 In 2000-01 the Forum was disbanded. This followed the withdrawal of funding from the Office of Science and Technology. The Minister suggested that the systematics community was not keen to support it, and pointed out that one of its failings was that it did not establish a clear set of objectives (Q 174). Lord May of Oxford, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser at the time attempted to encourage the UK Systematics Forum to carry out research about demography of taxonomists in the United Kingdom and an analysis of the educational courses with systematic biology components, but without success (Q 132).

3.40 Little other general co-ordination activity over the last ten years was brought to our attention. Yet throughout this inquiry witnesses identified a lack of co-ordination within the systematics community and poor collaboration between taxonomists and the users of taxonomic data (such as conservationists and ecologists) as a problem for effective conservation (Joint Nature Conservation Committee p 97, Inver. Conserv. Trust p 28).

Conclusion

3.41 Systematic biology in the United Kingdom has had a mixed fortune since the Dainton Report. On the one hand increased funding via two initiatives has stimulated the area of systematic biology research relating to understanding evolutionary relationships between species. There has also been some opportunity for funding basic taxonomic research via the Darwin Initiative.

3.42 On the other hand both the NERC and Wellcome Trust initiatives have come to an end, so even those few institutions that benefited have lost that financial support. Systematic biology research that identifies and describes species was not the primary support area of these initiatives. In addition universities, or those who fund them, do not appear to prioritise this area of research, with a number of different witnesses warning that it is a subject in crisis. Furthermore, the collections that provide the raw data for that research and digitisation of those collections are mostly provided for by Government grant-in-aid. This funding to the major systematics institutions has decreased in real-terms over the last ten years.

3.43 Increased collaboration between the systematics community and the users of taxonomic data and priority-setting in consultation with them would be a helpful step in ensuring that systematic biologists focus on providing data needed to conserve biodiversity.

 


5  
CAB International was formerly the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau. It is an intergovernmental not-for-profit organisation with centres in six locations worldwide, one part of which, CABI Bioscience, conducts work in applied biological sciences for sustainable agriculture and environmental safety.

 Back

6   Cm 2243, July 1993. Back

7   The Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, a member of the Select Committee, is Chief Executive of Universities UK. Back

8   The figures on resources spent on systematic biology are not being published, as they were gathered on the basis of anonymity and the sample was too small for the figures to be anonymised. 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