Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report

CHAPTER 4: Does the decline in systematic biology matter?

4.1 A pertinent question to ask at this point is: does it matter whether systematic biology disappears as a discipline in the United Kingdom? In order to clarify why systematic biology is important, it is necessary to outline its nature and to examine its various uses. We do so below.

4.2 Another pertinent question is whether it matters if the United Kingdom, as opposed to other countries, has a healthy systematic biology community? We examine the evidence that systematic biology provides significant resources for conservationists. The United Kingdom has signed up to a number of treaties and conventions relating to biodiversity conservation, and, if systematic biology is fundamental to conservation, it will be necessary for the Government to support systematic biology in the United Kingdom in order to fulfil these obligations.

The uses of systematic biology

4.3 Like other academic disciplines systematic biology is carried out, in part, as a pursuit of pure knowledge. For example, identifying a new fungus excites fungi experts, and specialists in evolutionary relationships are motivated by examining relationships within and between species. However, systematic biology is said to be fundamental to many other activities, and its demise could have an impact on agriculture, medicine and veterinary science, and biodiversity conservation and ecology. Specifically it:

(a) provides a common biological language to ensure that people mean the same thing when they talk about a particular species;

(b) helps to identify living species that are important to mankind, in order that they can be used, controlled appropriately, and that suitable measures are taken to manage them; and

(c) contributes to conserving biodiversity by identifying areas of high diversity and species under threat.

Providing a common language

4.4 Systematic biology provides a framework for much other biological science because it provides an international language of biology, in that it identifies, describes and systematically ascribes names to living things (p 52, p 96, p 138). This language and system of naming should allow scientists, including conservationists, to be sure that they are talking about the same organism. Dr McLean from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) insisted that (Q 39):

"... a common language is an essential pre-requisite to sharing information about species, their ecology, their status, their distribution and how they are changing over time". Dr McLean JNCC

4.5 However, whilst no-one denied the importance of having a system of naming living things, some individuals and bodies suggest that this system is a relic of 19th Century science and needs to be overhauled (Q 85, Q 142). At present one species can be "discovered" a number of times, and given a different name each time: this arises, for example, because a systematic biologist may not be able to check every taxonomic collection in existence to ensure that a particular specimen has not previously been identified. Furthermore, a new species needs to be presented in a publication before being accepted. Professor Charles Godfray, a systematic biologist at Imperial College, recently published a paper[9], which, amongst other recommendations, suggests that the system of naming should be organised using the world-wide web (see paragraphs 4.17, 5.17-19).

Identifying species that are of value or harmful to mankind

4.6 One of the aims of the CBD is that we should identify species of value (or harm) to mankind in order to ensure that they are protected and used in a sustainable manner, or indeed understood and controlled appropriately. In particular, the areas of agriculture and associated industries and human and animal health, benefit greatly from the products of systematic biology.

4.7 Agriculture, forestry and horticulture all depend in some way on products of systematic biology. An area of concern for agriculturists is ensuring that soil is fertile to allow as high a crop yield as possible on a long-term basis. Many different organisms have recently been found to play an important role in soil fertility, particularly nematodes (non-segmented worms) and some varieties of fungi. (Department of International Development p 20, Institute of Biology et al[10] p 5, Royal Ent. Soc. p 78, Forestry Commission p 17, Royal Horticultural Soc. p 78)

4.8 Pests are also a problem for farmers, foresters and horticulturists as they attack and destroy crops and animals. Taxonomists are able to identify pests and then to provide advice about how to control them. This ability is of particular importance in areas of the world where pests damaging crops can lead to food shortages and therefore increased poverty and malnutrition. In the burgeoning area of fish-farming, taxonomists provide assessments of the suitability of particular species of fish for farming and identifying and tracking parasites pests (DFID p 20, Royal Ent. Soc. p 78, Appendix 4).

4.9 Taxonomists play a fundamental role in human and animal health identifying pathogens central to infectious disease and in understanding and helping to curb disease-carrying pests and pathogens. Having the capacity to identify diseases and pests is central to attempts to reduce human and animal illness (Wellcome Trust p 86).

4.10 Some taxonomists, particularly those specialising in plants, have played a significant role in identifying species that have medicinal properties. Fewer pharmaceutical companies than in the past are asking taxonomists specifically to identify natural sources of particular components and they are spending more money on synthesising the pharmaceutical components. However, the Institute of Horticulture points out that (p 27):

"A large number of drugs have been obtained from plants, and the search continues at Kew, the Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research and elsewhere. The problem ... is urgent because the world-wide destruction of natural habitats is leading to the loss of many potentially useful species". Institute of Horticulture

Conserving biodiversity

4.11 The United Kingdom has signed a variety of global treaties and agreements that require it to conserve biodiversity (see Appendix 7). The most significant of these is the Convention of Biological Diversity, which the United Kingdom signed in 1992. Taxonomists are central to at least four aims of this treaty in that they can:

(a) indicate areas of high diversity

(b) indicate species under threat of extinction

(c) identify species that may be of value (or indeed harm) to mankind

(d) improve the understanding of how ecosystems function (Royal Society, p 138).

4.12 The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD has identified a "taxonomic impediment", or a global scarcity of taxonomic skills, resources and information. It considers this impediment is a serious obstacle to fulfilling the objectives of the CBD. Anecodotal evidence from the systematics institutions suggests that their work has increased significantly owing to the United Kingdom's commitments to biodiversity conservation.

Identifying Species: Are we running out of time?

4.13 In order to conserve organisms we need to have knowledge of what organisms exist, their characteristics and where they are. Yet there is concern amongst the scientific community that:

"... rising numbers of species face extinction or severe depletion in the wild. It has been estimated that roughly one to ten per cent of the world's species will become extinct or decline irrecoverably over the next quarter century." UK Systematics Forum[11]

4.14 Furthermore, there may be many more species that could have significant beneficial uses for mankind. However only a small proportion of the estimated species in the world are known. Reasonable estimates of the number of different species vary from between 5 and 13 million, with only 1.7 million of those having been formally identified (Lord May Q 122, Nat. Hist. Mus. p 47).

Box 4

Treatment for leukaemia: the rosy periwinkle

The rosy periwinkle is well known as the source of some drugs important in the treatment of childhood leukaemia and Hodgkin's disease. It is native to Madagascar, but is widespread and common elsewhere. However, its closest relatives are confined to Madagascar and have very narrow distributions there. These species could become extinct if there is further habitat destruction. If these relatives were to become extinct it would mean that we had lost genetic resources that could prove crucial in the future if the form of rosy periwinkle now grown as a crop became susceptible to some new pest or disease.

4.15 Whilst the biodiversity in the United Kingdom is both better understood and less rich than in some other countries, we heard that there are still probably many undocumented species here (Dr McLean Q 13). For example, a mycologist recently discovered a new species of fungus within the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (Appendix 6).

Tools for biodiversity conservation

4.16 Once taxonomists have identified, described and named species, they are able to disseminate information in identification aids, to be used by conservationists and others. Such products include:

(a) Keys—lists of essential characteristics needed for identifying specimens, often with illustrations. Keys exist in both paper form and, increasingly, in electronic form. Identification through keys plays a central role in the survey, evaluation, management and defence of ecosystems (Invert. Conserv. Trust pp 28-9, Freshwater Biol. Assoc. p 19).

(b) Regional Treatments—a publication that examines the members of a particular taxonomic group occurring in a specific geographical area. A regional treatment would often include keys, short or detailed descriptions and sometimes a list of all names in use for the species. An advantage of a regional treatment is that it provides people working in a particular area with a definitive handbook for that area.

(c) Monographs—a publication of the results of broad and detailed studies of a particular taxonomic group. A monograph considers all the species of a group. Monographs often include a well-illustrated key. Such a publication should provide a definitive guide to which organisms should be recognised as belonging to the group. A well-written monograph can remain useful for up to one hundred years or more; and would continue to be cited by scientists (Professor Humphries Q 85; see also NBN Trust p 30, Krell 2002[12]).

(d) Checklists—a list of correct names covering a group of species or a geographical area (NBN Trust p 30).

Difficulties in obtaining information

4.17 Unfortunately it can be difficult for potential users, such as conservationists, to access data about organisms (p 19, pp 28-9). They often need to visit a collection in person or have specimens posted to them, both of which can be prohibitively expensive. Research on biodiversity would be facilitated if collections were available digitally (as images with text), particularly over the world-wide web. Professor Godfray identifies this as one of the benefits of his recommendation of putting authoritative taxonomic classifications on the web. Information and illustrations in digital form and on websites are increasing, thus widening access to researchers of biodiversity throughout the world.

4.18 Only a minute fraction of images and data in the United Kingdom's major systematics institutions have been digitised. Raw data are still not easily accessible to conservation specialists and ecologists. However, there are few sources of funding for digitising collections, although more funding is available for developing appropriate software and technology. The Darwin Initiative has also funded some projects with a view to providing data to the country of origin of the specimens. The National Biodiversity Network Trust is one example of increased awareness of the importance of digital information: it houses a web-based species dictionary, and DEFRA have recently provided funding to incorporate marine datasets into the NBN Trust (p 93).

4.19 There are not only problems of accessibility of information, but also of its usefulness. Some conservationists argue that identification guides are written in an unclear manner and leave out fundamental information, such as an illustration of the species (p 28):

"Many keys are awkward, demotivating and out of date". Invertebrate Conservation Trust

Descriptions of species to underpin conservation

4.20 Different amounts and kinds of taxonomic information are needed for different purposes. On the one hand we heard that there is enough taxonomic information about UK species to understand changes in the UK environment and to implement action (Professor Lawton Q 197). On the other hand conservationists require information beyond identification and description of species such as data on breeding and movement of species (Dr Collins Q 61).

4.21 For some purposes a shortage of taxonomic information is an enormous barrier to conservation activity: a view upheld by the Convention of the Parties to the CBD, which has identified this as part of the global "taxonomic impediment". The Minister for Science told us that "One of the issues that always comes out of all of the debates about biodiversity is that we have a very bad database of knowing what is existing and what is happening to it. Only by doing ... alpha taxonomy can one get a database to make ... judgements ... about what action needs to be taken in order to conserve biodiversity" (Q 148).

4.22 The House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs (ETRA) (now Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) expressed concern in its report on UK Biodiversity that the United Kingdom requires better knowledge about biodiversity in order to develop conservation policy with "long-term credibility" (Paragraph 14)[13].

4.23 We agree with Lord Sainsbury of Turville, that, given the estimated huge numbers of undocumented species which would take years to formally identify and describe, it is wise to develop some priority areas for action (Q 154-6). These priorities could be formed either around those groups of species that are poorly understood: invertebrates in general, insects, plants and fungi were all highlighted. Alternatively, priorities could be based on areas of concern, such as soil fertility (Dr McLean Q 13, Lord May Q 118, Plantlife p 53).


4.24 Systematic biologists provide information that is used by a wide-range of scientists, from agriculturists to medical researchers. They identify species that are both beneficial and harmful to humans, many of which are of economic importance. Taxonomic data are fundamental to conserving biodiversity. Taxonomists are needed to provide conservationists with tools to identify and therefore monitor the prevalence of species, by indicating which species are near extinction and by indicating areas of the world with high diversity that should be conserved.

4.25 The United Kingdom is committed to contributing to conservation through signing a range of treaties and conventions. In order to fulfil these commitments we argue that it is necessary for the United Kingdom to have a healthy systematic biology community that has sufficient support and that works alongside Government and conservationists to produce relevant and important data. Furthermore, we conclude that the Government should ensure that the valuable natural resources of collections of biodiverstiy housed in this country are well-maintained and that information within them is made available to taxonomists and conservationists world-wide.


H.Charles. J. Godfray. 2002. "How might more systematics be funded?" Antenna. 26(1): 11-17 Back

10   The Institute of Biology sent in evidence co-authored with the British Ecological Society, the British Phycological Society, the British Society for Plant Pathology, the Freshwater Biological Association, the Royal Entomological Society and the Society for Experimental Biology. For the sake of brevity we refer to this evidence as Inst. Biol. et al. Some of these organisations also provided their own responses.  Back

11   The Web of Life: A Strategy for Systematic Biology in the United Kingdom.UK Systematics Forum  Back

12   Frank-Thorston Krell. 2002. "Why impact factors don't work for taxonomy". Nature. 415:957 Back

13   House of Commons, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. 12th Report, 1999-2000. UK Biodiversity. HC 441. ISBN 0 10 271200 Back

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