Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


CHAPTER 5: What needs to be changed?

5.1 We argue that in order for the United Kingdom to fulfil its obligations to conserving biodiversity both the Government and the systematic biology community itself need to take action to improve systematic biology in this country. Conservation organisations, such as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), will also need to play a role in ensuring that they receive the taxonomic data that they require to improve biodiversity policy.

Grant-in-aid funding

5.2 It is clear to us that funding to the major systematic biology institutions in the United Kingdom has declined in real terms. Funding for research can be and is obtained from sources other than directly from government departments. However, it is not within the remit of the NERC or the BBSRC to provide funds to institutions for the basic maintenance of collections. We do not believe that this should change. Private funding could, on occasion, cover some costs for a particular area of a collection, but this is likely to be patchy if forthcoming at all.

5.3 We believe that it is essential to protect the globally significant collections housed in the major systematics institutions. These collections function as raw data on biodiversity and provide the basis for taxonomic research, which is then used by conservationists and ecologists. The collections must be safeguarded and we view the Government's grant-in-aid as providing resources for this.

5.4 In view of the Government's commitments to biodiversity conservation we recommend that they increase grant-in-aid to the major systematics institutions. We envisage this as providing support to collections—the databases used by systematic biologists and conservationists. In accordance with the recommendation of the Dainton Report, grant-in-aid funding should be increased to the level it would have been had the 1992 figures been maintained in line with inflation. This would allow further digitising of the collections.

5.5 The OECD has recently highlighted the importance of providing financial stability to centres that hold collections of data relating to biodiversity conservation and the genomics revolution[14] and the need to ensure that collections are well maintained and that there is sufficient expertise to use the material to best advantage.

5.6 We recommend that the Government consider providing support to systematics collections as part of a bigger project to support biological resource centres, as recently highlighted by the OECD.

Clear outline of conservation policy

5.7 At present the Government have not published a clear summary of their policies relating to conservation. This information presented in one document would be useful not only as public information but also to enable the systematic biology and conservation communities to develop effective strategies in line with the Government's aims.

5.8 We recommend that the Government develop and publish a clear, concise summary document regarding their policy on biodiversity conservation activity in the United Kingdom and on the international stage.

Universities and the RAE

5.9 University support for systematic biology is on balance weaker than at the time of the Dainton Report. This is at least in part a consequence of the Funding Councils' policies and the emphasis placed by the RAE on recently cited publications. Systematic biology publications often do not have as immediate an impact as publications in other areas of science, yet are quite regularly referred to over a long period of time, sometimes exceeding a century (Professor Mallet p 36, paragraph 3.20, Krell[15]).

5.10 Systematic biology generally does not attract significant levels of external funding, which is another factor in the Funding Councils' formulae. As with other minority disciplines, the Funding Councils have a responsibility to the health of this discipline, even though it may not attract many undergraduate students.

5.11 We agree with the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the RAE has discouraged activities that do "not lead directly to the improvement of the Departments' RAE score" (Paragraph 35)[16]. Its report also emphasises that the period of assessment for scientific publications discriminates against certain areas of science and those scientists pursuing long-term research (Paragraph 38). We believe that both these points are highly relevant to the continuing decline of systematic biology in universities.

5.12 We recommend that the Higher Education Funding Councils should consider the role of the Research Assessment Exercise in the decline of systematic biology in universities and explore ways in which to support this subject, as they do with other minority disciplines.

BBSRC Academic Analogue Status

5.13 The three major UK systematics institutions, the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and Kew, are all recognised as "academic analogues" by the NERC. This allows them to apply for responsive mode funding as well as thematic funds. The BBSRC recognises the Natural History Museum as an academic analogue, but has recently turned down Edinburgh and Kew for such status. In evidence the BBSRC did not provide convincing reasons as to why academic analogue status should not be extended to these other institutions (Q Q 227-37, p 169).

5.14 We recommend that the BBSRC should reconsider its decision not to award academic analogue status to Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and Kew.

Accessibility, co-ordination and priorities

5.15 While we recognise that systematic biology is an academic pursuit taken up in part because of researchers' interests in identifying and discovering animals, plants, fungi and microbes, it is also of fundamental importance to efforts to conserve biodiversity.

5.16 We recommend that the systematic biology community, especially via the Systematics Association and the Linnean Society, should increase efforts to demonstrate the relevance and importance of systematic biology. This should have the effect both of improving its profile to funding bodies and of making it more attractive to potential professional taxonomists and volunteers. We also hope that systematic biologists who are members of learned societies, such as the Institute of Biology and the Royal Society, will use their influence to promote the discipline.

5.17 We were impressed by Professor Godfray's suggestions to make systematic biology a web-based discipline. This would have the advantage of simplifying the system of naming, making it more comprehensible to other scientists and to non-scientists. Also, providing and updating taxonomic data on the web would make it accessible to people all over the world overcoming the need, in some cases, to travel to collections. Furthermore, increased use of the world-wide web would also revise the image of systematic biologists.

5.18 The systematic biology community have discussed some of the proposals championed now by Professor Godfray over the last few years. There are a number of concerns about a primarily web-based science. For example, it has been argued that at present web-sites do not survive for long: few are properly maintained and many soon become out-of-date and redundant. Digitising all information would take a long time and would certainly require significant financial support (Dr Doyle Q 208). Finally, changes to the system of naming would require international agreement.

5.19 We recommend that the United Kingdom should take the lead and propose to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) that the GBIF run a pilot with some priority for species groups which would form the basis of a trial for Professor Charles Godfray's suggestion of making taxonomy primarily digitised and web-based. A trial would demonstrate the benefits and pit-falls of this approach before implementing it more widely.

5.20 We believe that UK systematic biologists need to collaborate more often and more effectively, in part for the purposes of developing research and for applying for funding. It is also particularly important that they collaborate in order to attack the task of documenting and understanding the world's biodiversity. This is an overwhelming task, with only a small percentage of species being documented after 250 years of formal taxonomic research. It is necessary to be pragmatic and to decide on some priority areas. These priorities should be developed with conservationists and with awareness of international resources and taxonomic activity.

5.21 We are convinced that there is poor coordination between Government departments and between them and the systematic biology community and conservationists. Co-ordination is fundamental to biodiversity conservation action. The Government has signed up to various biodiversity conventions and treaties and those who are attempting to implement them need taxonomic information from the systematic biology community.

5.22 We recommend that DEFRA takes the lead in setting up a body with the express purpose of bringing together representatives from Government departments, ecologists and conservationists and the systematic biology community, including those based at museums, universities and other institutions. DEFRA should provide funding for administrative support, in the early stages, although we envisage that the body should eventually seek to become self-financing with all participants making a small contribution to running costs. The body's main remit would be to:

(a) identify priority areas of biodiversity for which taxonomic research is most needed by the conservation community, and for other national purposes, such as health and agriculture.

Additional remits would be to:

(b) assess the taxonomic impediment to conservation action—specifically to analyse the shortage of taxonomic specialists and gaps in taxonomic data;

(c) campaign for resources for taxonomists researching in those priority areas.

Attracting people to systematic biology: school education and beyond

5.23 We are concerned about the reported decline in professional and amateur taxonomists. In particular, we are concerned by the shortage of taxonomic teaching that occurs at school and university. There is little taxonomy in either the GCSE or A-Level syllabuses. The decline in numbers of taxonomists at universities ensures that fewer undergraduate students now receive good introductions to taxonomy. In order to replenish amateur and professional taxonomists in the future, education must emphasise the importance of taxonomy (p 8, pp 34-6,p 85).

5.24 Education extends beyond school and university years, and we were therefore pleased to hear from the Natural History Museum about its new Darwin Centre (to open in April 2002). This will present the public with an exciting impression of the work that is carried out by researchers at the Museum. We were similarly encouraged by the plans by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to make its herbarium and library more accessible to the public (see Appendix 6).

5.25 Whilst increasing the use of modern techniques in taxonomy research could help to make it more attractive, we were struck by its close relationship to biodiversity conservation. Some aspects of taxonomists' careers are extremely attractive, particularly to young people. Being a taxonomist provides opportunities to perform field work, requiring significant foreign travel and to work in remote areas of the world, to acquire aptitude in foreign languages and to interact with different cultures. Such work can lead to discovering new species, which the taxonomist then has the privilege of naming. If these elements of work were more widely known, we believe that it would attract more young biologists (see Recommendation 5.16).

The Darwin Initiative

5.26 We have a very positive impression of the Darwin Initiative, which has succeeded in drawing on the taxonomic collections and specialists in the United Kingdom to benefit conservation and sustainable use in a number of developing countries rich in biodiversity.

5.27 We would encourage the Government to consider expanding funding available to the Darwin Initiative. In part this is because it has recently developed its range of funding priorities to include a more broad-based focus on development issues and poverty alleviation. Whilst these are commendable activities in which to be engaged, we believe that it is important to retain a significant part of the Darwin Initiative funding for developing capacity in poor countries in biodiversity conservation. We would also suggest that it is important to ensure that less well-known and understood species are covered by Darwin Initiative projects.

5.28 As part of its capacity-building remit, the Darwin Initiative is perfectly placed to develop projects with the aim of digitising data held in UK collections, in order to make such information accessible to people across the world.

5.29 We recommend that the current level of spending on the Darwin Initiative, approximately 3 million per annum, should be earmarked specifically for projects with a significant taxonomic component, to be used for conservation purposes. This would be used to help build taxonomic capacity in developing countries and should include projects to digitise UK systematics collections. Any additional funds to the Darwin Initiative beyond this core could have a wider remit to include projects with a major focus on development issues or poverty alleviation.

Conclusion

5.30 We conclude by reiterating that taxonomic expertise is required in order to implement biodiversity conservation policy: an activity which the Government has pledged to support through subscribing to a variety of treaties and conventions. We are pleased to note that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recently recommended that frameworks developed at Rio should be developed rather than forgotten at the World Summit on Sustainable Development[17].

5.31 The Government should increase its support to systematic biology, on the basis that it provides data necessary for conservation. The systematic biology and conservation communities also need to increase communication and collaboration with each other in order to ensure that the United Kingdom can continue to take advantage of its strong legacy in this area of research.

5.32 Systematic biologists and conservationists can draw on the globally significant collections of specimens that are housed in institutions in this country to improve conservation in the United Kingdom and internationally. These institutions have an important role to play in building scientific capacity in developing countries and should therefore be protected. Government departments, the systematic biology community and conservationists need to work together to ensure that they establish practices to preserve species and ecosystems in order to continue to benefit from living in a world with a rich variety of life.

 


14   OECD. 2001. Biological Resource Centres: Underpinning the Future of Life Sciences and Biotechnology. ISBN 9264186905.  Back

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

16   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Second Report of Session 2001-02. The Research Assessment Exercise. HC 507. ISBN 0 215 00291 1 Back

17   House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. Third Report, Session 2001-02. UK Preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. HC 616-I. ISBN: 0 215 00263 6  Back

 
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