Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report

Appendix 4

Summary of Systematic Biology Research (1992) and the Government response

Lord Dainton's 1992 Inquiry was triggered by proposals for staff cuts and changes in research and curation policy at the Natural History Museum (NHM) outlined in its Corporate Plan for 1991-1995. The financial distress of the NHM attracted attention and raised widespread concern, but the Committee considered that many other organisations attempting to conduct systematic biology research might also be experiencing difficulties.

The report describes the nature of systematic biology research (the science of naming and classifying all organisms and the relationships between them) and the facilities that such research requires, especially properly curated collections. It outlines the various applications of systematic biology, noting its relevance to the study and management of biodiversity, and proceeds to describe the various bodies involved in systematics research in the UK.

The report contains extensive tabulated data on the trends in funding and manpower devoted to systematic biology research between 1980 and 1990. The data were collected from responses to a questionnaire sent out by the Committee to all the relevant institutions in the UK - an attempt to substantiate anecdotal evidence about long-term attrition.

The Committee found that while the total expenditure (including research, curation and information services) remained fairly constant in real terms between 1980 and 1990 (about 30M in 1990 prices), expenditure on research dropped by six per cent.

The report pays particular attention to the long-term financial support needed to curate systematics collections. The application of DNA sequencing and advances in electronic data handling to systematics were also considered.

The conclusions of the report stress the central importance of systematic biology research to most branches of biological science. The principal recommendations are:

(i) maintaining core funding in real terms for research and curation of the collections in the major systematics institutions;

(ii) setting aside special funds by the relevant research council for systematics research and by the government body in charge of museums for curation of collections;

(iii) creating a new forum for systematics institutions to rationalise holdings and expertise; and

(iv) funding MSc courses to supply trained systematists.

The Government response reiterated the Committee's view that systematic biology is important: "Systematic biology underpins the Government's policy initiatives on the environment and biodiversity, both in the UK and in an international context" [paragraph 2].

The Committee's recommendations for special funding for systematics drew the negative response that the Government had to "consider its claims alongside other important branches of science and other claims on public funds" [paragraph 5].

Addressing the manpower problems identified by the Committee was not the Government's business: "it is for the academic and research community to assess the adequacy of the supply of qualified systematists. It must be for that community to consider the relative place of different approaches to the study of biology in the context of evolving patterns of knowledge, and to determine and make known their own recruitment policies" [paragraph 31].

However, other government activities and initiatives relating to systematics were noted, including (i) the review by NERC of scientific opportunities in the field of taxonomy; and (ii) the launch of the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species, with new resources of 6M for 1993-6, to help fund biodiversity work in the UK and overseas in support of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.


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