Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report

Appendix 5

Seminar held at the Natural History Museum, London - 23 January 2002

A seminar was organised at the Natural History Museum to inform the Committee about developments in systematic biology since 1992 and to enable them to meet and converse with a number of systematic biologists, and representatives from relevant Government departments and Research Councils.

Members of the Sub-Committee present were Lord Flowers, Lord McColl of Dulwich, Lord Patel, Lord Quirk, Lord Rea, Earl of Selborne, Lord Turnberg and Baroness Walmsley (Chairman). The Committee was supported by the Sub-Committee's Specialist Adviser (Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha) and Clerk (Rebecca Neal), and the Select Committee's Specialist Assistant (Dr Adam Heathfield).

Participants were:  

Dr John Baker, NERC

Professor Richard Bateman, Natural History Museum

Professor Stephen Blackmore, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Professor Geoff Boxshall, Natural History Museum

Sir Neil Chalmers, Natural History Museum

Professor Peter Crane, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Dr Paul Eggleton, Natural History Museum

Dr Martin Embley, Natural History Museum

Ms Mary Fridlington, Natural History Museum

Dr Alf Game, BBSRC

Professor Charles Godfray, Imperial College

Mr Richard Hartman, DCMS

Professor Paul Henderson, Natural History Museum

Mr John Jackson, Natural History Museum

Dr Tim Littlewood, Natural History Museum

Dr Norman MacLeod, Natural History Museum

Ms Patricia Mandeville, DCMS

Mr Ben Newbound, OST

Dr P Graham Oliver, National Museums & Galleries of Wales

Prof Simon Owens, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Ms Vanessa Pike, Natural History Museum

Mr Bob Press, Natural History Museum

Professor Philip Rainbow, Natural History Museum

Dr Paul Rose, JNCC

Mr Simon Rowley, OST

Dr Robert Scotland, University of Oxford

Mr Jonathan Tillson, DEFRA

Mr Richard Vane-Wright, Natural History Museum

Dr Mark Wilkinson, Natural History Museum

Mr Tony Williamson, DCMS



The day began with a series of presentations, summarised below.

The Nature and Scope of Modern Systematics

Prof Geoff Boxshall of the Natural History Museum defined systematic biology as "the science of classifying living organisms into hierarchical systems of groups, according to their phylogenetic relationships". He referred to taxonomy, the formal characterisation and description of the organisms, as the first step in any systematics study. Prof Boxshall considered the criticism that systematic biology was not hypothesis driven as unfounded. Systematists generate hypotheses about relationships, with each circumscription of a taxon being a testable hypothesis of relationships. He argued that main intellectual products of systematic biology could be placed into four main types: hypotheses about relationships between living organisms; classification systems reflecting those relationships; hypotheses concerning patterns of biodiversity; and identification tools. Prof Boxshall stressed that whilst many people identify living organisms, only systematists produce the tools to enable others to make the identifications.

Prof Boxshall explained that techniques used by systematists biologists varied from classical morphology through light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy to DNA sequencing. Whilst the introduction of modern methods had added to the range of available techniques more traditional techniques remained essential to the systematist in order to identify species and to maintain extensive specimen collections for reference. Prof Boxshall did point out that molecular biology had led to using DNA probes to discover whole groups of novel marine organisms.

Prof Boxshall stressed that the scope of systematics was continually expanding. The discovery of life in novel and extreme environments, such as hydrothermal vents, had expanded the scope of systematics, as had recent rapid developments in the area of bioinformatics. Priorities in this scientific community were shifting to take note of the pivotal role of invertebrate and micro-organism biodiversity in ecosystem functioning.

Prof Boxshall identified the principal tasks for the systematics community in the future as

Continuing to fulfil its unique role within the science community;

Providing biodiversity data and expertise to enable the UK to meet its obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity;

Underpinning national efforts in conservation and the battle against invasive species; and

Helping to redevelop whole organism biology in UK science education.

All of these tasks would require adequate resources, which Prof Boxshall claimed were currently lacking.

Prof Boxshall concluded by arguing that systematic biology was "in the best intellectual shape for centuries", having established a sound theoretical basis in evolutionary biology, developed rigorous statistical methods for generating and testing hypotheses and devised innovative methods for data gathering, handling and analysis.

Systematics and Current Issues

Dr Littlewood of the Natural History Museum told how the study of the evolutionary history of a species or higher taxonomic group (phylogenetics) relates to a wide range of concerns both medical and non-medical. Epidemiology required understanding of relationships between the genetic composition of an organism and its morphology and ecology. Also, tracking and predicting the progress of many diseases, such as the AIDS virus, required phylogenetics.

The development of drugs and vaccines could be speeded up by researching the most relevant genes to undesirable characteristics of infectious agents or disease vectors. The non-medical applications of phylogenetics included:

Conservation and biodiversity assessment

Agriculture - to identify weeds and monitor the spread of GM crops

Aquaculture and fisheries - to manage stock and control pests

Alterations to the numbers or the gene pool of various species were valuable indicators for impact assessments of development projects and climate change.

Dr Littlewood argued that gene and tissue banks would become increasingly important resources for systematists. He mentioned the Tree of Life post-genome initiative in the USA and GenBank.

Collections for Systematics

Mr Press of the Natural History Museum introduced the UK systematics collections as encompassing almost the whole of natural history and including living as well as preserved collections. He stressed that the collections include UK native species and species from all over the world. This global sample reflected the United Kingdom's history and represents raw data in solid form. This was a vast and accessible resource for direct study and analysis. Collections provide a catalogue of biodiversity, both of particular taxonomic groups and of particular geographic areas or habitats. Also, each specimen represents a unique point in space and time, enabling scientists to reconstruct history in terms of evolution, distribution and abundance, and to evaluate past and ongoing changes in the natural world.

Mr Press told us that collections in systematic biology allow hypotheses to be tested and systematic research to be repeated, and they provide a source, to which systematists can return to verify data and make new observations.

Mr Press stressed the importance of "type" specimens, the specimen that represents a reference point to describe a species and to fix the use of scientific names of organisms and help to fix taxonomic concepts by linking those names with morphology. However he warned that it was not sufficient for collections to consist of "type specimens" but necessary to hold a variety of examples, in order to document variability within species. He told the committee that whole organism collections are still necessary despite the existence of molecular sequence data.

Mr Press related that modern-day collecting of species was far more selective than it used to be. Systematic biologists identified gaps in collections and then these species were searched for. It was rare to visit one location and take samples of everything that was present (known as "hay baling"). New types of material were now being added to the collections e.g. gene and tissue banks.

Mr Press stated that reference collections were essential to monitor biodiversity, because it relies on accurate identification of organisms. The UK collections provided a resource for complying with the requirements of the CBD, not just for the United Kingdom, but for other countries from where the specimens in the collections were taken. Molecular sequence data are insufficient on their own for the rapid identification of organisms.

Mr Press identified the principal issues for collections as: ensuring sufficient resources for the preservation of existing specimens; improving the cataloguing of specimens in collections; and enhancing access to that data. Advances in conservation techniques had greatly enhanced the ability to maintain the collections in good condition. Increased cataloguing efforts were required in order for collections managers to better understand their holdings and to facilitate and increase access to them. Direct access to collections or loans of specimens from most institutions were usually available, but the costs of travel or postage for return of loans were prohibitive for many international researchers. Mr Press pointed out that uploading information onto the world-wide web overcomes constraints of cost and time of viewing collections and should be better supported. He warned that digitising taxonomic data was poorly funded and that access to digital images did not make redundant the physical collections.

Resources - Finance and Expertise

Professor Blackmore, of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, outlined three main tasks currently facing systematics: documenting the diversity of life; discovering its evolutionary history; and providing information via the web. He pointed out that understanding of the diversity of life is limited. Although approximately 1.7 million species have been formally identified, an estimated 11.3 million remained undescribed.

Professor Blackmore presented some statistics drawn from the Web of Life, a strategy document produced by the UK Systematics Forum. The 22 largest collections of organisms in the United Kingdom included some 104 million specimens of which 10 per cent were type specimens. These collections had been assembled over centuries at vast cost - the NHM collection alone represented an investment of an estimated 1-10 billion. The UK collections were a significant global resource, rich in records dating from pre-Industrial Revolution times and a source of information for diverse purposes e.g. for restoring vegetation in Mexico.

Professor Blackmore indicated that there were approximately 300 practising systematic biologists in the United Kingdom, although this had not been formally assessed since the demise of the UK Systematics Forum. The distribution of taxonomists specialising in different major groups of organisms did not reflect the relative diversity of those groups. He suggested that taxonomists had a relatively good understanding of higher plants; however there were 50-100,000 plant species awaiting discovery and description. Fungi were relatively poorly known with a shortage of specialists; he reported that the number of professional mycologists in the United Kingdom had halved since 1998. A similar situation could be found in the study of insects. Overall, Professor Blackmore considered that the number of taxonomists was too small for the tasks they needed to do and this shortage comprised in part the taxonomic impediment. More taxonomists were needed to shorten the time between discovering organisms, delivering information about them, and implementing biodiversity policies.

Professor Blackmore described an overall shortfall of approximately 17 per cent in the direct grant-in-aid to the main UK systematics institutions since 1992 (NHM, RBG Edinburgh and Kew). He compared this situation with the recommendation in the Dainton Report to the Government to maintain the level of support in 1992 in real terms. He estimated that 14 million would be required to make good this shortfall in the three major UK systematics institutions. Professor Blackmore explained that this fall in core funding had occurred alongside rising costs. The increasing application of molecular techniques resulted in high expenditure on consumables. Preparing information for web dissemination was also expensive.

Professor Blackmore surveyed progress against the principal goals of systematics research as identified in the Web of Life:

Discovering and accounting for the diversity of life through identification, inventory, assessment and monitoring: progress in this area was too little and too slow;

Uncovering the patterns of evolutionary history and using them as the framework of classification through phylogenetic systematics: progress in this area was excellent but disproportionately expensive;

Communicating the information from systematics to its many audiences: the Internet now offered the ideal vehicle for this and the necessary infrastructure was in place but putting the vast array of information contained within collections on the web presented a major one-off task for which special funds were needed.

Professor Blackmore concluded by itemising priority actions to ensure that systematic biology would continue to meet the needs of biodiversity policy.

Core funding to the major systematics institutions should be revalued to reflect the importance placed by the Government on sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity.

Research Council policy should be revised so that all areas of systematic biology and all the institutions where it was practised would be equally eligible for Research Council grants. The BBSRC had recently rejected the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh for Academic Analogue Status on the basis that they were principally government funded. However, other government funded institutions that practised systematic biology were BBSRC Academic Analogues.

European and International Initiatives Involving UK Systematics

Ms Vanessa Pike, Research and Consulting Manager, NHM, reported that the signing of the CBD by the United Kingdom had been a major development for the systematic biology community because that commitment to biodiversity re-affirmed the social importance of systematics. Secondly, advances in Information Technology had enabled systematists to develop earlier and quicker ways to access information and have facilitated electronic access to taxonomic data in many collections.

The Committee heard that the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) and the Darwin Initiative (funded by DEFRA) were both projects that attempted to address the taxonomic impediment. Vanessa Pike told the Committee that the GTI was in its fifth year and was to be funded by the Global Environment Fund but no tangible results were forthcoming as yet. The Darwin Initiative, now in its tenth year, was designed to use British expertise to fulfil some of the aims of the CBD, specifically in the area of staff training and data repatriation for biodiversity conservation purposes in developing countries.

Vanessa Pike emphasised the growing importance of computerisation of collections-based institutes and provided the example of global digital space on the world-wide web. The systematics institutions were keen to develop strategies to maintain the physical, the digitised and the born-digital as complementary parts of a unified resource. Ms Pike also informed the Committee of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an outcome of the OECD Megascience Forum Working Group on Biological Informatics, supported by the Conference of the Parties to the CBD. Through the creation of an interoperable network of biodiversity databases and information technology tools, GBIF was designed to half correct the taxonomic impediment. The GBIF secretariat had just been established in Copenhagen and the project was under way. There was an EU adjunct to GBIF: the European Network of Biodiversity Information (ENBI), which had funds of 3M, and was intended to add European value to GBIF. Ten UK institutions were involved. A number of other EU initiatives to share taxonomic data also exist and include EuroCat, BioCISE, ENHSIN, and BioCASE.

Vanessa Pike pointed out that there were also initiatives to bring people together, most notably CETAF (Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities) which involves senior managers of taxonomic institutions, and Sys-Resource, which enables researchers to visit major collections for training and collections-based research.

Vanessa Pike warned that the majority of EU initiatives were designed to improve communication about and access to existing information and collections already in digital form, but did not provide funding support for alpha taxonomy or for data capture.

Prof Henderson thanked Ms Pike for agreeing to make the presentation at short notice and reiterated her point that the European initiatives were using available data already in electronic form rather than funding the generation of new data or even the digitisation of existing data.

The Committee heard that although systematics was fundamental for many industries, there was generally a significant time delay between discovering a species and using it in an applied manner. Thus, funding from industry was not extremely easy to come by. Some direct effects of systematics in averting financial crises include the application of taxonomic expertise in identifying pests and developing suitable agents for biological control. Some 50 per cent of all drugs in clinical use derive from natural products. The Committee heard that the pharmaceutical industry did provide some funding and a similar picture would be found in the US as well.

Systematics Teaching and Training in the UK

Dr Mark Wilkinson of the Natural History Museum referred to the continuing existence of a taxonomic impediment. He argued that funding and training of taxonomists was a major problem, especially in the area of taxonomy.

Dr Wilkinson highlighted a decline in university teaching of systematic biology, which had continued despite the recommendations of the Dainton Report. Systematic biology brought low levels of funding to university departments, which discouraged universities from appointing lecturers in systematics. Furthermore, he pointed out that the current structure and remit of Research Councils ensured that systematic biology research (and alpha taxonomy in particular) was viewed by them as non-fundable. There had been some valuable development in the last 10 years most notably the NERC Taxonomy Initiative. This has enabled the setting up of the Imperial College MSc course in Taxonomy. Dr Wilkinson mentioned that NERC continued to provide some support for this course, even though the Taxonomy Initiative had finished (as of a year ago).

Dr Wilkinson stated that systematic biology had a higher profile and greater status in institutions like the Natural History Museum than in universities. The NHM had over a hundred PhD students. Doctoral students found it difficult to gain funding, in part because there were a number of different potential sources (research councils and the Wellcome Trust), with not one of these bodies emphasising systematic biology.

Question and Answer Session and Discussion

Following the presentation in the morning, the Committee had an opportunity to ask some questions. Points that arose from this include:

Issues of Co-operation—It was agreed that co-operation between ecologists and systematists was important and noted that ecologists provided systematic biologists with useful material as ecologists were more likely to encounter extremes in variation of a species.

Collaboration with amateur natural historians—The Committee heard that whilst the Natural History Museum did not rely on amateurs, it did use them. It was noted that the average age of amateurs was rising which could pose a serious problem in the future. Amateurs did still send in specimens but it was suggested that the amateur naturalists who contribute to research were diminishing. However the Committee heard that amateur participation varied across different groups of species.

Researching of small organisms—The Committee were informed that whilst the majority of taxonomists study large organisms, an increasing number were researching small organisms. An example was the study of copepods, whose importance lay in the fact that they were present in very large numbers in the sea. In terms of individuals, there were more copepods on earth than there were insects.

Alpha taxonomy—The Committee heard that it was undervalued because it is time-consuming to produce taxonomic information and the results of research are published in forms poorly recognised by other scientists.

The majority of the discussions in the afternoon concerned funding. In particular, (i) whether there should be a single source of money for systematics as opposed to the current plurality, and (ii) what the role of the Research Councils presently was and what it should be. Consensus was not reached on either matter, but the views expressed included:

The current situation with funding from very diverse sources (DEFRA, DCMS, Scottish Executive, Research Councils, Wellcome Trust) was confusing. It was not clear who had overall responsibility for making sure that UK systematics was in a good position, either to meet the UK's biodiversity commitments or for any other purpose.

The applications of systematic biology were varied, and therefore it was inevitable and desirable that it should receive funding from many different sources. Views varied as to whether closer connections could or should be established between systematists and "users" of data and expertise.

The task of putting information on the web was a high priority, but represented a large, initial, one-off cost. It was not clear how this would be met, particularly considering current funding systems and staffing levels. At present progress was slow and haphazard.

The Research Councils' remits were outlined in such a way that applications in systematic biology (particularly alpha taxonomy) were not considered. Much of what constituted good and useful taxonomy was never going to be seen as innovative research. Even money under the NERC Taxonomy Initiative had largely been spent on "sexier" science.

The Research Councils could and did fund systematics if they received high quality applications within their objectives. Unfortunately, proposals were often too focused on taxonomy for taxonomy's sake, with insufficient attention being paid to making proposals that fitted in with Research Council objectives.

The position regarding Research Council funding of systematics research outside the university sector is inconsistent. BBSRC has Academic Analogue Status meaning that it can apply for some grants that Kew an Edinburgh cannot.

Research Councils need to be sure that funds they allocate are not duplicating money awarded in direct grant-in-aid from government to the NHM and Royal Botanic Gardens. Research Councils will never fund curation of museum collections, so separate funding streams are needed for this.

Having more than one Research Council that can fund systematics research is not unique to systematics - all life sciences are in a similar position.

Alpha taxonomy should be regarded as an enabling science - like sequencing genomes or cataloguing stars - and should be funded as such.

Research Council priorities are set largely by peer review. There is little support for systematics, especially taxonomy, in the wider life sciences community.

In addition to questions of funding, the discussion also included the following issues:

Rationalisation of systematics, both in terms of research effort and collections. It was generally agreed that more co-ordinators were needed, but this did not equate with rationalisation. The UK Systematics Forum had helped make the community more rational in its planning, and might be re-introduced in some form. However, this would need to take account of international efforts at co-ordination.

UK Government international policies on biodiversity, and in particular the Darwin Initiative, had become more focused on poverty reduction than on science. However, this did not mean that the Darwin Initiative now wholly excluded taxonomy.

Regional museums had an important role to play, particularly in supporting regional biodiversity projects.


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