Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Linnean Society of London

  1.  Two key points underlie the Select Committee Report.

    (a)  That part of systematic biology which is concerned with the identification and description of species continues to be in decline, despite the publication of the "Dainton" Report in 1992.

    (b)  It is also the part of systematic biology which is fundamental to any comprehensive programme of biodiversity conservation.

  2.  The Select Committee Report made nine recommendations to remedy this situation. The Government's brief Response to the Report is deeply disappointing, being not only brief but also both superficial and dismissive.

  3.  The Government Response states that grant-in-aid funding of three major systematics institutions is to be increased. This is somewhat misleading since the Government also comments that it will not be possible to increase funding to the level it would have been taking account of inflation since 1992, so that the "increases" are really significant reductions in the level of reduction suffered over the last decade.

  4.  It is to be warmly welcomed that there will be a real increase in the level of funding for the Darwin Initiative, but it is to be regretted that no portion of this funding is to be earmarked for projects with a significant taxonomic component.

  5.  It is also to be regretted that in response to the Select Committee's recommendation that consideration be given to supporting systematics collections, the Government carefully avoids making any firm commitment.

  6.  The response to the remaining six recommendations suggest that the Government is largely content with the status quo and sees no need to take any other initiatives. For example, it seems content that the illogical situation should persist whereby NERC gives analogue status to the Natural History Museum (NHM), Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, but BBSRC gives such status only to the NHM. Again, while predictably expressing support for the work of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the Government ignores the problem that 80 per cent of the funding of a GBIF project still has to be found locally.

  7.  This leads to the depressing conclusion that the decline in this key area of systematic biology, highlighted by both the "Dainton Report" of 1992 and the recent Select Committee Report, will continue.

  8.  In 2001 the Linnean Society wrote on behalf of 27 other Learned Societies to the Government Chief Scientist, Professor Sir David King, to express concern about the decline in systematic biology. In the course of this and subsequent correspondence, it was explained why it could no longer be left to the systematics community alone to arrest this decline. We were therefore disappointed to read in paragraph 15 of the Government Response that it is still considered that the responsibility for remedying the situation lies with the dwindling community of systematic biologists.

  9.  Unfortunately, the Government Response will reinforce the widely held impression that this area of environmental concern is regarded as of low priority—apart from the dictates of political correctness which require all governments to be seen to make statements in support of international initiatives to conserve biodiversity.

  10.  In paragraph 2 of its response, the Government points out that at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, more than 180 governments committed themselves to reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. However, because there is no reliable method of measuring the rate of biodiversity loss, there is no means of knowing whether this target will be fulfilled. Unless more action is taken to improve the current state of systematic biology, it is very unlikely that any reliable method of measuring the rate of biodiversity loss will be available by 2010.

  11.  The Linnean Society holds to its firm belief that the Select Committee Report What on Earth? is an excellent and realistic document deserving serious and detailed consideration. The Society's own positive response to its publication was to set up a working group under the chairmanship of Professor Richard Bateman of the Natural History Museum to explore how the Select Committee's recommendations could be further developed. The report of our working group outlined eight projects as examples of new initiatives that would both fulfil some of the recommendations and address some additional issues regarded as of high priority by systematists.

  12.  The eight projects are distributed among different disciplines, different groups of organisms, different ecosystems and different research organisations. The deliberate aim was to maximise linkages among organisms and to distribute the benefits of any increased resourcing of the systematics community. Each project was estimated to require a minimum of five years to complete, have an estimated cost of £5 million each, and involve at least three different partner organisations.

  13.  Details of each of these projects are contained in the 20 page document which we sent earlier to the Select Committee as our response to their Report (and copied also the Government Chief Scientists). The titles of the projects were:

    —  lepidoptera "taxome" programme and related projects;

    —  digitisation and dissemination exchanges with developing countries;

    —  realising the potential of regional and local natural history collections;

    —  urban biodiversity surveys in the UK;

    —  monitoring changes of species distributions in the UK;

    —  assessing the rigour of species identification by automated DNA sequence analysis;

    —  determining how the remarkable diversity of tropical forests is maintained;

    —  understanding the processes of speciation, extinction and invasion on oceanic islands.

  14.  Finally, the Linnean Society welcomes the work being done to produce biodiversity strategies for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and many of its members are contributing to these processes. However, we wish to emphasise the important international contribution made by taxonomists and other biodiversity scientists in the UK and the need to develop and support strategies for this work.

31 March 2003

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