Memorandum by the Linnean Society of London
1. Two key points underlie the Select Committee
(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
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
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 priorityapart from the dictates
of political correctness which require all governments to be seen
to make statements in support of international initiatives to
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
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
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