Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Letter from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

  The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) welcomes the Report and considers that it provides a thorough and comprehensive treatment to an area of science that not only underpins conservation but is at the interface between all human activities that depend upon biodiversity and is therefore fundamental to the notion of a sustainable future.

  We note, however, that the Report emphasises how little has been achieved to support this branch of science since the Dainton Report of 1992. This is particularly depressing given that the decade between the two Reports has been characterised by growing awareness of the vital importance of biodiversity, the threats posed to it by unsustainable development and by changes affecting the global environment, ranging from the destruction of habitats to climatic change. The environmental challenges facing humankind are increasing, not diminishing. At national and international levels we have strategies to address these issues, for example, those developed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). However, these strategies cannot possibly be delivered if we do not strengthen our scientific capacity to respond. Environmental imperatives demand that this should be an era of urgent growth in systematic biology, not continuing decline.

  The first recommendation of the What on Earth? report, concerning government expenditure, is the most important. It is disappointing (paragraph 4) that the government says it is not possible to implement the recommendation. To achieve this fully for RBGE would cost about an additional £1.5 million per annum, a substantial sum, but one that would allow RBGE both to recruit specialists in groups were there is a critical deficiency, especially in fungi and lower plants, and to address public awareness issues (enabling commitments under the CBD to be met). Following the Spending Review 2002 the increases awarded provide an additional £229,000 in 2003-04, £169,000 in 2004-05 and £174,000 in 2005-06 (when recurrent grant in aid will be £5,987,000). These additional resources are, of course, much appreciated, but they are at a level which will continue the trend of long term decline in real terms. Surely it is better to address this properly now than allow a Select Committee investigation in another 10 years to draw the same conclusions.

  In relation to recommendation 1.3 (paragraph 9) it is important to recognise that the strategies being developed by DEFRA, the Scottish Executive (in which RBGE is an active participant), the Northern Ireland Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government are concerned with the UK and dependent territories, not the wider international stage. No process is yet in train to establish an international strategy although the OST sponsored report The Web of Life (published by the UK Systematics Forum) identified important elements of such a priority and the UK's major taxonomic institutions are, in effect, defining such a policy through participation in such international initiatives as the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), the Global Taxonomy Initiative of the CBD and the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (also under the CBD).

  In relation to recommendation 1.4 (paragraph 10) we agree that something needs to be done about undergraduate teaching in systematics. RBGE would be very willing to appoint appropriate specialists onto its staff in order to deliver systematic biology teaching to undergraduates across the Scottish Universities, if additional funding is forthcoming.

  Paragraph 11 implies a change in eligibility status of RBGE in seeking responsive mode funding from BBSRC that has not happened. RBGE is now only permitted to apply jointly with a leading university partner (something that any citizen of the UK is eligible to do).

  Recommendation 1.8 calls for a body to take forward further work (paragraph 15). An overall strategic review of the priorities for UK systematics was undertaken for OST as recently as 1999. Its report, the Web of Life, has largely been ignored, as has the work of the UK Systematics Forum which (despite evidence to the contrary in certain submissions to the present review) did undertake a demographic study of the taxonomic community and propose national priorities. RBGE welcomes the proposal for further efforts in strategy development given that the Web of Life failed to stimulate a response and looks forward to playing an active part in any such body. We hope, however, that this body will not spend too much time and energy repeating work that was undertaken by the UK Systematics Forum, some of which continues under the auspices of the Linnean Society and some through the National Node for the Global Taxonomy Initiative, at the NHM.

  The emphasis on "articulating the needs of UK systematics" in paragraph 15 is unclear to us. These needs are clearly articulated in the What on Earth? report and earlier reports, but they are not self-seeking needs, as seems to be implied, they are the needs of conservation, of sustainable development and of many other branches of science that rely on precise identifications and sound taxonomy. The prospect of the Government stepping back from its responsibilities for supporting UK systematics (which is mostly delivered through Non-Departmental Public Bodies) would be alarming. As What on Earth? makes clear, the need is for more active support and involvement from government, not less.

  We will be happy to provide any further information you may require.

31 March 2003

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