Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

  1.1  We are very pleased with the significant increase in grant-in-aid awarded by Defra for 2003-04. Our new operating grant-in-aid baseline of £17.299 million will greatly ease our budgetary situation. We would hope to achieve increases in line with inflation in coming years so as to avoid a recurrence of the funding difficulties that occurred when the operating grant-in-aid did not increase for seven consecutive years. We are very grateful too for our capital allocation of £3.4 million. We will seek opportunities to submit further capital bids for the coming years in order to maintain momentum on our Site Development programme linked to our World Heritage Site nomination. We believe that the increases demonstrate a significant commitment to the future studies of plant diversity in the UK, and will also help RBG Kew retain its international pre-eminence. We are very grateful for this support, especially in the context of Defra's financial difficulties and the current economic climate.

  We continue to seek opportunities to expand and accelerate our digitisation through grant-in-aid and other funding mechanisms. Work on the electronic Plant Information Centre funded through the Capital Modernisation Fund is progressing well and we have had some preliminary success in the first round of applications (pre-proposals) to GBIF for digitisation projects (see under 1.7 below).

  1.2  We have not seen the outcome of the consultation process to date, but we consider it important that the government should apply a broad definition of biological resource centres so as to explicitly include collections of non-living material from which DNA and other valuable products can be obtained.

  1.3  The existing and planned biodiversity strategies for the UK are important and welcome but not in themselves sufficient. Given the UK's importance in biodiversity issues on the international stage there remains an urgent need for a concise document which summarises the UK's overall biodiversity policy. This is particularly important in the light of the open-ended nature of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the recognition of the "taxonomic impediment" to achieving the goals laid out in the Convention, the UK's unique collection resources which are a vitally important international resource and the UK's long history of punching above its weight in the area of systematic biology.

  1.4  We look forward to the outcome of the review by Sir Gareth Roberts of the research assessment process and we trust that any recommendations designed to support systematic biology as a "minority subject" will take into account the need not only to curb the decline in the subject but also to increase the availability of practitioners in biodiversity identification and assessment in order to meet the biodiversity challenges of the 21st century.

  1.5  We consider that the BBSRC's recent ruling awarding academic analogue status to RBG Kew and Edinburgh under rather restrictive conditions is a step in the right direction but we fail to see any justification for the restrictions imposed. We feel strongly that we should be allowed to compete on a level playing field with other academic analogues rather than being offered access only via `collaboration with an already eligible institution'. We look forward to BBSRC's review of this situation and trust that the anomaly will be fully rectified at that time.

  1.6  We welcome the government's support for increased emphasis on making biodiversity data more readily accessible via the web and the need to do this quickly in ways that demonstrate the relevance and importance of such information for conservation. However we would caution against any approach which relies on GBIF as the panacea for this situation. The restricted scale and scope of the first programmes announced by GBIF do not offer hope for rapid progress in the immediate future.

  The government's declaration of support for GBIF overlooks the fact that the funds required for the UK subscription were in fact assembled hastily at the eleventh hour (by the then DETR) and relied heavily on somewhat reluctant contributions from the already overstretched major systematics institutions.

  In the case of RBG Kew, we have recently learned that our two pre-proposals in the DIGIT programme have been shortlisted for the next round of the process. Worldwide, 40 pre-proposals were selected from a field of 102. We are advised that some 15-20 of these projects will eventually be funded, thus it is unlikely that both of our shortlisted projects will be successful. Should just one of our projects be funded the monies awarded to Kew would be almost exactly equivalent to the £30,000 contribution Kew made to the UK subscription. We remain committed to this collaborative global venture but cannot help but feel that the current situation is scarcely cost-effective for UK institutions which have a disproportionate amount to contribute to Global biodiversity information resources.

  1.7  We welcome Defra's commitment to convene a meeting in 2003 to bring together interested parties and discuss next steps. We are very keen to support this process and to ensure positive conservation outcomes from any effort expended. However, we continue to have concerns as to whether the "coordinating body" can actually achieve anything—given the general shortage of funds and the fact that the agenda of the different institutions is driven by their different funding sources. It is also vitally important that any such process focuses on the global needs of the conservation community, rather than simply national needs.

  1.8  We welcome the increased funding to the Darwin Initiative over the next three years but regret the decision not to earmark some part of the total for projects with a significant taxonomic component. However, the assertion that the increase in budget will mean a proportionate increase in support for systematics work is not supported by our experience to date. Changes to assessment criteria and the emphasis of the programmes have clearly resulted in reduced support for projects that include a significant component of baseline biodiversity work. We believe that positive action is needed to halt and reverse this trend.

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