Memorandum by the Royal Society
The Royal Society welcomes the opportunity to
comment on the Government's response
to the House of Lords (HoL) report on systematic biology and biodiversity
(entitled What on Earth? The threat to the science underpinning
The Royal Society submitted evidence to this inquiry.
We are generally disappointed with the Government's response to
the HoL's report. In particular, recent funding increases neither
repairs the damage done to the field by the previous 10 years
of under funding nor ensures the long-term stability that would
prevent further decline. And, while we welcome the Government's
implicit support for the development of an internationally agreed
web-based taxonomy as proposed by Professor Godfray FRS and others,
we do not share its confidence that the Global Biodiversity Information
Facility can deliver the pilot.
In our submission to this HoL inquiry we noted
that core funding for the three major systematics institutions
had declined in real terms over the last decade and we recommended
a reversal in this decline. We welcome the recent increase in
funding for Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
and the Natural History Museum, which goes some way towards addressing
the decline in funding that has occurred over the last decade.
However we are disappointed that it is not sufficient to compensate
for the previous failure to maintain core funding in line with
inflation. We are also concerned that, despite the recommendations
of both this HoL report and the Dainton report,
the Government has made no commitment to ensure that future increases
in core funding for these institutions will at least be in line
We welcome the Funding Council's review of the
Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) being chaired by Sir Gareth
Roberts FRS and have provided evidence to the initial consultation.
It is vital that an analysis of the impact of the RAE on minority
subjects such as systematics, is based on quantitative data. We
suggest that the next stage of the consultation explicitly requests
such data as we note that the issue of minority subjects was not
mentioned in the initial consultation for the RAE review.
The well being of the systematics research base
and that of the wider biological sciences requires taxonomists
in both universities (particularly so that the next generation
of taxonomists can be inspired) and other institutions. However,
as we have highlighted previously, research into baseline systematic
biology (alpha-taxonomy) has been disappearing from universities
and is now mainly concentrated in non-university institutions.
Changes in the RAE (if indeed they are proved to be a causal factor)
are unlikely to prevent the continued disappearance of taxonomy
as an academic subject in the short to medium-term. It is therefore
vital to maintain and promote links between universities and the
relevant non-university institutes. This could include posts shared
between universities and major systematics institutions as well
as joint PhD studentships and training courses such as the MSc
in Systematics and Biodiversity established by Imperial College
and the Natural History Museum.
We are confident that systematic biologists,
including those who are Fellows of the Royal Society, will continue
to promote their discipline. The important role of systematics
and taxonomy in facilitating the measurement of biodiversity for
conservation is being addressed in the current Royal Society policy
study on measuring biodiversity.
We expect the report of this study to be published in the summer.
We strongly support the ideas put forward by
Professor Charles Godfray FRS to turn descriptive taxonomy into
a 21st century information science.
In particular we recognise the need to provide a single web location
where the internationally agreed taxonomy for a given group can
be founda unitary taxonomy. We do not share the confidence
expressed by both the HoL report and the Government that the Global
Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is an appropriate body
to take this forward. While we are aware that GBIF is developing
a number of web initiatives including specimen level databases
and electronic species name catalogues, it does not have the resources,
mandate or aim to construct the unitary taxonomy that is required.
We believe that the pilot (the production of a unitary taxonomy
for a major group) should be led by a major museum or botanic
collection (or consortium of institutions) and that additional
resources should be made available to them. If the pilot is successful
we would envisage the taxonomy of each of the other groups being
produced by the most relevant institution or groups of institutions.
We therefore believe that the Government would be wrong to assume
that this is a recommendation that can be fulfilled by GBIF.
We look forward to discussing the Government's
proposals for a new body to identify areas where taxonomic research
is most needed and to assess the taxonomic impediment to conservation
action. We are particularly keen to involve members of our working
group on Measuring Biodiversity
(which comprises both Fellows and non-Fellows) who have been considering
these issues in a national and global context. We have the following
(a) In the past, bodies such as the UK Systematics
Forum have had a similar remit to that being proposed here. Before
considering the establishment of a new body it will be important
to examine the strengths and weaknesses of similar groups to ensure
that time, money and effort are not wasted.
(b) There is a need for an overall strategic
view of priorities for UK policy to be based on quantitative information.
We have been concerned, for example, at the lack of quantitative
data to support the general view that systematics funding and
expertise are declining.
(c) Given the UK's international responsibilities,
any new body must focus on those priorities that meet the international
(not only national) needs of the conservation community. It is
crucial to identify those areas where we can make the most useful
contribution most quickly (ie on time scales appropriate to the
The Darwin Initiative has led to real benefits
in conservation and sustainable use, as well as for the UK systematics
institutions and their partners in the richly biodiverse countries.
In July 2002, prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development,
the President of the Royal Society wrote to the Prime Minister
recommending new funding for this important programme. We therefore
welcome the announcement of this increase in funding for the Darwin
1 http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/GovECEarth.pdf Back
The Royal Society's contribution to this study can be found at:
House of Lords, Select Committee on Science and Technology. 1st
Report, 1991-92. Systematic Biology Research. HL Paper 22-1 ISBN
0 10 480692 3 Back
The Royal Society's response to this consultation can be found
at: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/policy/ Back
7 Details of this study can be found at: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/policy.meas_bio.htm Back
Godfray, H.C.J. (2002) Challenges for taxonomy. Nature 417, 17-19. Back
Details of this study can be found at: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/policy.meas_bio.htm Back