Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


Systematic biology is at the heart of our understanding of the natural world.

In this time of climate change, understanding the connection between the natural world and human well-being—understanding the value and dynamic of "ecosystem services"—has a vital importance more widely recognised than ever before. "Ecosystem services" is a concept which has developed an importance in recent years to the point where it now sets the context of the current debate on environment sustainability. Simply defined, ecosystem services are "the benefits we derive from natural ecosystems".

This is our third inquiry into systematics and taxonomy. We reported in 1992, under the chairmanship of Lord Dainton, with a follow-up inquiry in 2001-02 under the chairmanship of Baroness Walmsley. We chose to embark on this inquiry now because of the environmental imperatives increasingly manifest in our daily lives. We have asked two questions in particular: whether systematic biology in the UK is in a fit state to generate the essential taxonomic information required to understand ecosystem services and whether the UK has the skills available to understand and predict the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

We have concluded that the state of systematics and taxonomy in the UK, both in terms of the professional taxonomic community and volunteers, is unsatisfactory—in some areas, such as mycology, to the point of crisis—and that more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline. We propose, for example, that there should be more effective and regular dialogue between the users and producers of taxonomy on the priorities for developing UK systematic biology, and we emphasise the importance of stimulating recruitment and also of taking steps to fire the imagination of school children by creative incorporation of environmental and biodiversity issues into school curricula.

The study of systematic biology, in common with other areas of science, has been transformed by technological innovation. Of particular importance are the development of molecular taxonomy and the potential of web-based taxonomy. We have no doubt that the benefits to be reaped from technological innovation are enormous. We are aware however that they need to be harnessed with discrimination and we call on the Research Councils and the taxonomic institutions to respond to this challenge.

Although we received clear evidence from the taxonomic community of a widespread concern about the state of the discipline, that concern appears to be largely unheard by the Government and by the Research Councils. We find this worrying. We believe that part of the problem is the fragmentation within Government of responsibility for systematic biology. We therefore recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills be designated as the lead department and that that department should exercise the leadership without which we fear that the downward slide of UK taxonomy is set to continue.

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