Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

Systematics and Taxonomy: Follow-up

CHAPTER 1: Introduction



Taxonomy is the scientific discipline of describing, delimiting and naming organisms, both living and fossil, and systematics is the process of organising taxonomic information about organisms into a logical classification that provides the framework for all comparative studies. In this report systematics and taxonomy are referred to collectively as systematic biology.

Importance of systematic biology

1.1.  Two hundred and fifty years ago, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) introduced the system for scientific names which is used today. Since then, taxonomists have described and named about 1.78 million species of animals, plants and micro-organisms. The total number of species on Earth is unknown but, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, probably lies between 5 million and 30 million.[1] Systematic biology is the tool by which these components of biodiversity are identified, named and enumerated, and by which their relationships are described.

1.2.  The evidence we received emphasised the central importance of systematic biology to our understanding of the natural world. The Wellcome Trust describes it as "fundamental to the understanding of biodiversity and the ways that biodiversity may be changing, particularly in the context of climate change and global health threats" (p 321). The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) refers to systematics as "an essential tool that underpins biodiversity conservation by providing a logical classification and framework for describing and studying living organisms" (p 146), and the United Kingdom Biodiversity Research Advisory Group (UK BRAG) and the Global Biodiversity Sub-Committee (GBSC) of the UK Global Environmental Change Committee (UK GECC) describe taxonomy as "a necessary underpinning for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, ecosystem services and climate change in the UK and globally" (p 311).

Previous reports

1.3.  This inquiry follows two previous reports by this Committee.

1.4.  Our first inquiry, under the chairmanship of Lord Dainton, was prompted by concern for the state of systematic biology research in the United Kingdom. The Committee's report, Systematic Biology Research, was published in 1992,[2] following which several short-term measures to stimulate systematic biology were introduced, such as the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Taxonomy Initiative (1994-1998) and the Wellcome Trust Biodiversity Initiative (1993-2002).[3] Both Initiatives are regarded as having been successful and their contribution is still felt today. Professor Georgina Mace, Director of the Centre for Population Biology at the NERC Collaborative Centre, for example, told us that one of the reasons why NERC had been able to fund a number of grants relating to the expertise base in taxonomy was that "many of those taxonomists trained as a result of the Taxonomy Initiative in the 1990s are now embedded within research groups" (Q 54).

1.5.  A decade after the original inquiry we became aware of continuing problems in systematic biology and a second inquiry, under the chairmanship of Baroness Walmsley, was launched in 2001. The purpose of the inquiry was (a) to establish whether systematic biology in the UK was in decline and if so why, (b) to clarify whether it mattered if systematic biology were in decline and, in particular, what impact a decline would have on biodiversity conservation, and (c) to identify what action, if any, was required. The Committee's report, What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation, was published in 2002.

1.6.  The response to the recommendations made in the 2002 report has been mixed. There have been some successes. For example, the Committee recommended that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) should reconsider its decision not to award academic analogue status to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBG Edinburgh) and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew) (Recommendation 1.5). Academic analogue status has now been awarded to both institutions. The Committee also recommended that the systematic biology community should increase efforts to demonstrate the relevance and importance of systematic biology (Recommendation 1.6). As a result, an annual systematics debate series was inaugurated by the Linnean Society, and the Linnean Society and the Systematics Association, together with the BBSRC, launched a new funding scheme (Collaborative Scheme for Systematics Research—CoSyst) for systematics projects, which is now in its third year.

1.7.  Other recommendations were not taken forward. For example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) did not explore ways in which to support systematic biology, as they do with other minority disciplines (Recommendation 1.4), and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) did not establish a co-ordinating body (Recommendation 1.8). In view of the Government's generally disappointing response, many of the issues addressed by our 2002 report are revisited in this second follow-up inquiry.

Our current inquiry

1.8.  The Government's new focus on environmental sustainability and increasing awareness of the impact of climate change on biodiversity have made it timely for the Committee to return again to the issue of systematic biology; and, in particular, to consider:

(a)  whether systematic biology in the UK is in a fit state to generate the essential taxonomic information required by the emergence of the concept of ecosystem services (see Box 2 below), and

(b)  whether the UK has the skills available to be able to understand and predict the impact of climate change on biodiversity,

whilst continuing to meet the ongoing needs of biodiversity conservation and also the broader needs of taxonomy as a discipline which underpins all aspects of biology. In considering these questions, we have borne in mind the historical importance of the UK within the global taxonomic community as a result of the collections held in the UK (for example, The Natural History Museum (NHM), RBG Kew, RGB Edinburgh and the Zoological Society of London).


The ecosystem services concept

Ecosystem Services are the benefits we derive from natural ecosystems. These benefits may be derived from supporting services such as primary production by green plants (upon which virtually all life depends), from regulating services such as atmospheric gas regulation or pollination, from provisioning services such as access to wood for fuel, fibres and food products, and from cultural services such as the recreational and spiritual value of natural ecosystems. This powerful concept has sharpened awareness of the direct relationship between the provision of ecosystem services and continued human well-being (ref. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment),[4] and was assimilated into the rationale behind sustainability with astonishing rapidity.

1.9.  This is not just a UK issue. Broad concern over the state of taxonomy internationally led the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to acknowledge the existence of a "taxonomic impediment" to implementation of the CBD, referring to the shortage of taxonomic expertise, taxonomic collections, field guides and other identification aids, as well as to the difficulty in accessing existing taxonomic information. In response to this "taxonomic impediment", in 2002 the parties to the CBD launched a programme of work under the Global Taxonomy Initiative.[5]

1.10.  Like every scientific discipline, systematic biology is changing rapidly. New analytical and computational methods are constantly under development and there was a sense in our 2002 report that some of the novel approaches explored in a preliminary way during that inquiry might transform (and strengthen) the discipline. As part of our current inquiry, we have looked again at some of the technological developments within systematic biology in order to assess progress after six years and to consider their potential for the systematic biologist and for the discipline as a whole.


1.11.  The membership of the Select Committee is set out in Appendix 1, and our call for evidence, published in December 2007, in Appendix 3. Those who submitted written and oral evidence are listed in Appendix 2. We would like to thank all of our witnesses, as well as those who submitted articles and other materials in the course of the inquiry.

1.12.  We launched this inquiry with a seminar, held in the Darwin Centre at The NHM, in February 2008. During the course of the day we had the pleasure of touring some of The NHM collections. A note of the seminar is given in Appendix 4. We are very grateful to The NHM for hosting the event and to the speakers who participated in it.

1.13.  Finally, our Specialist Adviser for this inquiry was Professor Geoffrey Boxshall FRS, Merit Researcher at The NHM. We are grateful to him for his expertise and guidance throughout the inquiry. However, the conclusions we draw and the recommendations we make are ours alone.

1   See Back

2   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, First Report, Session 1991-92, Systematic Biology Research (HL Paper 22). Back

3   The UK Systematics Forum was also established to provide a focus for systematic biology science, but was wound down in 2001. See House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, 3rd Report. Session 2001-02, What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation (HL Paper 118), paras 2.7, 2.8, 3.6 and 3.7. Back

4   See footnote 1 above. Back

5   Guide to the Global Taxonomy Initiative, 2008, CBD Technical Series No 30, 105pp. Published by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biology Diversity. See Back

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