Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

CHAPTER 2: The Role of Systematic Biology in the Delivery of Policies

Range of policy areas involving systematic biology

2.1.  Systematic biology describes a set of skills which are fundamental to a range of policies, the successful implementation of which is critical to our long-term quality of life. In this chapter we set out a number of examples which demonstrate the importance of systematic biology in the delivery of national and international policies.


2.2.  The Government promotes the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity through its continuing commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signed at the Earth Summit in 1992. Under the headline of environmental sustainability the UK has a broad cascade of international obligations and commitments that are implemented at national and regional levels. These include:

2.3.  In 2004, as a response to the CBD Global Strategy for Plant Conservation endorsed in 2002, the UK Government launched their Plant Diversity Challenge (PDC) which "sets out the framework for plant and fungus conservation throughout the UK" (p 285). In a 2007 assessment of progress towards meeting targets within the PDC,[6] a meeting of stakeholders made a number of recommendations, including the following: (a) to focus research on improving understanding of the importance of UK plant and fungal species in a European context, specifically highlighting the need, amongst other things, for a UK fungal checklist; and (b) to develop and deliver an action plan to address the need for plant and fungal skills and expertise in the UK In the view of the PDC Steering Group, the lack of basic checklists of the species of fungi and plants that occur in the UK currently makes it "impossible to create meaningful Red Data Lists,[7] Biodiversity Action Plans and protected species lists" (p 286).


2.4.  The availability of taxonomic expertise and the tools created by taxonomists underpin conservation policy in the UK; and Defra, which has responsibility for conservation, is a key user of the outputs of systematic biology research (p 49). Selection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Great Britain and Areas of Special Scientific Interest in Northern Ireland and also the implementation of species recovery and action programmes under the UK Biodiversity Action Plans are the key mechanisms for the delivery of UK conservation policy and "the accurate identification of species" is "fundamental" to the effectiveness of those mechanisms (p 146). Systematic biology also enables the UK to discharge its obligation under the EU Habitats Directive to report on the conservation status of UK species of European importance (p 146).


2.5.  Increasing international concern over invasive alien species had led to initiatives such as the establishment in 1997 of the Global Invasive Species Programme, an international partnership dedicated to tackling the global threat of invasive species; and, in 2004, as a party to the International Maritime Organization, the UK adopted the Ballast Water Convention as a measure to limit the spread of marine alien species. According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), taxonomists are in the front line of research on alien species by providing identifications of newly introduced species (p 297).


2.6.  The Government has recently renewed its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to ensure environmental sustainability, including a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.[8] Achieving this goal will depend on being able to document and measure the impact of climate change on biodiversity. For example, Professor Rick Battarbee of the Environmental Change Research Centre at University College London described a new system of freshwater biological indicators that was being developed with EU funding to monitor impacts of climate change: "assessing the ecological status of surface waters using biological indicators (diatoms, phytoplankton, aquatic macro-invertebrates and aquatic plants) is central to the EU Water Framework Directive, and the need for taxonomic skills is growing …" (p  117).


2.7.  The Department for International Development (DFID) promotes responsible environmental management and is investing in building in-country capacity through research.[9] Systematic biology is especially important in biodiversity-rich developing countries because it is the underpinning science upon which biodiversity conservation is based. The UK has an obligation under the CBD to promote access and benefit-sharing with regard to biodiversity.


2.8.  As a result of the rapid emergence of the ecosystem services concept (see Box 2 above), there has been a shift in research focus to ecosystem functioning. Professor Mace told us that "much of the science that is prioritised in NERC's new strategy deals with the biological effects of climate change and the ecosystem services …". This has placed a greater emphasis on micro-organisms, soil arthropods, marine invertebrates and fungi because of the pivotal role these organisms play in the large scale flow of energy through complex ecosystems.[10] "It is quite clear," Professor Mace said, "that there will be new kinds of information that we need on the taxonomy particularly of micro-organisms that play a significant role in … ecosystem processes" (Q 72).


2.9.  Implementation of the Government commitment to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is dependent on accurate identifications. For example, some corals, some timbers, some orchid species are protected, but others are not—taxonomic expertise is routinely called upon in policing the global trade in many natural products. According to UK BRAG, "without taxonomic expertise, enforcement [of CITES] would be impossible" (p 315).


2.10.  Membership of biodiversity-based organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the RHS is impressively strong in the UK (Q 316). Innovative public engagement in issues such as biodiversity and environmental sustainability is supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) through the exhibitions and events at The NHM and through the regional museums (for example, the Horniman Museum in London, The Manchester Museum and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History) supported by the Museum Libraries and Archives' Renaissance in the Regions programme (p 48).


2.11.  International trade, international travel and climate change are changing the dynamics of diseases of humans and of domesticated species, and are altering the distribution patterns of disease vectors (Q 218). Public concern about the spread of infectious diseases is high, especially during periods when diseases such as Bluetongue and avian influenza feature in the national news. As we noted in our 2002 report,[11] it is crucial that taxonomic expertise is maintained to enable the development of robust transferable tools for the identification of emerging diseases and for disease surveillance (see also The Wellcome Trust p 321).

Taxonomic skills in the private sector

2.12.  Taxonomic skills are also used in the private sector. For example, Professor Richard Gornall, President of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), referred to ecological consultants who require properly qualified staff with taxonomic identification skills for making statutory environmental assessments on behalf of local authorities and commercial companies (Q 175). Such skills are also important in assessing the significance of habitat loss caused by new developments.


2.13.  Measuring progress towards halting the decline in biodiversity is a key international obligation which cannot be achieved without baseline knowledge of biodiversity. Creating baselines and monitoring change is dependent upon the availability of taxonomic expertise across the range of living organisms.

2.14.  Systematic biology underpins our understanding of the natural world. A decline in taxonomy and systematics in the UK would directly and indirectly impact on the Government's ability to deliver across a wide range of policy goals.

6   Plant Diversity Challenge: 3 years-16 targets-one challenge, Progress in the UK towards the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (PDC2). Back

7   Also known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red Lists which evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and sub-species. Back

8   See Back

9   See Back

10   See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment at Back

11   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, First Report, Session 1991-92, Systematic Biology Research (HL Paper 22), p 18. Back

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