Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

CHAPTER 3: Health of the Discipline in the UK: Professional Taxonomists, Volunteers and Recruitment

Taxonomists in the UK: general picture

3.1.  There has been no comprehensive assessment of the numbers of taxonomists in the UK for more than 10 years. Dr Sandra Knapp, Botanical Secretary of the Linnean Society, told us that "in response to the Dainton inquiry [published in 1992] there was a UK Systematics Forum which set out to compile data about how many systematists there were, but it was a largely voluntary exercise"—and Australia was the only place where good data had been compiled (Q 132). Precise data for the UK are generally restricted to a particular sector, such as algal or fungal taxonomy. In view of this, we recommend that a study should be commissioned by NERC to ascertain the current number of taxonomists in the UK and also trends in the number of taxonomists in the UK.

3.2.  Despite the absence of general data, the majority of submissions to the inquiry testified to a general picture of decline, particularly in UK universities.


3.3.  The health of systematic biology in the UK university sector was variously characterised:

(i)  "almost extinct in universities" (BSBI p 85)

(ii)  "continued decline in university sector" (RBG Edinburgh p 9)

(iii)  "Professional expertise in universities and other organisations appears to have continued to decline severely over recent decades" (Buglife p 223)

(iv)  [of mycology] "it has declined catastrophically", "there are no, effectively, no fungal systematists … employed in UK universities" (European Mycological Association p 243)

(v)  "There are no lichen taxonomists left in British universities" (British Lichen Society) (p 208)

(vi)  "paucity of university systematists" (Biosciences Federation p 196)

(vii)  "near-elimination of taxonomists from the university sector in the UK" (Systematics Association p 112).


3.4.  In the wider science community, systematic biology was similarly characterised:

(i)  "declining population of professional systematists", [traditional systematics in the UK] is "dwindling in relation to the needs of its users" (JNCC p 147)

(ii)  "whole set of skills and expertise to maintain the international standards for identification is disappearing rapidly from the UK" (Research Councils UK p 39)

(iii)  "there is a lack of taxonomical expertise that is accessible to government, conservationists and education establishments" (Plantlife International p 289)

(iv)  "Ecological consultants … are really struggling for properly qualified people with taxonomic identification skills" (Professor Richard Gornall, President of the BSBI) (Q 175)

(v)  "[A 2002 study of UK insect taxonomists] … shows a clear decline in numbers of both amateur and professional taxonomists, and our own difficulties … confirm that the decline is continuing" (Royal Entomological Society p 294)

(vi)  "the number of active prokaryotic taxonomists in UK institutions is declining" (Society for General Microbiology p 305)

(vii)  "Numbers … [of algal taxonomists] … have declined markedly over the last 20 years" (British Phycological Society p 218).

3.5.  In our 2002 report, using CAB International[12] (CABI) as an example, we noted that it had "drastically reduced" the number of PhD grade taxonomists that it employed.[13] The fall in numbers has continued. The following statistics demonstrate the decline and ultimately the extinction of taxonomy in CABI:


Taxonomists employed by CAB International 1992-2008[14]
2011 projected

Taxonomists in the UK: age profile

3.6.  Added to this general picture of decline, there is a demographic issue. Survey data on ages of taxonomists are lacking for the UK as a whole but partial data and narrative evidence confirm that the population of professional taxonomists is ageing. At the National Museums Liverpool "all but one of the senior curatorial staff are in their fifties and most are close to retirement" (p 277). The deep-sea research group at the National Oceanographic Centre Southampton includes five taxonomic experts, three of whom are already retired and one is only a few years from retirement (p 46). At the Plymouth Marine Laboratory the skilled marine invertebrate taxonomists "are already in retirement, or close to it" (p 46). Dr John Waland Ismay, Chairman of the Dipterists Forum, observed that most fly experts are retired or near retirement and have no replacement in training (p 320). The National Museum of Wales has 16 trained taxonomists, the majority over 40 (p 282). A similar picture exists in the voluntary sector. For example two members of the Hertfordshire Natural History Society's recorders' group are in their 30s, the majority are over 50, a few are in their late 60s and a couple over 70, with "no sign of younger members coming through" (p 257).

3.7.  While some organisations, such as the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, are maintaining a spread of ages in their staff of taxonomists by careful succession planning (p 46), it appears that in general the average age of taxonomists in the UK is increasing. Across the range of different types of research organisation, taxonomic experts are retiring and are not being replaced.

Sectors in crisis

3.8.  Mycology or fungal taxonomy, already highlighted as a problem area in our 2002 report, has continued to decline and the situation in the UK has become so grave as to be generally recognised as a crisis. The severity of this situation was referred to by a number of witnesses, including: the RBG Kew (p 14 ff), the RHS (p 296), CABI (p 224 ), UK BRAG (p 316), Plantlife International (p 289) and the European Mycological Association (p 243). Dr Richard Fortey, President of the Geological Society, said that "on the mycological side, the number of macro fungal taxonomists in this country has dwindled to the fingers of one hand or maybe less" (Q 234).

3.9.  Dr Jim Munford, Programme Director of the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Trust, observed that for some groups of freshwater organisms such as rotifers, and soil invertebrates such as collembolans, there was no taxonomic activity in UK (Q 215). The need to secure taxonomic expertise on marine organisms and foster capacity was highlighted on a European scale by the European Platform for Biodiversity Research Strategy;[15] and, overall, there is low taxonomic capacity in the UK in algae (British Phycological Society, pp 220-21), in a whole range of insect groups (Q 215), other soil arthropods, marine invertebrates and microbes, some families of flowering and non-flowering plants, as well as in fungi (National Museum Wales p 283; RBG Edinburgh pp 9-10). Freshwater taxonomic expertise has also been lost through the closure by NERC of the Freshwater Biological Association River Laboratory in Dorset.[16]

Classification of taxonomic activity

3.10.  Taxonomic activity covers three key tasks: description, identification and phylogeny. "Identification" is described by the Linnean Society as "working out what an organism is", "description" is "working out the limits of species, genera and higher groups" and "phylogeny" is "working out how organisms are evolutionarily related" (p 90). They need to be considered separately because "each has a different dynamic and each is in a different state in terms of support and health" (p 90). Dr Knapp of the Linnean Society explained that "phylogenetics in part gets funded by research councils; descriptive taxonomy is funded by the great taxonomic institutions of the country and identification gets funded by the Darwin Initiative, a bit by Defra and the user community" (Q 160).

3.11.  Description supports both identification and phylogeny by generating the names of the organisms and formally characterising them. These characteristics are used to provide the tools necessary for ecologists and conservationists to identify the organisms they work with. These tools range from traditional field guides and keys, to more technology based tools. Morphology and molecular-based phylogenetic studies (see Box 3 below) remain founded on descriptive taxonomy and the need for accurate identification and the deposition of type or voucher specimens in museums remains central to the discipline.


3.12.  Descriptive taxonomy enables us to discern the units of biodiversity, so the delimitation of a species is essentially an hypothesis about the distribution of variation in nature. The basic task of describing and naming the organisms on Earth is far from complete and even in the UK new species are regularly found and described, especially marine and soil invertebrates, fungi and microbes. Building a comprehensive inventory of the national fauna and flora is fundamental—an essential tool underpinning policy on conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

3.13.  Descriptive taxonomy is described by the Linnean Society as "the most at risk sector" of systematic biology not only in terms of our ability to describe new species and document the biodiversity of ecosystems, but also in refining and even diagnosing the species we already know (p 90). In general, there is a declining population of professionals involved in descriptive taxonomy and even in major institutions, such as The NHM, a smaller proportion of resource is expended on descriptive taxonomy than at the time of the last inquiry. Dr Nic Lughadha, Head of Policy and Science Co-ordination at RBG Kew, commented that "people who nowadays call themselves taxonomists are spending a smaller proportion of their time doing descriptive taxonomy". She continued: "we are investing in the collections' maintenance at the expense of descriptive taxonomy. The balance is out of kilter and it needs further resources invested in the system in order to rebalance so that we can have an appropriate balance of collateral development and maintenance" (Q 7).

3.14.  This change in UK contribution to descriptive taxonomy is reflected in various metrics. For example, the UK now ranks only tenth in its contribution to descriptive taxonomy measured using a sample of over 10,000 species of animals described since 2001 (see Table 2 below). (It should be noted that these data are presented here in raw form as an indication only. There are a number of factors which could be applied as a way of scaling them to make them more informative: for example, by size of population of each country, by the stage of development of the educational system, by historical factors or by number of indigenous species. We have not applied these or other factors on this occasion since the general indication provided by the raw data makes our point sufficiently well.)


Relative national ranking of output in descriptive taxonomy based on numbers of new marine species and on numbers of new animal species described in the e-journal Zootaxa
Marine species: described 2002-2003* Zootaxa:
described 2001-2007**
Overall ranking: combined data
2 Australia2 Brazil 2 Brazil
3 Japan3 PR China 3 Australia
4 Germany4 Australia 4 PR China
5 France5 Germany 5 Germany
6 Russia6 Argentina 6 Japan
7 Spain7 United Kingdom 7 France
8 United Kingdom8 France 8 Russia
9 The Netherlands9 Mexico 9 Spain
10 Brazil10 Japan 10 United Kingdom

*  Data from P Bouchet, The Magnitude of Marine Biodiversity (2002), in C Duarte (Editor), The Exploration of Marine Biodiversity, Scientific and Technological Challenges, Fundación BBVA, Bilbao.

**  Data from

3.15.  Another metric is the percentage of UK-based authors publishing papers in systematic biology journals. The Linnean Society (p 91) noted a drop of five percentage points (from 17 per cent to 12 per cent) in the number of UK-based authors publishing in their three peer-reviewed journals over the period 2001 to 2007. Similarly, but over the 50-year period from 1958 to present, the British Lichen Society noted a decline from over 90 per cent to under 10 per cent of British-based articles in their journal The Lichenologist (p 210).


3.16.  Accurate and repeatable identification is essential for monitoring change through time and is a fundamental tool for detecting the effects of environmental change on the Earth's biodiversity (p 91). This is a complex sector and it is difficult to generalise about the national capacity for species identification because identification skills are widely but unevenly spread. There is a strong professional identification sector which includes the Environment Agency, the conservation agencies, Defra laboratories such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Central Science Laboratories, non-governmental organisations such as the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, as well as the major taxonomic institutions, universities and commercial consultancies. There is also a robust voluntary sector, consisting of charities, associations and the many volunteers working for Local Record Centres.

3.17.  In several key groups, for example birds, butterflies and some families of flowering plants, reliable identification guides are available and identification skills are strongly developed through the volunteer community, with highly organised support from organisations such as the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, the BSBI and the RHS. There is no shortage of identification skills in such groups (Q 199).

3.18.  However, in some groups (including those highlighted in paragraphs 3.8 and 3.9 above) identification skills are in short supply. We are concerned that the shortage of identification skills in these areas may compromise the capability in the UK for monitoring biodiversity change and implementing policy.


3.19.  Of the three main tasks, phylogeny appears to be in the best health. In addition to the major institutions, there are active research groups investigating aspects of phylogeny in several UK universities and phylogenetic methods are central to expanding fields such as comparative genomics and metagenomics. The availability of Research Council funding for phylogenetics, for comparative genomics and for methodological advances has contributed to the viability of this area. It is increasingly being understood that each level in a hierarchical classification is of value for conservation (p 146). Phylogenetic studies group together at higher levels related species that share common ancestors and many biological properties; and then, as the JNCC explained, "these shared properties can be used predictively to investigate how related species can best be conserved" (p 146).

Supply and demand

3.20.  There are many users but few producers of taxonomy. Defra describes itself as "a user of the outputs of systematics and taxonomy" (Q 100) and NERC describes itself in similar terms (p 37). Most organisations involved in making identifications are also users of basic taxonomic information, as are the teams of researchers involved in phylogeny. There are few producers—descriptive taxonomists—to meet this demand and this is, as we have noted, the area of systematic biology identified as being most at risk. In the recent past, taxonomic expertise was spread more widely through the universities, but the decline of taxonomy in the university sector has changed the dynamics of supply and demand. Major producers of new taxonomic research, such as RBG Kew, have indicated that they do not have sufficient taxonomists to cover all the areas for which expertise is being requested (pp 14ff ). The NHM has reduced the proportion of resource expended on descriptive taxonomy as the science undertaken there has become more diverse (p 2).

3.21.  The Committee believes that the major taxonomic institutions alone will not be able to meet demand for taxonomy. It is therefore, in our view, critically important that there should be more effective and regular dialogue between the users and the producers of taxonomy on the priorities for developing UK systematic biology. Such dialogue should be facilitated by the Research Councils. The users of taxonomy are very important to the long-term survival of the science but no truly dynamic science can exist led only by its users because, as Dr Knapp reminded us, "users do not lead developments in science" (Q 135). This dialogue should take place within the context of developing a roadmap, an issue to which we turn in the next chapter (see paragraph 4.4).

Importance of the voluntary sector

3.22.  The UK is extremely fortunate in having a large corps of citizen biologists who are actively engaged in biodiversity issues. Most biological recording in the UK is run by volunteers (Q 220). We received a range of evidence demonstrating the value of their contribution. For example, Dr Nic Lughadha of RBG Kew referred to the interaction between professionals and amateurs in mycology as "essential" and as a "very productive and close relationship" (Q 36). Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at The NHM, described the relationship as "pretty intimate", and acknowledged that amateurs were often "extraordinarily knowledgeable" and would on occasions be used as "the authority" (Q 36).

3.23.  As we have already observed, major organisations, such as the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, the BSBI and the RHS, provide an impressive reservoir of expertise, particularly in species identification for "charismatic" groups of organisms like birds and flowering plants. Voluntary sector engagement has remained strong in such groups although, for example, a smaller percentage of members of the BSBI is made up of professionals now so there has been "a drift towards a preponderance of … volunteer recorders (Q 199). But, as Professor Battarbee told us, in other important indicator groups, like freshwater diatoms, a once-thriving volunteer community has all but vanished "as experienced professionals have retired or gifted amateurs have slipped away and not been replaced" by a new generation (Q 179).

3.24.  Mrs Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism at the DCMS, told us that "every Government department is trying to grow the volunteering capacity" in all areas of community activity and noted as relevant to our inquiry the large voluntary membership of the RSPB (Q 316). We welcome the Government's commitment to promoting voluntary action. The work of the volunteer community is crucial to the vitality of systematic biology. But the voluntary effort is patchy, tending against non-charismatic organisms and in favour of the charismatic. We urge the Government, with the assistance of the taxonomic institutions, to show more leadership in this matter and to take steps to promote voluntary action, giving particular attention to those sectors which cover the less charismatic species.


3.25.  Given the evidence we received about the health of some areas of systematic biology, it is perhaps not surprising that some organisations have experienced difficulty in recruiting taxonomists. The NBN Trust, for example, said "that there are increasing difficulties recruiting … professional staff proficient in species identification across a broad range of groups by, for example, ecological consultancies and local authorities" (p 143). In view of the Committee's concern that demand for taxonomic skills will exceed supply, stimulating the recruitment of new researchers and new volunteers is vitally important.


3.26.  Systematic biology needs to promote whole organism biology since the "static (if not declining)" population of scientists with this expertise is the "single biggest barrier to delivering research priorities in taxonomy and systematics" (Linnean Society, p 90). It must also stimulate wider public engagement in order to increase the flow of young volunteers into local recording schemes and, for some, into systematics as a career path. Professor Fortey referred to each species having a biography that is intrinsically interesting (Q 226): telling the biographical stories of species is at the core of such highly successful television series as Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth. Taxonomy represents the starting point for a species: once a new species is described and named the process of building that biography can begin.

3.27.  It is self-evident to us that for systematic biology to engage the public, in particular young people, those involved in the discipline need to devise powerful messages about the value of the discipline. One approach may be to stress the importance of role models. Professor Philip Esler, Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), said that his research council had funded a project on John Walker, an early geologist in Edinburgh (Q 90). A topical example would be Charles Darwin whose bicentenary is in 2009. Darwin was an expert taxonomist who described numerous new genera and species, created an important reference collection now housed at The NHM, and devoted eight years to writing two large taxonomic monographs on barnacles. These volumes are still used by specialists today. The difficulty he experienced in distinguishing between species of barnacles further focused his attention on variation within and between species and helped focus his ideas on evolution.


3.28.  Biology in schools strongly emphasises human biology while concerns over safety issues have led to a reduction in field study trips. We believe that it is critically important that school children of all ages, starting with those in primary school, should be taught about the natural world and given opportunities to enjoy it first hand. In order to promote awareness of environmental sustainability as an over-arching issue, we consider that, as a matter of high priority, a greater component of biodiversity-related topics, including taxonomy, should be included school curricula. Field study trips and other practical exercises, which have served to introduce generations of children to the diversity of living organisms, should be encouraged as a means of engaging and stimulating young people (as future volunteers) to become involved in biological recording.


3.29.  Regional and national museums have a vital role in inspiring young people to become interested in environmental issues such as biodiversity, conservation and sustainability. The vitality of the local and regional museum sector is providing novel outreach opportunities that foster engagement with new audiences (Q 314). Regional museums and reference collections are also an archive providing essential reference and voucher collections for biological recording. These are important both for the validation of biological records and for the local training of new generations of naturalist specialists (pp 145 and 326). We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the importance of the Renaissance in the Regions programme in providing additional resources for regional museums (Q 310 and p 48). At the same time, we urge the Government, through the appropriate funding agencies, to ensure continuity of funding to sustain curation, taxonomic work and outreach in the regional museums. We note that the importance of continuity of funding to university museums was a matter which was raised in a report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in June 2007.[17] The Commons Committee referred in particular to "how precarious university museums' funding was". We note also, that in their response, published in October 2007, the Government said: "DCMS officials are working closely with officials at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that the value of university museums is properly appreciated and adequately funded by HEFCE and the institutions they fund. We will, of course, continue to work closely with the museums sector to secure optimal levels of funding beyond 2009."[18]


3.30.  There are several UK Masters courses in systematic biology and taxonomy, some involving partnerships between universities and research institutes, such as the University of Edinburgh and RBG Edinburgh, and Imperial College and The NHM. Masters courses are typically broadly based and produce a pool of new postgraduates each year trained in the basics of systematic biology. There is a substantial number of PhD projects based in the UK that "tick the box" for having at least some component of taxonomy, but only in a minority of these is the primary focus on descriptive or revisionary taxonomy (Q 26). At this higher level of the PhD or post-doctoral fellowship, it appears from the evidence of Dr Alastair Culham of the Centre for Plant Diversity and Systematics at the University of Reading that it is common for qualified taxonomists to leave the UK because career paths are much stronger abroad (Q 192).

3.31.  Lord Rooker, Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming at Defra, and Mrs Hodge, Minister at the DCMS, were not in favour of central planning but where there were skills shortages they encouraged employers to express their demands and engage in dialogue with Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and HEFCE (QQ 305-306). Mrs Hodge commended the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the museums for encouraging and bringing alive to young people the exciting and challenging prospect of a career in science be it taxonomy or elsewhere, and saw it as a responsibility shared with DIUS (and the Research Councils) and users (Q 305).


3.32.  Professional taxonomists have long engaged with the voluntary sector in a training-mentoring role and, crucially, they have provided quality assurance. For example, Professor Mary Gibby, Director of Science at the RBG Edinburgh, referred to the support given to "the amateur community" by professional taxonomists through the specialist societies (Q 35). Such arrangements have largely been ad hoc, often generated by personal contacts with scientists. We fear however that this role will come under increased pressure given the shrinking pool of whole organism, taxon-based expertise in the UK. We recognise the value and importance of this mentoring and support. We recommend that steps should be taken, for example by the establishment of a periodic event, to foster personal networking between professional and voluntary taxonomists, the NBN, and other stakeholders.

12   Formerly the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux. Back

13   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, First Report, Session 1991-92, Systematic Biology Research (HL Paper 22), para 3.14. Back

14   Written evidence, p 226. Back

15   Recommendations of the meeting of the European Platform for Biodiversity Research Strategy held under the Portuguese Presidency of the EU, November 2007. Back

16   See Press release dated 13 March 2006. Back

17   House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Sixth Report, Session 2006-07, Caring for our collections (HC 176), para 65. Back

18   Government response to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Report on Caring for our collections, Session 2006-07, Cm 7233. Back

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