Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

CHAPTER 5: Funding

Diversity of funding sources

5.1.  Taxonomic research in the UK is dependent upon "a plurality of funding sources" (Q 81): core research at RBG Kew is funded by Defra, at The NHM by DCMS, at RBG Edinburgh by the Scottish Executive, and at the National Museum Wales by the Welsh Assembly Government. As well as funding RBG Kew, Defra states that where the development or implementation of policy requires input of systematic or taxonomic expertise, this will be factored into the contract (p 51) and research is also carried out at Defra laboratories such as CSL and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Science (CEFAS) (p 50). Some aspects of taxonomy research are funded by Research Councils (but see paragraphs 5.4 to 5.6 below). The Wellcome Trust funds research into aspects of systematic biology relevant to its mission (p 321) and a number of other organisations, the RHS (p 298 and Q 175) for example, support a small amount of targeted research.

5.2.  The BBSRC Collaborative Scheme for Systematics Research (CoSyst) is managed by the Linnean Society and the Systematics Association (p 40). This scheme is funded by the BBSRC at £75,000 a year for 3 years (£225,000 in total) and supports developing collaborations between systematists and non-systematists that will lead to full Research Council proposals. Early indications are positive (Q 82) and we encourage those involved to review the scheme in due course with a view to continuing and expanding it. (We note the comment of the Linnean Society that the entire three-year funding is equivalent to only a single average BBSRC standard grant (p 92).)

5.3.  The Linnean Society and the Systematics Association together operate the Systematics Research Fund—a scheme for providing small grants for work in taxonomy. The total funding for 2007-08 was £72,000: £36,000 (provided by the Linnean Society (£20,000), the Systematics Association (£6,000), the Bentham-Moxon Trust (£5,000) and NERC (£5,000)) (p 92). The sum of money involved is small but this is a welcome demonstration of improved cohesion within the community.

Funding by NERC

5.4.  The evidence we received about the willingness of the Research Councils to fund taxonomy was confused. According to NERC, it "is not primarily concerned with systematics and taxonomy per se, focusing instead on using the information", a position confirmed in oral evidence: "taxonomy that is funded is directly related to another research project and only that" (Q 53). NERC subsequently clarified their answer: they "do not fund alpha taxonomy in vacuo" but they do fund it and other systematics and taxonomy research "where it is required to address important scientific questions" (p 78). But then Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC, agreed in response to questioning that NERC would not discriminate against taxonomy and that it was incorrect to say NERC did not fund taxonomy per se (Q 254).

5.5.  One consequence of these mixed signals appears to be that applicants feel the need to "hide" or "disguise" the taxonomic component of their research grant applications (QQ 180 and 230). Dr Fortey, for example, said that bodies like NERC "do not hand out money for grant proposals that are primarily taxonomically aimed"; and speaking from his own experience, he said: "the grants that I have been successful in getting have got taxonomy in them hidden away or rather cunningly concealed under a scientific hypothesis" (Q 230). While this concealment might result in some taxonomy being funded, we find it difficult to see how NERC can gain an accurate picture of the importance of taxonomy in underpinning biodiversity and climate change studies.

5.6.  The approach of NERC to funding taxonomy appears confused. We are very concerned that the mixed signals perceived within the taxonomic community are detrimental to the transparency which should characterise scientific discourse. We invite NERC to make a clear statement setting out its approach to the funding of taxonomy.

Production of identification keys and field guides

5.7.  We have already referred to the importance of identification keys and field guides (paragraphs 4.15 and 4.16 above). Although their production is critical (p 313), it is the non-availability of taxon specialists willing to produce guides that is the limiting factor (see paragraph 4.16 above). In addition to the general decrease in numbers of available specialists, it seems likely to us that the "effective invisibility" of such works in the Research Assessment Exercise process (see paragraphs 6.10 to 6.14 below) is a significant factor in the lack of willingness to generate new identification guides amongst those remaining specialists.

5.8.  We recommend the establishment of a new process for commissioning the production of identification keys and field guides, involving joint actions between users setting priorities, funders supporting fixed-term appointments, host institutions providing access to collections and literature resources, and established series publishers producing the volumes. We also recommend that UK BRAG should explore the options for commissioning the production of new and updated identification guides for the UK fauna and flora.

CABI fungi collection

5.9.  The RBG Kew has taken on responsibility for curation of the CABI collection of fungi in order to ensure that this important collection remains secure and accessible to researchers (p 22 and Q 14). This is a valuable scientific asset which is held nationally but is of global scientific significance. RBG Kew has requested Defra to provide additional funding of £750,000 for housing and curating the collection (Q 303). Lord Rooker indicated that there was an issue concerning the departmental responsibility for funding of CABI and stated that there was "very little likelihood of funding" by Defra (QQ 303-304).

5.10.  Whilst we understand that there are always many pressures on Government funds, we are concerned about the future of the CABI fungal reference collection given its significance to the stability of fungal systematics. Its loss would deepen the crisis in fungal taxonomy. We urge the Government to acknowledge this significance and to take steps to secure the CABI fungal reference collection into the future.

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