Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

CHAPTER 6: Government Awareness


6.1.  Systematic biology is notable for the way in which effort, resources and responsibilities are spread across Government departments, between the universities, museums and botanic gardens, and through the voluntary biological recording sector. This spread reinforces our view of systematic biology as a basic infrastructural discipline underpinning the delivery of a broad raft of policies, but during this inquiry we have become aware of an astonishing lack of awareness in Government, both of the importance of systematic biology and of the current state of decline in areas of systematic biology.


6.2.  Defra describes itself as "a user of the outputs of systematics and taxonomy" but "not a major utiliser of research from these disciplines" (p 49). Dr Miles Parker, Director of Science at Defra, confirmed that Defra has a "lively interest" in this area but that it only had a lead on certain aspects (Q 97). In our 2002 report, we recommended that Defra should take the lead in setting up a body with the express purpose of bringing together representatives from Government departments, ecologists and conservationists and the systematic biology community, including those based at museums, universities and other institutions (Recommendation 1.8). This co-ordination body's main remit was to have been to identify priority areas of biodiversity for which taxonomic research was most needed by the conservation community, and for other national purposes, such as plant and animal health and agriculture. No such body was established.

6.3.  Dr Parker suggested that the very wide community of interest in this area was "a strength" and that Defra placed some emphasis on working with the systematic biology community and co-ordinating activities with them (Q 95) through bodies such as UK BRAG and GBSC (Q 97). However, UK BRAG and GBSC, both under Defra chairmanship, told us that in their view "there remains a need for improved mechanisms to make user needs known to the taxonomic community and to funding bodies" (p 313); and Dr Ian McLean, Head of Targets and Standards at the JNCC, suggested that, as far as he could see, there was no "current mechanism for directly joining up those areas where we recognise there is an increased demand [for taxonomic expertise] … with providers of taxonomy" (Q 213). BioNET-INTERNATIONAL linked this to "the lack of even minimal resources needed for ongoing co-ordination and facilitation of taxonomist/end-user relationships" (p 191).

6.4.  The statement by Defra that they have "not identified any specific major impediment to delivering our priorities deriving from the spheres of systematics and taxonomy" (p 49) is contradicted by UK BRAG who comment that "without a reliable inventory, efforts to conserve biodiversity are greatly hampered" and go on to point out that there are "significant national gaps in taxonomic knowledge needed to underpin research in the marine environment" (p 312). Similarly, Professor Battarbee, in reference to the EU Water Framework Directive which requires that all surface waters are restored to good ecological status by 2015 (defined ecologically and biologically), said that the Environment Agency "do not have sufficient taxonomic expertise … for phytoplankton macro-invertebrates and aquatic macrophytes". He concluded that "the shortage of people with identification skills is serious" (Q 171).

6.5.  This lack of awareness on behalf of Defra creates risk on a number of fronts: users risk not having their needs met; producers risk becoming disconnected from their users; researchers risk having to limit the questions they can address through lack of essential tools; and Government risks being unable to deliver policy. Changing taxonomic needs must be discussed with key producers. Lord Rooker expressed concern about not "hearing the noises" about the problematic state of systematic biology (Q 301). For this reason, we have recommended (in paragraph 3.21) that steps should be taken to satisfy a clear need for facilitated dialogue between ecosystem and biodiversity researchers, taxonomy providers, funders and the wider community of users.

DIUS: Research Councils

6.6.  NERC states that it is "not primarily concerned with systematics and taxonomy per se, focusing instead on using the information" (p 37) and BBSRC, while acknowledging "the fundamental role of systematics in most areas of life science research", has "little involvement in the support of taxonomy" (p 36).

6.7.  Dr Alf Game of the BBSRC agreed that "over a number of years, particularly in universities, the amount of activity in taxonomy and in support of collections has probably declined" but he did not believe that this had been reflected "by very much evidence … from the wider science base or the user community of concern about it" (Q 49). However, Dr Game conceded that the Research Councils UK (RCUK) system for detecting issues such as concern about systematics was "very nebulous" (Q 77); and we note that, despite Dr Game's suggestion that there was little evidence of widespread worry about the state of taxonomy, the RCUK itself acknowledges that the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the National Oceanographic Centre Southampton (both NERC collaborative centres) have raised concerns about succession planning for taxonomy in the marine sciences (p 39). RCUK also submits that the "whole set of skills and expertise to maintain the international standards for identification is disappearing rapidly from the UK" (p 39). RCUK seems unaware of the evidence of concern over the state of systematic biology emanating from its own institutes.

6.8.  The Committee received evidence of widespread concern from the user community about the health of systematic biology in the UK and concludes that the system for communicating this concern is not working. We find the lack of awareness, at RCUK-level, of the state of UK systematic biology to be very worrying. Since the RCUK take responsibility for training and for maintaining the expertise base in taxonomy (Q 54), it is surprising that communication between RCUK and the users of taxonomy is open to this level of criticism.

6.9.  The Research Councils are responsible for the health of the disciplines and they provide an annual health of disciplines report (QQ 48 and 243). Mr Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Science and Innovation at DIUS, said that as Minister he wanted to be assured that the Research Councils were paying sufficiently detailed attention "to the health of key disciplines" (Q 283). But the current system seems to be at such a coarse scale that it would not pick up changes specifically relating to the health of the systematic biology community (Q 243). Since it appears that no effective mechanism is in place to determine routinely the health of systematic biology, it is not clear to us how the Minister can have the assurance he seeks.


6.10.  One of the key drivers of the decline in taxonomy at UK universities has been the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). The RAE was identified as an important factor by this Committee in our last inquiry. In our 2002 report we recommended that the Higher Education Funding Councils should consider the role of the RAE in the decline of systematic biology in universities and explore ways in which to support this subject, as they do with other minority disciplines (Recommendation 1.4). This was not done.

6.11.  Mr Pearson suggested that Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) did not accept that the RAE has played a role in the decline of minority disciplines and that there was "no conclusive evidence to that effect" (Q 289). However, there is a widespread view in the research community that the RAE emphasis on high impact journals and the low weighting given to measures of esteem in which contributions to informatics initiatives and expertise might be recognised, discourages universities from recruiting systematists (The NHM p 4). The Biosciences Federation conclude that systematic biology research in universities is disadvantaged by the RAE, to the detriment of research and training, and they even refer to the "tyranny of the RAE" (p 196). One very active, university-based group of prokaryotic systematists was "disbanded because of suspected RAE pressures" (p 305). RBG Kew suggested that "the RAE criteria provide a strong disincentive for universities to support taxonomic research and training" (p 15).

6.12.  In addition, the RAE is regarded as impacting selectively on the production of larger monographic or revisionary studies. "The absence of this work [production of taxonomy monographs] from universities owes much to the vicissitudes of the Research Assessment Exercise, which penalises those taxonomists whose interests and skills lie in this area" (BSBI p 86). The monographic study, as an output of taxonomy, is "effectively invisible to the RAE" (Systematics Association p 101). The Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University concludes that "given the current research environment within universities (funding, RAE) it is unrealistic for any active researcher not to pursue high impact hypothesis-driven science" (p 231).

6.13.  Professor Mace, a member of the current RAE panel, commented that in the current exercise there was a very different flavour to how outputs are judged—that is, not only on their scientific merit but also on whether they will have a bearing on policy (Q 69). Whilst the Committee welcomes this change, it is clear from the range of evidence we received that the perception that the RAE criteria do not favour systematics is still widespread in the UK biodiversity research community and that the RAE is still having a negative impact on the choices of career-minded scientists in taxonomy.

6.14.  The Committee recommends that in developing the replacement mechanism for the RAE—the Research Excellence Framework—HEFCE should take into consideration the way that citation-based metrics disadvantage systematic biology and also the bias that would be introduced if grants-based metrics were employed, given that pure taxonomy is not deemed fundable by the Research Councils. It is essential that criteria appropriate to systematic biology research should be incorporated into the new mechanism.

Environment Research Funders' Forum

6.15.  The Committee welcomes the decision that taxonomy has been "highlighted for special attention" within the forthcoming skills review by the Environment Research Funders' Forum—a group, led by NERC, of all the main funders of environmental science (Q 243). We note that the findings of the review are likely to be produced in 12 to 18 months. We look forward to seeing them although we are aware that they will provide only a "snapshot" of the discipline rather than reflect longer-term trends.

6.16.  Given the baseline studies of the health of systematic biology already available in our reports published in 1992 and 2002, we recommend that the Environment Research Funders' Forum should seek to identify trends in the state of the discipline when making their review. We also recommend that the Forum should programme a follow-up assessment to take place within five years of their first review.


6.17.  The involvement of DCMS in systematic biology is primarily through its role as sponsor and funder of The NHM and of regional museums through the Museum Libraries and Archives' Renaissance in the Regions programme (p 48). DCMS has an arms-length relationship with The NHM as one of its many non-departmental public bodies. Mrs Hodge, Minister at DCMS, who welcomed the opportunity to learn about taxonomy for this inquiry (Q 297), informed us that problems with the health of the discipline or with co-ordination between Government departments had never been raised as an issue with her (Q 298).

Awareness in Government

6.18.  As Minister, Ian Pearson of DIUS, wants to be assured the Research Councils are paying sufficient attention to the health of key disciplines (Q 283) but the Research Councils are largely unaware of the widespread concern about the state of health of systematic biology (Q 49). HEFCE does not accept that the RAE is a key driver of the decline of minority disciplines such as systematic biology but we have evidence to the contrary. Lord Rooker at Defra has not heard noises about the problematic state of systematic biology (Q 301) and concerns about problems with the discipline have never been raised with Mrs Hodge at DCMS (Q 298). This lack of awareness within Government may reflect the difficulty that officials must have in gaining an overview of an underpinning, infrastructural discipline but, in our view, the result is that systematic biology appears to be suffering the consequences of a situation where diffuse responsibility results in no responsibility.

6.19.  We recommend therefore that there should be a lead department responsible for systematic biology and that further, because the central issue is the state of health of the discipline, we recommend that DIUS should take on that role.

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