Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

CHAPTER 7: Conclusions and Recommendations

7.1.  In this chapter we set out our conclusions and recommendations in full. The numbers in brackets refer to the relevant paragraphs in the text.

Chapter 2: The role of systematic biology in the delivery of policies

7.2.  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. (para 2.13)

7.3.  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. (para 2.14)

Chapter 3: Health of the discipline in the UK: professional taxonomists, volunteers and recruitment

7.4.  We recommend that a study should be commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to ascertain the current number of taxonomists in the UK and also trends in the number of taxonomists in the UK. (para 3.1)

7.5.  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. (para 3.21)

7.6.  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.
(para 3.24)

7.7.  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. (para 3.25)

7.8.  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. (para 3.28)

7.9.  We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the importance of the Renaissance in the Regions programme in providing additional resources for regional museums. 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. (para 3.29)

7.10.  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 National Biodiversity Network (NBN), and other stakeholders. (para 3.32)

Chapter 4: Tools and technology for the twenty-first century

7.11.  We have no doubt that the Internet will play a crucial role in the evolution of taxonomy and it is clear that further pilot studies in web-based taxonomy involving a wider range of types of organisms should be undertaken urgently by the research community. (para 4.3)

7.12.  We believe that a roadmap for the delivery of Internet-based taxonomy should be developed. Furthermore, we encourage the taxonomic community to come together to take the lead in its development since, in our view, it will only be effective if it emerges from the community. The process of developing this roadmap should be funded jointly by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and NERC as a high strategic priority. (para 4.4)

7.13.  The Committee finds the rate of progress by the UK taxonomic institutions in digitising and making collections information available to be disappointingly low. Unless a more strategic view is taken of how they can contribute to the development of the field of biodiversity informatics, there is a significant risk of damage to the international reputation of major institutions such as the Natural History Museum. (para 4.6)

7.14.  This Committee recommends that those UK taxonomic institutions with major biological collections should develop strategic plans for making biodiversity informatics more readily accessible to users through the Internet, and that the Department for International Development should fund selected digitisation projects that focus on the biodiversity conservation and sustainability needs of developing countries. (para 4.8)

7.15.  The Committee recognises that certain kinds of big research questions relating to large-scale biodiversity patterns in space and time can only be addressed using large-scale data. UK researchers addressing such questions should be able to apply for Research Council funding to create large scale aggregated datasets. (para 4.9)

7.16.  The Committee is concerned about lack of co-ordination of barcoding effort nationally and about the potential for duplication of effort. The efficiency of barcoding as a diagnostic technique increases in proportion to the number of different species barcodes available for comparison. In the case of plant pathogenic fungi, we recommend that UK Biodiversity Research Advisory Group (UK BRAG) addresses the task of how best to co-ordinate barcoding effort across the UK. (para 4.12)

7.17.  The Committee recommends that NERC supports research into developing an effective, functioning interface between rapid taxonomic techniques such as metagenomics and traditional morphological taxonomy. (para 4.14)

7.18.  In view of the continuing success of the NBN in accessing and serving data, and its importance in engaging with and empowering the large voluntary sector involved in biological recording nationally, the Committee urges Defra to assist the NBN in moving towards a less fragile funding model.
(para 4.22)

Chapter 5: Funding

7.19.  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. (para 5.6)

7.20.  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. (para 5.8)

7.21.  Whilst we understand that there are always many pressures on Government funds, we are concerned about the future of the CAB International (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. (para 5.10)

Chapter 6: Government awareness

7.22.  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 Research Councils UK-level, of the state of UK systematic biology to be very worrying. (para 6.8)

7.23.  It is clear from the range of evidence we received that the perception that the Research Assessment Exercise (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. (para 6.13)

7.24.  The Committee recommends that in developing the replacement mechanism for the RAE—the Research Excellence Framework—the Higher Education Funding Council for England 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. (para 6.14)

7.25.  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. (para 6.16)

7.26.  We recommend that there should be a lead Government department responsible for systematic biology and that further, because the central issue is the state of health of the discipline, we recommend that Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take on that role. (para 6.20)

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008