Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


6 February 2008

The following presentations were given:

  • Overview (Dr Sandy Knapp, Merit Researcher, The Natural History Museum);
  • National capacity (Professor Geoffrey Boxshall FRS, Merit Researcher FRS, The Natural History Museum);
  • Web-based taxonomy (Professor Charles Godfray FRS, Hope Professor of Zoology, University of Oxford);
  • Phylogenetics (Professor Mark Chase FRS, Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew);
  • Resurgence of the phenotype (Professor Bland Finlay FRS, Queen Mary University of London).

Overview (Dr Sandy Knapp)

Phylogeny, identification and description

Dr Knapp began by describing the three principal activities of the science of taxonomy: phylogeny, identification and description, focusing in particular on descriptive taxonomy which, she said, could be regarded as the "Cinderella of taxonomy" because it was largely ignored. Every species name was a hypothesis about the distribution of variation in nature and species definition was an ongoing discipline that required constant testing. Collections of organisms were critically important to taxonomy because they provided the basis for hypothesis testing.

Global taxonomic effort

It was very difficult to find statistics about global taxonomic effort because there was no standardised global collection of data. The most useful information came from Australia. Amongst other things, it had been found that, in Australia, between 1991 and 2003 the number of taxonomic scientists had fallen but the number of those providing technical support had increased. Despite this, the single biggest impediment to taxonomic activity was identified as lack of technical support. This might be a demonstration of the expanding technology associated with taxonomy. Indicative global statistics with regard to taxonomic effort in flowering plants (by reference to the International Plant Names Index) suggested that another challenge facing taxonomy was an ever-increasing evidence base.

National capacity (Professor Geoffrey Boxshall)

Professor Boxshall focused on two questions:

Why does the UK need a national capacity in taxonomy?

Reasons why the UK needed a national capacity in taxonomy included the following: to monitor and detect change in biodiversity; to understand the functional role of biodiversity; to provide data underpinning conservation; to meet international obligations; to detect and control alien species; to support identification services; to be a credible player internationally, and to interpret taxon-based knowledge. With regard to the second of these—to understand the functional role of biodiversity—a key concept which had emerged strongly in recent years was "ecosystem services". "Ecosystem services" were "the benefits people obtain from ecosystems". The concept had been broken down by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment into four types of service: (direct) provisioning (for example, food and fresh water), regulating (for example, climate regulation and flood regulation, pollination), cultural (for example, recreational and educational services) and, the most basic, supporting (for example, primary production and soil formation). "Ecosystem services" was an essential concept connecting biodiversity and the constituents of human well-being, and it had re-set the context for the Committee's inquiry. The ecosystem functioning research community was a source of high level demand for taxonomic skills and that level of demand demonstrated a recognition that taxonomy was essential for their work.

How does the UK national capacity compare in the global context?

Comparison could be made by looking at: collections, digital access to data, output (descriptive taxonomy), contributors to international programmes, capacity building and quality control (peer review).

The UK was a global leader in terms of museums and botanic gardens. The UK had done less well with digital access to data. With regard to output measures—descriptive taxonomy—the UK was still producing descriptive taxonomy but, looking at, for example, data from Zootaxa 2001-07 and the league table for animal species, it appeared that the UK global influence in descriptive taxonomy was slipping. Those countries which were doing well, such as the USA, Brazil and Australia, all had taxon-focused funding programmes. With regard to contributors to international programmes, capacity building and quality control, evidence suggested they were all in decline in the UK.

The continuing erosion of national taxonomic capacity reduced the UK's capacity to assess the biological impact of climate change, to study the sustainability of ecosystem services, to meet our formal obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and to detect alien species. It also reduced our credibility with the international biodiversity science community and reduced our ability to disseminate and interpret biodiversity information.

Web-based taxonomy (Professor Charles Godfray)

Current uses of the web

Professor Godfray began by setting out four main current uses by taxonomists of the web: enabling taxonomists to talk to other taxonomists (for example, specimen-level databases, type-specimen databases); linking data sources (for example, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the National Biodiversity Network); enabling taxonomists to talk to the broader community (via, for example, taxon sites and molecular taxonomic sites such as the Tree of Life), and making available taxonomic information for amateur biologists such as naturalists and gardeners etc.

Threats and drivers

Biodiversity and global change were creating a huge thirst for taxonomic information. Added to this is the greater expectation amongst biologists for information sources that are both accessible and easier to use. A major driver is the increasing speed of the molecular revolution. Some taxonomic tasks that in the past could only be done by specialist taxonomists can now be addressed by general biologists using sequence data. Programmes such as molecular barcoding will also produce large amounts of taxonomic-relevant molecular data. There is a major risk of a disconnect between molecular and morphological taxonomy.

How the web might be used

The web has the potential to bring together all parts of taxonomy; morphological and molecular, professional and amateur, provider and user. While the web is being used extensively in taxonomy there has yet to be the step-change that is required to address the current major taxonomic challenges. Though there is a plethora of taxonomic eScience projects these tend to be small scale, and there has been insufficient investment in overcoming the major hurdle: putting very substantial content on the web.

In the future, the web could provide improved functionality for many aspects of taxonomy (for example, significantly more information including sound, movies and photomontage, and the application of Digital Object Identifier technologies), greater subject cohesiveness (thereby countering the divide between molecular and morphological taxonomy), greater efficiency and better links with end-users.


Hurdles in the way of developing the web for taxonomic purposes included: the cost and other resource implications of moving information to the web; the need for prioritisation and cooperation; and sustainability.

The unique position of the UK

Despite the decline in UK taxonomy, the UK had significant influence over the future development of the subject. This was linked to its historical role and the collections it housed. The two greatest challenges now facing the UK taxonomic community were leadership and resourcing. Leadership needs to come from the country's major taxonomic institutions, and both "one-off" resources for transferring taxonomy to the web and a business plan for sustainability of this resource needs to be devised.

Phylogenetics (Professor Mark Chase)

The purpose of classification was: to enable an inventory to be created; to develop lists of names which were recognised world-wide; to enable an understanding of relationships; and to enable some degree of predictability (for example, where there was a close relationship between two organisms, the genetics of one could be assumed to be related to the genetics of the other).

Current classification included both clusters of relationships and measurement of confidence, expressed numerically, in the relationship asserted by the clustering. The information behind this type of classification was largely molecular but the effect of this was not to create a discrepancy between molecular and other taxonomies. On the contrary, those who were exposed to the meaning of DNA information were able to integrate the different types of taxonomy.

Phylogenetic trees had a number of purposes: they were useful for assessing relationships between organisms; they assisted in evaluating hypotheses of character evolution; they were useful in assessing patterns of biogeography—the distribution of plants around the world; they provided information about molecular clocks—the timing of events across the phylogenetic tree; and, a developing area, they assisted in assessing the past effects of climate change and predicting the future effects of climate change on species distributions. Names provided the points of entry into databases and phylogenetics provided the connections. Phylogenetics could be described as the "glue" that connected everything and turned data points into hypotheses. Paradoxically, it was possible to have taxonomic diversity at the same time as a deficit of phylogenetic diversity. Phylogenetic tress were necessary to understand this issues.

DNA barcoding was identification of species based on a short piece of DNA. Eventually it would be carried out using a hand-held device. It would not displace the need for taxonomists since barcoding depended on well-characterised reference bases and accurate use of names. It would relieve taxonomists from having to spend time on routine identifications.

Molecular phylogenetics tended not to be done in universities because it was not well-funded.

Resurgence of the phenotype (Professor Bland Finlay)

To expand knowledge, it was necessary to study the phenotype and whole organism (by observation, description and experiment). Describing organisms solely on the basis of phylogenetic trees provided little relevant biological information, and threatened to dismiss a large body of knowledge accumulated over two centuries. The arrival of molecular markers such as rDNA had the potential to sow confusion with an almost infinite variety of genotypes from a vast global pool of mainly selective neutral mutations that had accumulated over historical time.


Professor Richard Bateman, President of the Systematics Association, Dr Chris Lyall, UK National Focal Point, Global Taxonomy Initiative and Professor Georgina Mace, Director of the Centre for Population Biology at the NERC Collaborative Centre gave brief commentaries.

Following a short general discussion, Professor Boxshall summed up the key themes of the seminar:

  • The taxonomic landscape, and consequently taxonomic priorities, had changed significantly in recent years with the emergence of the concept of ecosystem services.
  • The range of users of taxonomy was expanding and would continue to expand. Allied to this was a tension created by an increasing demand for taxonomists without there being a commensurate increase in resources, in the size of the pool of taxonomic expertise or in the infrastructure.
  • Issues relating to support for the amateur taxonomic community needed to be addressed.
  • Descriptive taxonomy in particular needed careful attention. The core of experienced expertise in this area of taxonomic activity was the rate limiting factor in the UK's contribution to descriptive taxonomy.
  • The idea of taxonomic "national capacity" and a "critical mass of expertise" underpinned the Committee's 2002 report and should continue to be a focus for the current inquiry.
  • Technological innovation had created a powerful set of tools for the taxonomist. But the state of taxonomy in the UK was not susceptible to a "quick technological fix". Technology was a driver but also needed to be harnessed and used appropriately.
  • The UK had a leadership role to play in promoting taxonomy, a role which required developing and facilitating.

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