Systematics and Taxonomy: Follow-up
Report with Evidence
HOUSE OF LORDS
Science and Technology Committee
5th Report of Session 2007-08
Ordered to be printed 21 July 2008 and published 13 August 2008
Published by the Authority of the House of Lords
CONTENTS Abstract 7 Chapter 1: Introduction 9 Importance of systematic biology 1.1 9 Previous reports 1.3 9 Our current inquiry 1.8 10 Acknowledgements 1.11 12 Chapter 2: The Role of Systematic Biology in the Delivery of Policies 13 Range of policy areas involving systematic biology 2.1 13 Conservation of biodiversity in a global context 2.2 13 Conservation of UK biodiversity 2.4 14 Protection against invasive alien species 2.5 14 Responding to climate change 2.6 14 Capacity building 2.7 14 Adapting to ecosystem services analysis 2.8 15 Policing global trade in endangered species 2.9 15 Promoting public engagement in environmental issues 2.10 15 Identification of emerging diseases and disease surveillance 2.11 15 Taxonomic skills in the private sector 2.12 16 Conclusion 2.13 16 Chapter 3: Health of the Discipline in the UK: Professional Taxonomists, Volunteers and Recruitment 17 Taxonomists in the UK: general picture 3.1 17 UK university sector 3.3 17 Wider science community 3.4 17 Taxonomists in the UK: age profile 3.6 18 Sectors in crisis 3.8 19 Classification of taxonomic activity 3.10 19 Descriptive taxonomy 3.12 20 Identification 3.16 21 Phylogenetic systematics 3.19 22 Supply and demand 3.20 22 Importance of the voluntary sector 3.22 23 Recruitment 3.26 23 Inspiring a new generation 3.26 23 Taxonomy in schools and the importance of field studies 3.28 24 Regional museums and reference collections 3.29 24 Training 3.30 25 Mentoring for volunteers 3.32 25 Chapter 4: Tools and Technology for the Twenty-First Century 27 Opportunities 4.1 27 Digitisation of collections and the Internet 4.3 27 Barcoding 4.10 29 DNA-based taxonomy and the morphological approach 4.13 30 Keys and handbooks 4.15 30 Research collections 4.17 31 National Biodiversity Network 4.20 31 Chapter 5: Funding 33 Diversity of funding sources 5.1 33 Funding by NERC 5.4 33 Production of identification keys and field guides 5.7 34 CABI fungi collection 5.9 34 Chapter 6: Government Awareness 36 Overview 6.1 36 Defra 6.2 36 DIUS: Research Councils 6.6 37 DIUS: HEFCE and the RAE 6.10 38 Environment Research FundersТ Forum 6.15 39 DCMS 6.17 39 Awareness in Government 6.18 39 Chapter 7: Conclusions and Recommendations 40 Written Evidence Mr Henry Barlow 187 Biological Recording in Scotland 188 BioNET-INTERNATIONAL 190 Biosciences Federation 193 Booth Museum of Natural History 203 Dr Janet Bradford-Grieve 205 The British Embassy (Rome) 206 The British Lichen Society 208 The British Mycological Society 214 The British Phycological Society 217 Buglife 221 CAB International 224 Centre for Plant Diversity & Systematics, University of Reading 226 Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford 231 Dr Henry Disney 232 EMLRC (Leicestershire County Council) 233 EDIT Consortium 235 Mr Bill Ely 239 Dr Genoveva Esteban 241 European Mycological Association 243 Global Biodiversity Information Facility 250 E F Greenwood 252 Hertfordshire Natural History Society 254 International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature 257 Professor Marcel Jaspars 264 Mrs Patricia Lorber 265 Professor Amyan Macfadyen 266 Mycology sub-committee UK BRAG 267 National Federation for Biological Recording 272 National Museum Liverpool 274 National Museum Wales 278 National Science Collections Association 283 Mr Adrian Norris 284 Plant Diversity Challenge Steering Group 285 Plantlife International 289 The Royal Entomological Society 294 The Royal Horticultural Society 296 School of Computer Science, Cardiff University 300 The Scottish Environment Protection Agency 302 Society for General Microbiology 303 UK Biodiversity Research Advisory Group & the Global Biodiversity Sub-Committee of the UK 309 Dr John Waland Ismay 317 Professor Roy Watling 320 Wellcome Trust 321 The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester & North Merseyside 322 Yorkshire Naturalists' Union 324
Definitions and ABSTRACT
Taxonomy is the scientific discipline of describing, delimiting and naming organisms, both living and fossil, and systematics is the process of organising taxonomic information about organisms into a logical classification that provides the framework for all comparative studies. In this report systematics and taxonomy are referred to collectively as systematic biology.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) introduced the system for scientific names which is used today. Since then, taxonomists have described and named about 1.78 million species of animals, plants and micro-organisms. The total number of species on Earth is unknown but, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, probably lies between 5 million and 30 million. Systematic biology is the tool by which these components of biodiversity are identified, named and enumerated, and by which their relationships are described.
Systematic biology is at the heart of our understanding of the natural world. In this time of climate change, understanding the connection between the natural world and human well-being - understanding the value and dynamic of "ecosystem services" - has a vital importance more widely recognised than ever before. "Ecosystem services" is a concept which has developed an importance in recent years to the point where it now sets the context of the current debate on environment sustainability. Simply defined, ecosystem services are "the benefits we derive from natural ecosystems".
This is our third inquiry into systematics and taxonomy. We reported in 1992, under the chairmanship of Lord Dainton, with a follow-up inquiry in 2001Ц02 under the chairmanship of Baroness Walmsley. We chose to embark on this inquiry now because of the environmental imperatives increasingly manifest in our daily lives. We have asked two questions in particular: whether systematic biology in the UK is in a fit state to generate the essential taxonomic information required to understand ecosystem services and whether the UK has the skills available to understand and predict the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
We have concluded that the state of systematics and taxonomy in the UK, both in terms of the professional taxonomic community and volunteers, is unsatisfactory - in some areas, such as mycology, to the point of crisis - and that more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline. We propose, for example, that there should be more effective and regular dialogue between the users and producers of taxonomy on the priorities for developing UK systematic biology, and we emphasise the importance of stimulating recruitment and also of taking steps to fire the imagination of school children by creative incorporation of environmental and biodiversity issues into school curricula.
The study of systematic biology, in common with other areas of science, has been transformed by technological innovation. Of particular importance are the development of molecular taxonomy and the potential of web-based taxonomy. We have no doubt that the benefits to be reaped from technological innovation are enormous. We are aware however that they need to be harnessed with discrimination and we call on the Research Councils and the taxonomic institutions to respond to this challenge.
Although we received clear evidence from the taxonomic community of a widespread concern about the state of the discipline, that concern appears to be largely unheard by the Government and by the Research Councils. We find this worrying. We believe that part of the problem is the fragmentation within Government of responsibility for systematic biology. We therefore recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills be designated as the lead department and that that department should exercise the leadership without which we fear that the downward slide of UK taxonomy is set to continue.
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