Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Linnean Society of London


  1.  The Linnean Society, founded in 1788, is the world's oldest continuously active natural history society. Its mission is to promote the study of the biology of whole organisms by persons at all levels of age, background and expertise. It was at the Linnean Society that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace first made public their thoughts on the origin of species. The society has maintained this tradition by subsequently continuing to sponsor ground-breaking work in many relevant areas of natural history.

  2.  The Society's members include both amateurs and professionals. The categories of membership (with standard annual subscriptions in brackets) are: Fellows (£40), Associates (over 18 and under 29 years of age, £24) and Student Associates (over 18 and under 24, £9). In terms of ethnicity, nationality, social background, age and gender, the society's fellowship has always been diverse. The one proviso of fellowship is an active commitment to the pursuit of biology and natural history. The Linnean does, however, pride itself on having been the first learned society in Britain to admit women fellows, and women have long ranked among its officers, presidents and most distinguished members. The Society has an open and democratic constitution dating back to its 1802 Charter. Members are drawn from 93 countries; 36 per cent of the UK membership live or work in the Home Counties.

  3.  The Society organizes a programme of meetings throughout the year, in which the general public are welcome to participate. It publishes three learned Journals of Biology, Botany and Zoology, which have international stature in terms of their editors, contributors and readers. The Society also produces a highly regarded Members' newsletter The Linnean, the Synopses of British Fauna, with occasional and special publications. Each year there are in total more than 40 issues of all these. Papers are subjected to rigorous peer review. The journals help to maintain the perception of Britain's leadership in biology.

  4.  It awards small grants to support research in a wide variety of scholarly studies in natural history and systematics, to give assistance to serious natural historians in the UK and abroad, and to help young PhD students. It awards a variety of medals and prizes—for example, a recent obituary of the internationally distinguished US naturalist, Richard Evans Schultes, referred to his receipt of a Linnean medal as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. The various other awards go not only to professional and amateur natural historians, young and old, but to botanical artists as well. We also offer an annual prize for the best PhD thesis in plant sciences. Grants are available to support research by those no longer in full-time employment, and to pay the subscriptions of those unable to afford them, eg Members in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia.

  5.  The Society has strong overseas connections with occasional meetings abroad. For example, we are determined to go ahead with a meeting in Pakistan on the natural history and archaeology of the Hindu Kush either later this year or early next year since this will bring together scientists from the West and from Muslim countries. The Society also makes grants every other year for work in tropical African botany, which have involved scientists from a range of African countries.

  6.  The Society holds in trust for the benefit of scientists across the world the botanical and zoological collections, library and correspondence of Carl Linnaeus (comprising over 25,000 items in all). Apart from the extraordinary historical value of these 18th century holdings, they are the very scientific reference specimens (types) on which the names used today for many well-known plants and animals are based. The Society's holdings are, therefore, an exceptional resource for researchers both in taxonomy and the history of science and are curated to the highest standards for inspection by scholars and natural historians. We have embarked on a programme to make available all our collections, for free, on to the world-wide-web so that they can then be viewed by anyone with access to the Internet.

  7.  The Society's library, in continuous operation since our founding in 1788, is consulted (free of charge) by scholars from all over the world.

  8.  The Society has initiated—either alone or in partnership—a number of major national and international projects in systematics and conservation of biodiversity. For example, for many years in the first half of the 20th century the desirability of a Flora of Europe had been evident. In 1957, with the aid of a starter grant from the old DSIR, the Linnean Society became the sponsor of the Flora Europaea project, which was successfully completed only in 1980; the five volumes comprising the Flora represented the work of 187 botanists in 24 countries, and covered 11,557 species. This work continues with a major grant from the EU Framework 5 programme. With partners on the mainland of Europe, we also obtained Framework 5 funding for an even more ambitious Fauna Europaea project to cover all the animal species of Europe. Both these initiatives were taken forward by some of our members as a result of a Linnean Society meeting held in Leiden in 1995. The Society also sponsored Prof R J Berry's project Biological Recording: Need and Network which foreshadowed the National Biodiversity Network. Outside Europe, the Society contributed to the 1988 Kimberley bicentenary expedition in Australia.


  9.   Recurrent funding. The Linnean Society receives no recurrent government funding.

  10.   Project funding. On a few occasions post-war, the Linnean Society has been involved in government-funded projects. An early example was the Flora Europaea project (see paragraph 8 above) where the Society administered the Trust that was established with the DSIR grant, coordinated the voluntary participation of many professional botanists from a variety of countries, and oversaw the final publication of the Flora. In 1993 and 1995, grants from DFID allowed the Society to mount two meetings on Brazil. More recently, after OST funding for The Systematics Forum expired, the Society commissioned a report on its activities and future prospects and is exploring ways of ensuring continuation of its activities for specialist groups of systematists, alongside its long-standing specialist groups in computer applications, evolution, freshwater biology, palaeobotany, palynology and plant anatomy. The Society has administered for many years the NERC Fund for Taxonomic Publication.

  11.   Premises. In 1854 the Government purchased Burlington House to fulfil a historic obligation to accommodate certain scientific societies, and in 1856 allocated some rooms in it for the use of the Linnean Society. The location of the present day rooms is different due to changes elsewhere in Burlington House. The precise legal status of the terms and conditions of occupation of these rooms by the Society has been the subject of ongoing discussion with government for a number of years. At present, the Linnean Society carries responsibility for their upkeep, maintenance, decoration, cleaning, security and other running costs, as well as for conformity with legislation such as that for Health & Safety.

  12.  Our rooms are made available for meetings of a range of other learned societies and relevant charitable organizations at modest rates. The Society has participated in London Open House during which some hundreds of people have visited the Society's rooms. Two pamphlets on the building and the Society have been produced for these occasions.


  13.  Over many years the Society has given advice when requested to government and NGOs on matters concerned with natural history, systematic biology and conservation. Ten years ago, a House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology chaired by the late Lord Dainton published a report highlighting the parlous state of research in systematic biology; two former Presidents of the Societies were the Committee's specialist advisers, and the Society was amongst those submitting detailed evidence.

  14.  In the past 12 months we have commented to DETR, now DEFRA, on the quinquennial review of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to the former DETR on the government draft report under the UN Biodiversity Convention, to DEFRA on its proposed research strategies, and to NERC on its research strategies.

  15.  In the case of DEFRA and NERC, although both have indicated the importance of the conservation of biodiversity, neither provides the means to do it by supporting the kind of research in systematic biology that is essential to underpin any comprehensive programme of biodiversity conservation. We therefore felt obliged to submit our views to the current House of Lords Select Committee in Science and Technology enquiry into Biodiversity and Systematics earlier this year—a continuation of the enquiry mentioned in para 13 above. The President of the Linnean Society also gave evidence in person to the Committee.

  16.  Because of the general concern about the parlous state of research in systematic biology in the UK, in 2000 we contacted 27 other Learned Societies interested in aspects of the subject and arranged two meetings for their representatives. The outcome was a document outlining both the problem and a possible solution to it, which was then sent to the Government Chief Scientist and the Minister for the Environment in July 2001. Again, we have the feeling that firm support will be lacking from either quarter.

  17.  Through its representative on the Council of the National Trust, the Society has contributed to the recognition by the Trust of its responsibilities for biodiversity conservation and land management, as well as the upkeep of its buildings. A former representative of the Society was instrumental in introducing a deer management programme for the Trust's land.


  18.  The Society has sought, so far unsuccessfully, to become a registered museum, which would allow it, through eligibility for various grants, to become more accessible to the general public. At present, the "public" with which the Society communicates may be considered in four categories: school students; those non-professional biologists in the UK with serious interests in aspects of natural history; certain organizations in other countries; the global community of workers in biology and its associated professions.

  19.  The Society's Schools Programme has involved arranging meetings in various parts of the UK primarily for sixthformers interested in natural history. To this end, the Society has a coordinator of its schools' programme on its Programmes Committee. In April 2001, with the Society for Experimental Biology, the Society's President chaired a panel discussion at the University of Kent at Canterbury involving some 60 sixthformers from local schools. In January 2002, our coordinator, Ms. Mary Griffin, organized a successful Saturday morning event in Dublin for sixthformers, teachers and advisers, attended by over 100 people. Both the Canterbury and Dublin meetings were concerned with current ethical problems in biology. We are seeking to fit our own programmes into the new curricula in schools.

  20.  With regard to amateur naturalists, they are welcome at any of our meetings whether or not they are members of the Society, and the Society's Programmes Committee welcomes any suggestions for meetings on appropriate topics. Apart from our Journals which are very much aimed at professionals, we publish a variety of types of books of interest to a wide audience (see, the latest to go to press being on wildlife and roads. Three display cases containing artefacts and representative biological material are made available to the public in the foyer of the Linnean Society (10-5pm on weekdays other than Bank Holidays). The Society's rooms are used by other societies and organisations 400 times a year, so providing access to the foyer exhibition and to some 50 framed portraits of biologists hanging throughout the building. Visiting groups receive conducted tours by staff by appointment.

  21.  With regard to the international scene, a good example is the preparation for events to celebrate the tercentenary of Linnaeus' birth in 2007. The President has already visited Sweden to participate in a meeting to plan a range of public events, television programmes, a new visitor centre, etc, and to explore how the Society can be of assistance. Additionally, we have already delegated to one of our Council, Dr. Jenny Edmonds, of Leeds, the responsibility over the next five years for coordinating various activities for a parallel celebration of the enormous contribution to science made by Linnaeus.


  22.  In the field of natural history, we are alarmed at the declining state of research into systematics and whole organism biology in institutions, and its virtual disappearance in universities (see paras 13 and 15, above). Likewise, education in these subjects in schools and universities is in a parlous state, despite the widespread lip-service paid to the "importance of conserving biodiversity". We have now reached a stage where, for example, there is now no longer any expert employed anywhere in the UK by either government, museums or universities who can authoritatively identify a number of major groups of fungi (including, eg, mushrooms and toadstools, let alone potentially disease-causing organisms in animals and plants). It is difficult to conserve species (or, indeed, to conduct any other work with them) without first having located, identified and studied them. These are all functions of systematic biology. But this discipline, the grammar and syntax of biodiversity studies, is increasingly disregarded. The Linnean Society is determined to ensure that the basic (some might complain, traditional) skills needed to meet a very modern challenge are upheld and understood. In its furtherance of this aim, the society would benefit from Government recognition.

  23.  The UK systematics crisis compares unfavourably with the situation other nations. In the United States, for example, Federal, State and private support has encouraged botanic gardens and learned institutions to sponsor a great revival of interest in natural history and systematics. The New York Botanical Garden teaches natural history to schoolchildren from every age group and background and has come to be seen as a vital educational resource. At the same time, the garden's library and herbarium are home to more PhD candidates each year than the total of UK doctoral students in systematic botany—and the New York Garden is only one of several such institutions in the USA. Learned societies like the Linnean could, with suitable encouragement develop similar initiatives in the United Kingdom.

  24.  The tradition of the amateur naturalist is a strong one in the UK, and it is catered for by a wide variety of learned societies (some very small, with perhaps only 100 or so members). In the UK, professional taxonomists are complemented by their amateur colleagues in many areas such as bryology, entomology and mycology. The Linnean Society, with its central location and Meeting Room, Council Room, Committee Rooms and Library, is able to encourage and support both amateur and professional taxonomists, whose expertise benefits the furtherance of our knowledge of biodiversity and sustainable use of our natural resources in both education and research.

April 2002

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