Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report

Commentary on the Government's response

Recommendation 1.1: In view of the Government's commitments to biodiversity conservation we recommend that they increase grant-in-aid to the major systematics institutions. We envisage this as providing support to collections—the databases used by systematic biologists and conservationists. In accordance with the recommendation of the Dainton Report,[1] grant-in-aid funding should be increased to the level it would have been had the 1992 figures been maintained in line with inflation. This would allow further digitising of the collections.

5.  The Government has responded to this call for increased grants by stating that it will not be possible to increase grant-in-aid funding to the level it would have been at, taking account of inflation since 1992, and pointed to "substantial new resources" that have been made available. There were varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the Government's increased funding from all respondents except Kew, which was "very grateful for this support" (p 6). Several bodies regarded the statement as "misleading" (p 2, p 4, p 11) given previous reductions in grant-in-aid, which the most recent increases do not fully reverse and regret the Government's statement that they will not bring funding back to 1992 levels. Some, including the Natural History Museum, pointed to the wider demands being placed upon them by Government as the result of the Convention on Biodiversity (for example).

6.  We are most disappointed that the grant-in-aid will not be increased to the levels we recommended, and urge the Government to reconsider.

Recommendation 1.3: We recommend that the Government develop and publish a clear, concise summary document regarding their policy on biodiversity conservation activity in the United Kingdom and on the international stage.

7.  The Government have not done so. Out of five respondents who offered comments, the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) Kew, the Natural History Museum and the Royal Entomological Society saw the response as insufficient, and called for the recommendation to be met. RBG Kew stated "there remains an urgent need for a concise document which summarises the UK's overall biodiversity policy" (p 6). RBG Edinburgh took the view that the strategies listed were not concerned with the international stage, and CABI thought that more resources need to be devoted to joined-up UK thinking.

8.  We consider that the rather long list of separate documents given in the Government response highlights precisely the need for a summary document. This would enable the systematic biology and conservation communities to develop effective strategies in line with the Government's aims.

Recommendation 1.4: We recommend that the Higher Education Funding Councils should consider the role of the Research Assessment Exercise in the decline of systematic biology in universities and explore ways in which to support this subject, as they do with other minority disciplines.

9.  There was widespread welcome of the review of the RAE from respondents, and belief that the RAE could go some way to arresting the decline in such a minority subject.

10.  Despite the Government's response stating that "the issue of minority subjects and how best to assess and support them" would be considered as part of the review, there is no specific mention of minority subjects in the recently published report by Sir Gareth Roberts. We look to the systematic biology community to consider how the recommendations made in the Roberts Review will affect them, and to respond to the consultation exercise.

Recommendation 1.5: We recommend that the BBSRC should reconsider its decision not to award academic analogue status to Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and Kew.

11.  The BBSRC has rejected this recommendation. There was agreement amongst five respondents, including from the Linnean Society and Royal Entomological Society, that BBSRC should give RBG Edinburgh and Kew academic analogue status. We see no reason why this should not be the case. The fact that they receive core funding from other government departments should not exclude them from obtaining such status, nor from the potential for further funding opportunities that comes with it.

Recommendation 1.7: We recommend that the United Kingdom should take the lead and propose to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) that the GBIF run a pilot with some priority species to form the basis of a trial for Professor Godfray's suggestion of making taxonomy primarily digitised and web-based. A trial would demonstrate the benefits and pit-falls of this approach before implementing it more widely

12.  The Government's response to this point was that they support the work of GBIF and has successfully promoted a pilot project in the light of Professor Godfray's recommendation. There was some division on this response from respondents. RBG Kew and the Royal Society were sceptical about GBIF taking on this role. The Royal Society believed that a web-based pilot should be undertaken by a major museum or botanic collection (or group of suchlike). Some others, including CABI, welcomed the Government's support for it but point out that it is not overwhelmingly, financially, beneficial to institutions nor the UK. Several question the relationship of Professor Godfray's idea for a pilot project with GBIF funding - the Natural History Museum, when describing GBIF's calls for proposals said "It is not clear what, if any, connexion exists with Professor Godfray's ideas - our information suggests that GBIF have not adopted this approach at present" (p 5).

13.  We are pleased to note that the Government have successfully pushed for a pilot project to "demonstrate GBIF's practical value and usage to the wider conservation community". We understand that whilst GBIF is not trialling the type of community on-line monographs that Professor Godfray has been arguing for, it is supporting the preparation of electronic catalogues and lists that will be essential for proper web taxonomies. This is a positive step forward.

Recommendation 1.8: We recommend that DEFRA takes 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. DEFRA should provide funding for administrative support in the early stages, although we envisage that the body should eventually seek to become self-financing with all participants making a small contribution to running costs. The body's main remit would be to:

(a)  identify priority areas of biodiversity for which taxonomic research is most needed by the conservation community, and for other national purposes, such as health and agriculture.

Additional remits would be to:

(b)  assess the taxonomic impediment to conservation action—specifically to analyse the shortage of taxonomic specialists and gaps in taxonomic data;

(c)  campaign for resources for taxonomists researching in those priority areas.

14.  Witnesses expressed almost universal praise for DEFRA's agreement to lead such a group. Many respondents have stated explicitly that they are keen to play a role. Some echoed the sentiments of RBG Edinburgh that they hope such a body "will not spend too much time and energy repeating work that was undertaken by the UK Systematics Forum" (p 6).

15.  We look forward to DEFRA taking this Recommendation forward in the near future, noting that the Government Response set itself the target of convening a meeting by the end of 2003. We feel that it may be appropriate for the group to consider issues raised under Recommendations 1.3 and 1.7 above.

Recommendation 1.9: We recommend that the current level of spending on the Darwin Initiative, approximately £3 million per annum, should be earmarked specifically for projects with a significant taxonomic component, to be used for conservation purposes. This would be used to help build taxonomic capacity in developing countries and should include projects to digitise UK systematics collections. Any additional funds to the Darwin Initiative beyond this core could have a wider remit to include projects with a major focus on development issues or poverty alleviation.

16.  All five respondents on this point have welcomed the increased funding for the Darwin Initiative. However, three, including RBG Kew and the Linnean Society, regretted that there was no commitment to earmark funds for those projects with a significant taxonomic component.

17.  We reiterate our recommendation and call on the Government to earmark funds for projects with a significant taxonomic component.

1   House of Lords, Select Committee on Science and Technology. 1st Report, 1991-92. Systematic Biology Research. HL Paper 22-I. ISBN 0 10 480692 3 Back

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