Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum by the Royal Entomological Society

  The Council of the Royal Entomological Society (RES) welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Government response to the House of Lords' Select Committee on Science and Technology Report "What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation."

  The Government response is generally positive in tone, expressing broad support for the view of the Select Committee and the systematics community that the science of systematics provides essential and indispensable underpinning for the conservation of biodiversity. However, the details of the response suggest that the Government does not acknowledge the evidence—such as that concerning insect taxonomy, presented to the Committee by the RES in January 2002—that UK investment and expertise in taxonomy and systematics have been in decline for many years. The response makes some generic commitments to increased resources for conservation and biodiversity, but it makes no specific commitments to the resources for taxonomy and systematics that were the focus of the Committee's Report. Thus, the response fails to address the issue of redressing the past decline in these resources and, indeed, full implementation of the commitments and actions proposed by the Government in its response may still allow further decline.

  The RES, with a membership of about 1,800 professional and amateur entomologists worldwide, concurs with the Government's view that biodiversity conservation and the underpinning science of systematics are global issues. We are also mindful that, historically, British naturalists—such as former RES Fellows Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace—have been world leaders in their field and that throughout the past century biologists in many countries, especially those of the Commonwealth, have looked to British taxonomists as key players in this global science. Unfortunately, the UK's former pre-eminence in this area has been greatly weakened over the past two decades, as the RES described in its earlier evidence to the Committee. The Government's argument that perfect knowledge of all as-yet-undescribed species may be unattainable is an irrelevant truism (though we would have said "is", not "may be"): the Committee's concern was not about perfect and complete taxonomic knowledge but about sufficient knowledge to support informed decisions and actions in the conservation of biodiversity.

  We note the increased grant-in-aid to three of the UK's systematics institutions: the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh. We note, however, that there is no requirement from Government for these additional resources to be used to support the collections, which is what the Committee recommended. The focus of new resources on these three institutions is understandable, not least because of the size and importance of their existing collections. Nonetheless, we feel that the Government should be mindful of the resources needed by other institutions contributing to systematics: the national museums in Cardiff and Edinburgh, and small specialist centres of expertise in various research institutes and universities. The support of specialist centres is especially important for the newer multidisciplinary approaches to systematics, with small teams of systematists, ecologists and molecular geneticists (with concomitant capital resource needs) focusing on specific taxa or on particular habitats.

  The Committee recommended that the Government should publish a clear concise summary of their policy on biodiversity conservation. The response lists five international conventions to which the Government subscribes, and refers to the four separate national biodiversity strategies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This illustrates precisely why the Committee asked for a single clear summary document.

  The request for the HEFCs to consider the role of the RAE in the decline of systematic biology has been answered by a non-specific reference to a review of minority subjects. There is a circularity of argument here, since the point was that systematics has become a de facto minority subject because of a progressive decline in public funding. The RES, representing scholarly and practical interest in insects, which are variously estimated as comprising 55 per cent to 65 per cent of all living species, would argue robustly that the Government cannot afford to view systematic biology—whether by morphological taxonomy or by molecular analysis—as a minority subject since it underpins most of biological science and is pivotal in addressing major issues such as conservation and exploitation of biodiversity, impacts of global environmental change, and integrated management of pests, vectors and diseases.

  Since most insect species are herbivorous, and many of these feed on one or very few plant species, much entomology is also dependent on the state of botanical systematics. We cannot understand the argument for BBSRC not giving academic analogue status to the Royal Botanic Gardens. The encouragement of joint institutional projects is to be applauded when there is academic benefit to be gained by multidisciplinary partnerships. Where there is no such benefit, joint projects often increase transaction and administration costs and thus dilute the scientific effort.

  We note the positive response to the recommendation that DEFRA should take the lead in developing a strategic view of priorities for UK systematics. We also note that the Government takes the view that DEFRA should step back after an initial period and that the responsibility for articulating the needs of UK systematics should lie with the systematics community itself. We might perhaps be forgiven for pointing out that the Committee's 2002 report, and the 1992 one prepared under Lord Dainton's chairmanship, are the result of precisely this process, whereby the systematics community through their institutions and learned societies gave evidence to the House of Lords' Select Committee.

  Throughout the Government's response there is an unwillingness to reverse the decline in systematic biology by exercising any conditionalities or guidance on Government funds provided to the three major institutions named, or distributed via the HEFCs, the BBSRC or the Darwin Initiative. Without such conditionalities or guidance it seems probable that investment in systematic biology will continue to decline, since it is the funding priorities of these agencies over past years that has led to the threat to systematic science identified by the Select Committee in its Report. There has been a lack of "joined-up thinking" between the Government departments and funding agencies that are either responsible for generating taxonomic knowledge or dependent on such knowledge, and there is no clear evidence in the Government's response to suggest that this situation will change.

  The RES Council hopes that the Select Committee will continue to press the Government on those recommendations where the response has been somewhat equivocal. We take heart from the generally positive attitude of the Government response to the identified problems, and in spite of our misgivings that they may be "too little, too late" we hope that the medium-term initiatives that are being pursued will slow or halt the decline in the UK's systematics science base.

11 April 2003


 
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