Science and Technology Committee, Press Notice, 13 August 2008

Embargo: 00:01 Wednesday 13 August 2008
Contact: Owen Williams 020 7219 8659


Emphasising the fundamental importance of systematic biology to our understanding of the natural world, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has today called for greater Government leadership to secure the future health of the discipline in the UK.

The Committee argues that systematics and taxonomy, the science of describing and identifying organisms, is in critical decline in the UK and that further decline would have serious consequences for the Government’s ability to deliver on policy aims such as:

• Conservation of UK biodiversity

• Understanding ecosystem services analysis

• Responding effectively to climate change and its effect on wildlife

• Policing the global trade in endangered species

• Identifying emerging diseases and disease surveillance.

The report criticises the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for sending out mixed messages about the basis on which it will provide funding for taxonomic research. The Committee calls on NERC to make a clear statement setting out its approach to funding taxonomy and asks the Research Councils to facilitate more effective dialogue between the users and producers of taxonomic information.

The Committee identifies the fungal taxonomic sector as being particularly hard hit and draws attention to the CAB International collection of fungi held at Kew Gardens as an important resource for taxonomic research. The Committee raises concerns that DEFRA seem unlikely to provide the £750,000 needed for housing and curating the collection and argue that the loss of the CABI collection would deepen the existing crisis in fungal taxonomy. It calls on the Government to ensure that funds are provided to maintain the collection.

The Committee criticises a lack of leadership in Government in taking responsibility for systematics and taxonomy. It claims there is a lack of awareness of the importance and fragile state of the discipline and points out that the evidence it received demonstrated that Ministers at DIUS, DEFRA and DCMS were unaware of the concerns within the systematics and taxonomy community over the science’s future. The report states that "systematic biology appears to be suffering the consequences of a situation where diffuse responsibility results in no responsibility". The Committee recommends that DIUS take on the lead role in ensuring that systematic biology is adequately funded and promoted in the future.

Commenting, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, Chairman of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, said:

"Systematic biology is crucial for many of the Government’s targets on maintaining biodiversity and the protection of endangered species as well as providing an important measure of the effects of climate change. However there seems to be significant confusion within Government over who has responsibility for this vital area.

"We would like to see the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills take the lead on systematic and taxonomy science so there is clear responsibility within Government for maintaining high quality research in this field within the UK.

"It is very important that science funding organisations such, as the Natural Environment Research Council, give clear indication of their criteria for funding taxonomic research and we would encourage them to demonstrate their recognition of the importance of that research by ensuring adequate funds are made available."

Notes to Editors

1. The report Systematics and Taxonomy: Follow-Up, is available from The Stationery Office, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, 5th Report of 2007/08, HL Paper 162. It is a follow-up to the Committee's earlier report What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation, 3rd Report of 2001-02, HL Paper 118.

2. The report will be available online shortly after publication at:

3. The members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee are:

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood (Chairman)
Lord Colwyn
Lord Crickhowell
Lord Haskel
Lord Howie of Troon
Lord Krebs
Lord May of Oxford
Lord Methuen
Earl of Northesk
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan
Lord Patel
Earl of Selborne
Lord Taverne
Lord Warner

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and Baroness Walmsley were co-opted to the Committee for the purposes of the inquiry.