S&T Sub-Committee I




A House of Lords report launched today urges the UK Government to show renewed commitment to conservation when the Prime Minister leads the delegation to the World Summit in Johannesburg later this year.

Baroness Walmsley, chairman of the inquiry, said:

"The Government has committed itself to conserving UK biodiversity and helping protect endangered species throughout the world. Yet the scientists who play a vital role in conservation work are themselves in danger of extinction unless action is taken.

"Scientists' workload has increased since Rio, yet funding has decreased. As we approach 'Rio plus ten' in Johannesburg, it's time the Government matched its good intentions with better resources for systematic biologists."

The report calls on the Government to:

  • increase grant-in-aid funding to the science that underpins biodiversity conservation (systematic biology identifies and describes species and the links between them)

  • identify priority areas of biodiversity about which conservationists need more information (in collaboration with conservationists and systematic biologists)

  • set up a co-ordinating body to improve communication between relevant Government departments (DEFRA, DCMS, DfID, OST), conservationists and systematic biologists to enable priority setting

  • earmark current funding to the Darwin Initiative for projects that draw on UK systematic biologists to promote conservation in countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources

Systematic biology in dangerous decline

In 1992 the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology reported that systematic biology was in dangerous decline and made recommendations, which were accepted by the Government. Today's report concludes that over the past decade the decline has actually worsened. Grant-in-aid funding to individual systematic biology institutions has reduced by between 15 and 28%.

The importance of systematic biology

Systematic biologists have a vital role to play in:

  • Identifying potential useful species for medicine (such as the rosy periwinkle - used to treat leukaemia)        

  • Helping control pests in agriculture, fish-farming and horticulture

  • Monitoring environmental change

More use of World-Wide Web

The Committee argues that the UK's invaluable collections of specimens should be made available on the world-wide web to help international scientists identify and monitor species. Extra funding is needed for this.


Systematic biology is declining in universities, partly because of the Research Assessment Exercise, on which funding decisions are based. The Committee recommends that Higher Education Funding Councils need to consider ways to overcome this problem and support this area of science.

Attract more recruits

Systematic biologists themselves need to raise the profile of their subject to recruit more people, both professionals and amateurs, to the field.


1. This report was partly a follow up to an earlier House of Lords Report on Systematic Biology Research, 1st Report, Session 1991  92, ISBN 0 10 480692 3. (See Appendix 4 in current report.)

2. This inquiry, which began in December 2002, was conducted by Sub-Committee I of the Science and Technology Select Committee.

Members were:

Lord Flowers

Lord Haskel

Lord Lewis of Newnham

Lord McColl of Dulwich

Lord Patel

Lord Quirk

Lord Rea

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

Earl of Selborne

Lord Turnberg

Baroness Walmsley (Chairman)

3. The report is published by The Stationery Office: What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation, HL Paper 118, ISBN 0 10 442072 3. The text will be on the world-wide web after publication, accessible via www.parliament.uk

4. The Darwin Initiative, funded by DEFRA, is a scheme to safeguard the world's biodiversity by drawing on UK strengths to assist countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources.

5. Systematic biologists work in a variety of institutions, mainly the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, as well as in a small number of universities. Their expertise covers plants, animals, fungi and microbes, with some specialising in fossils.

Further information from:

Rebecca Neal (Clerk to the Sub-Committee) on 020 7219 5750

Jillian Bailey (Committee Press & Information Officer) on 020 7219 8659