Systematic Biology Recommendations - Archived May 2002

The House of Lords Inquiry into Systematic Biology and Biodiversity has now reported.

The report can be accessed via the web at the parliamentary website

House of Lords Select Committee of Science and Technology, Sub-committee 1

Inquiry into Systematic Biology and Biodiversity


Submission by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, on behalf of English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales, by Dr Ian F.G. McLean, Head of Species Advice, JNCC, Monkstone House, City Road, Peterborough PE1 1JY.
1 Introduction


1.1 The Joint Nature Conservation Committee
The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the forum through which the three country nature conservation agencies - the Countryside Council for Wales, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage - carry out their special functions as defined in Section 133 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Chief amongst these is the duty to advise the UK government, and, since devolution, the Scottish Executive and National Assembly for Wales, on policies for or affecting nature conservation in Great Britain and internationally. The JNCC also seeks to establish common standards for the practice and observation of nature conservation, and carries out research to underpin its advice.
1.2 Dependency of biodiversity conservation upon systematics
1.2.1 Biodiversity conservation is concerned with sustaining the full variety of life, from biomes containing many species down to the genetic variation that is present within individual species. Systematics is an essential tool that underpins biodiversity conservation by providing a logical classification and framework for describing and studying living organisms.
1.2.2 Biodiversity conservation depends upon accurate definition of species, but it is increasingly realised that each level in the hierarchical classification of living organisms is of value for conservation. Higher levels (genera, families and above) group together related species that share common ancestors and many biological properties. These shared properties can be used predictively to investigate how related species can best be conserved. At lower levels (for species, and segregates within species) inter-breeding organisms contain much genetic variation, which is essential for their long term survival. Discovering the extent and nature of this variation is important when attempting to conserve threatened species with small populations.
1.2.3 At its most detailed level, systematics describes the morphological, biochemical and genetic variation present within species and seeks to explain the patterns observed in terms of the evolutionary history and relationships between species, sub-species and even different populations. Such knowledge contributes to identifying groups of organisms of conservation significance, including those species and sub-species given a formal conservation status (legal protection, included in a Red List, or listed as a priority for action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan).
1.3 The involvement of JNCC with systematics
JNCC and the country conservation agencies assess the changing status of UK biodiversity, working in partnership with national organisations (see Annex 1 for relevant JNCC research). The JNCC and country agencies commission little systematic research, but instead seek to work in partnership with professional and volunteer systematists to deliver checklists of UK species and higher level taxa, as well as reliable ways of identifying these to enable their detection and effective conservation. These activities should be seen in both their national and international contexts, because increasingly biodiversity conservation is working via international conventions (such as the Convention on Biological Diversity) and directives of the European Union (the Birds Directive, the Habitats and Species Directive).
1.4 Sharing information about species
Systematics enables effective sharing of information about species by establishing an internationally recognised system for describing, naming and classifying taxa. Both biodiversity conservation and systematics rely upon networking and sharing information, using checklists of named species to ensure that dispersed sources of information can be located and used reliably. JNCC is a partner in the development of the UK biodiversity information network, the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) to share information about UK flora and fauna. There is a particular association between JNCC and the Natural History Museum to deliver the species dictionary for the NBN. It is important that UK biodiversity is understood in relation to the changes taking place in the status and distribution of species in other countries, which depends upon extensive sharing of information via networks. JNCC is also engaged with European and international information networks such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the EC Clearing House Mechanism and the European Network for Biodiversity Information. The UK contributes significantly to global systematics, via its extensive collections, libraries and remaining expertise. The similarities between biodiversity conservation and systematics in collecting and sharing extensive datasets and derived information may help with identifying similar solutions for organising and funding the work (considered under section 3, below).
2 How has the organisation of and funding for systematic biology in the United Kingdom changed since 1992?
A review of the conclusions and recommendations from Systematic Biology Research (1992) shows, first, that ten years later the findings are still relevant to the challenges facing systematics in the UK and, second, that progress has been patchy. This is despite the publication of Evolution and Biodiversity: The New Taxonomy (1992) and The Web of Life (1998), which both sought to set a strategic direction for systematics. In our view, while there have been welcome initiatives that have delivered specific benefits, overall systematics is struggling as a result of poor organisation, lack of real engagement with its user community and with inadequate resources for the scale of the tasks that it faces. Organisation and funding has changed relatively little in ten years and larger changes are needed if systematics is to deliver what its users require, both internationally and in the UK. How the challenges of improving the organisation and funding of UK systematics can be addressed is considered in the next section of this evidence.
3 What are the changes required in this area to enable the United Kingdom to meet its policy aims on biodiversity?
3.1 The nature of the problem
Systematics in the UK is marking time, it is not competing effectively for funding with other biological sciences and therefore is dwindling in relation to the needs of its users. There is a declining population of professional systematists and funding is probably also declining overall; new initiatives that have been attempted to improve the situation have been inadequate for the task. Systematics is a service to many users, but it would be grossly inefficient to deliver the funding from these many dispersed users. There is no strong UK overview, responsibility or co-ordination for systematics, hence there is no clear accountability for lack of progress in fixing the problems. There is also great fragmentation in the funding and co-ordination of international programmes involving systematics, which adds to the difficulty in developing a strategy to improve the position of UK systematics in relation to its international links and responsibilities. How can these problems be tackled effectively in the UK? A combination of some additional funding, in conjunction with better use of the existing collections and expertise, plus creating better working links between systematics and key stakeholders, offers the best prospect of raising systematics to the level of activity that is required by biodiversity conservation and other users.
3.2 Changing the leadership and organisation of UK systematics
UK systematics has a complex organisational structure, with no single body responsible for leading and developing the subject. The multiple users of systematics in the UK are too diverse in their needs to be able to act effectively together in giving the leadership and direction required. These users include biodiversity conservation, ecological research, trade and industry, medicine, agriculture, forestry and education. These users should be brought together, via a programme board mechanism, to advise on the overall direction for systematics. Identifying a single Government Department to be charged with taking on the leadership role for systematics would give a higher profile and sense of urgency in setting top level goals for systematics and would help to ensure that available resources are directed towards agreed priorities of users and hence of society as a whole.
3.3 Improving the funding of UK systematics
Current funding, principally from various UK Government and international sources, is inadequate for meeting the needs of biodiversity conservation and the other users listed in 3.2 (above). This mirrors the situation internationally, with systematics seeking funds from a wide range of organisations and consortia. In order to obtain the best return from any future gradual increase in funding, at least the major research and curation programmes for UK systematics should be funded via a single route. This should be the same Department as that given the responsibility of leading the future development of UK systematics as suggested in 3.2 (above). Smaller programmes, or those with a local focus, could continue to be funded from other sources that have an interest or a stake in using the results of the research, or will benefit from the investment in collections. Any increase in funding should follow the establishment of new leadership responsibilities for systematics and should be contingent upon involving the user community in agreeing future priorities.
3.4 Developing the management and co-ordination of UK systematics
To gain the greatest benefit from improving the organisation and funding of UK systematics, there is the need to increase the involvement of the systematics user community in setting priorities and targets over the medium to long term (say 5-10 years). Such involvement should be in close partnership with the systematics community, to bring about a common understanding of where the funding for research and curation should be directed. This process should be led and facilitated by the Department or Research Council tasked with leading UK systematics and also accountable for the results achieved. Representatives from the main users or beneficiaries of systematics would join systematists on programme boards to develop and agree an overall strategy for the next 5-10 years and then manage the process of setting priorities and targets. Subsequently, these boards would assess progress and ensure that the delivery from systematics remains responsive to changing user needs. The programme boards should also act as important communication links between systematics and other areas of science, so that systematics develops closely with such areas as information science and molecular studies.
3.5 Investing in people
If the growth in availability and power of new information systems and other technology is to be exploited fully by systematics, there should be a parallel investment in recruiting and training both systematists and those who can apply systematic knowledge in other disciplines. In the UK there is a shortage of training in whole organism biology and systematics at undergraduate level. This can only be remedied if there is a demand for graduates with these skills and if they can be trained also in the application of new information systems to sharing biological information. Thus, improved employment and career prospects for systematists are required to help increase demand for degree modules containing systematics.
3.6 Networking systematics and its users
Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity is increasing the need for knowledge about flora and fauna, particularly in those countries rich in biodiversity but with little systematic knowledge or infrastructure. The rapid loss of species means that time is running out to learn about this biodiversity and to take action to conserve it for the future. The growth in the Internet and availability of cheap computing power gives an opportunity to organise and use systematics over wide geographical areas. This is analogous to the situation of biological recording in the UK, where the NBN is seeking to help many dispersed organisations and individuals share their data and information about biodiversity. Experience with the NBN has shown that significant time and effort needs to be spent in building the links between organisations and individuals to enable them to invest jointly in the means to share their data and information. Building such links will be a major challenge for systematics and its users over the next decade in the UK, in part learning from what has already been achieved through NBN.
3.7 Summary of JNCC recommendations
3.7.1 Responsibility for organisation of systematics in the UK should reside with a single Government Department, to be accountable for the governance of the subject, its leadership, future development and delivery.
3.7.2 Funding of systematics in the UK should be from fewer sources, with one Department to lead on financing major research and curation programmes.
3.7.3 Management of systematic work and funding its programmes should be within the framework of a 5-10 year forward look, with representation from both the systematic community and from the user community working together to agree how systematics can focus on the needs of society.
3.7.4 Additional investment in people is required to bring in staff with new skills and to make use of new technical developments in data capture, information processing, exchange and sharing.
3.7.5 Systematics needs support to improve links with different user sectors, and between dispersed groups or networks of professional and volunteer systematists.
4 References
House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology (1992) Systematic Biology Research. HL Paper 22-I. HMSO, London.
NERC (1992) Evolution and Biodiversity: The New Taxonomy. NERC, Swindon.
UK Systematics Forum (1998) The Web of Life. UK Systematics Forum, London.

Annex 1
List of JNCC commissioned research concerning UK biodiversity in 2000/2001
Project title Cost (Contractor)
Ornithological Research £475,453 (British Trust for Ornithology)
Wetland Bird Survey &
wildfowl censuses and advice £100,000 (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)
Co-ordination of international water bird surveys £33,000 (Wetlands International)
Contribution towards wader flyways atlas £15,340 (Wetlands International)
Drafting species accounts for SPA Review £14,347 (British Trust for Ornithology)
Drafting species accounts for SPA Review £3,296 (Just Ecology)
Standing waters database: update and analysis £6,803 (ENSIS Ltd)
General biodiversity
Biological Records Centre £160,000 (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology)
National Biodiversity Network contribution £12,000 (NBN Trust)
Butterfly Monitoring Scheme £32,000 (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology)
National Moth Network £4,000 (Butterfly Conservation)
State of Britain's Butterflies £6,250 (Butterfly Conservation)
National Bat Monitoring Programme £25,000 (Bat Conservation Trust)
Mammal surveillance pilot contribution £5,000 (Forensic Science Laboratory)
Immunocontraception of Grey Squirrels £30,376 (Forestry Commission)
Immunocontraception of Grey Squirrels £3,500 (University of Sheffield)
Immunocontraception of Grey Squirrels £2,013 (Prof. A. McNeilly)
Area summaries of sea lochs in NW Scotland £23,823 (Entec UK)
MarLIN Programme £15,000 (Marine Biological Association)
Contribution to LRCs marine recording £2,000 (Marine Biological Association)
Cetacean sightings during seismic surveys £4,428 (J.H. Barton)
Circalittoral rock biotope classification £4,406 (C. Howson)
Contribution Marine Biological Association £20,300 (Dr K. Hiscock)
Wildlife and pollution £32,000 (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology)
Contribution to survey of common plants £5,000 (Plantlife)
Threatened plant research and database £30,000* (Botanical Society of the British Isles)
Monitoring of seabirds on the Isle of May £37,355 (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology)
Seabird survival monitoring on Skomer £13,402 (Edward Grey Institute)
Population monitoring on Skomer £16,568 (Wildlife Trust West Wales)
Fair Isle seabird studies £19,050 (Fair Isle Observatory)
Canna seabird studies £5,650 (Highland Ringing Group)
* Contribution from CCW of £5,000, EN of £10,000 and SNH of £5,000