Biologists fear thinning of classifying ranks

December 4, 1998

Species are becoming extinct faster than they can be described but, alarmingly, fewer and fewer students are studying systematic biology, a report says.

Published this week, The Web of Life, a new national strategy for systematic biology - whereby scientists discover, describe, name and classify living and fossil organisms and uncover their evolutionary relationships - says that only 1.7 million of an estimated 13 million species on the planet have been described so far.

Extending this, it says, would not only bring uncharted economic and cultural benefits, but is an "international priority" as human activities rapidly erode the diversity that exists.

The report sets out research priorities, including targeting groups of organisms that impact on human activity and well-being, and calls for initiatives to improve the quantity and quality of undergraduate education in systematics and to address a potential UK shortage of systematics expertise in the near future.

Despite a 1992 House of Lords recommendation that systematic biology should be taught as part of undergraduate biology courses, a survey last year by the UK Systematics Forum, the group behind the report, showed just 60 per cent of responding universities taught elementary systematics as an optional or compulsory part of a biology degree, while only a third offered more advanced level teaching.

Steve Blackmore, keeper of the department of botany at the Natural History Museum and chairman of the UK Systematics Forum, said: "In terms of university teaching, at one time teaching diversity of life was seen as a foundation of understanding in biology. That seems to have disappeared over the past ten to 15 years, with fewer and fewer people coming into systematics at student level."

He claims that now just a handful of universities have proper teaching in taxonomy. "Most biology students have nothing more than a basic introduction, and get the impression that classification is fixed and rigid. The subject is portrayed as all being done and worked out in the past. But, this is not the case, it's a lively and dynamic area. That message is not coming through in teaching," he said.

The report also highlights concerns about long-term career opportunities for postgraduates in systematics and calls for a new funding initiative to favour applications centred on high priority groups of organisms for which expertise is lacking.

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