Worldwide targets to stop plant and animal species disappearing could be missed because there are no definitive measures of rate of loss, according to the UK's leading scientists.
Exactly a year ago, world leaders at the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development agreed to achieve "a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010". But with data on just a tiny fraction of the world's species drawn from a wide range of sources, assessing the rates of change is close to impossible.
Now help could be at hand from a Royal Society working group. It has published a framework to ensure worldwide research into biodiversity is consistent. This could be used by researchers and policy-makers to assess progress towards the Johannesburg targets.
Working-group member Rhys Green, principal research biologist for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a Cambridge academic, said much biodiversity research was not designed to address the Johannesburg targets.
"As scientists we feel it's important to enact good laws and protection systems for nature reserves and vulnerable systems," he said.
"But also we need to measure on the ground and see if it's working."
It is estimated that we know about 10 per cent of the tens of millions of species of plants and animals on earth, and that there are detailed descriptions of these species and their distribution for just one tenth.
Knowledge is patchy geographically, with many of the most threatened species in the least charted areas, such as the oceans and the developing world. Moreover, to measure rate of change involves taking at least two measurements of the same data set.
Dr Green pointed out that much of these data were not originally collected for the purposes of the Johannesburg targets. For example, taxonomic information on insects may be drawn from collections gathered in museums, and data on fish populations may come from commercial fishing statistics.
"If you're going to measure biodiversity rates of change, you've got to go through this process to make sure that the data are fit for purpose," he said.
The Royal Society's proposed framework would involve a three-stage approach. An initial scoping phase would look at who the stakeholders are and assess how much the research could reveal to them. The second stage would be careful design of the project, choosing appropriate representative samples to overcome the limits of trying to assess every species, making it clear when and how often the sampling or surveying should take place.
Finally, reporting should follow a recognised protocol to allow others to use the results.
Earlier this year, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee accused the government of continued underfunding of research into biodiversity and systematic biology.