Research intelligence: Saved from extinction

A new funding scheme aims to revive research in systematics and taxonomy. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 26, 2009

It is a subject that is itself something of an endangered species, but now attempts are being made to revive systematics and taxonomy by kick-starting research in the field.

A new scheme announced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council last week will provide £750,000 over three years to fund the science of describing and identifying plants and animals.

The aim is to enable systematics biologists and taxonomists to develop proposals to compete for the councils' larger pots of blue-skies funding.

Janet Allen, research director at the BBSRC, admitted that in the past the field had "not been particularly well represented" in the council's portfolio - largely because of the low number of competitive applications received.

By offering small grants, it hoped to stimulate "high-quality" applications, she said.

The decision will be welcome news to researchers in the field, which is concerned with studying both biology's overall naming system (systematics) and the classifications within it (taxonomy).

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has conducted three inquiries into the area in the past 15 years, highlighting a critical decline owing to a lack of funding and a low number of researchers.

Its last report, published in August 2008, concludes that the paucity of professional taxonomic expertise is threatening Britain's ability to conserve its biodiversity, protect endangered species and measure the effects of climate change.

It criticises Nerc's "confused" messages about funding and expresses concern that scientists' fears about the state of their discipline went "largely unheard" by the Government and research councils. Last month, the BBSRC's Independent Bioscience Skills and Careers Strategy Panel described systematics and taxonomy as a "strategically important and vulnerable" niche.

It said the council had spent only £15.3 million of its roughly £400 million budget in the area in 2007-08, and that less than 1 per cent of this went on taxonomy research, with the rest going to systematics.

The new scheme, called SynTax, aims to address some of these concerns. It will see £250,000 made available every year for three years to fund small, short-term grants. The size of the grants, which must have a "substantial" systematic or taxonomic component, will range from £5,000 to £30,000 and run for up to two years.

They will enable scholars to undertake preliminary research and early proof-of-principle experiments that will later form the basis of responsive-mode (blue-skies) applications to the BBSRC or Nerc.

Colin Miles, head of the BBSRC's integrative and systems biology sector, explained that the scheme would "give projects a leg-up".

"If you get sufficient background information to demonstrate the worth of a proposal, reviewers are more likely to pay attention," he said.

Triple your money

SynTax supersedes the Collaborative Systematics (CoSyst) scheme. However, its annual funding level is more than triple its predecessor's £75,000 a year, with the possibility it could rise further with contributions from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Dr Miles said the scheme had been specifically revamped to attract more taxonomists, whose preliminary data collection is often time-consuming and involves extensive travel.

He added that extending the duration and size of the grants would better suit researchers, as year-long grants of between £2,000 and £20,000 had not been sufficient for many taxonomists.

The scheme will be administered at arm's length from the research councils by the Linnean Society and the Systematics Association, although the councils will nominate representatives to participate in the peer-review process.

"We needed to have some way of getting a community response (to this call) and this seemed the easiest way," Dr Miles said, adding that the learned societies already operated small grants programmes, so were well versed in running such schemes.

SynTax calls are annual, with the first open until the end of January. It parallels other initiatives taking place to revive the field. A BBSRC internet taxonomy working group is currently investigating the growing area of web taxonomy, and is aiming to produce an e-taxonomy "road map" by early 2010.

Nerc and the Natural History Museum are also reviewing the current status of the subject, with a report on their findings expected in July 2010.


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