Taken to task on taxonomy

January 21, 2005

Twelve learned societies have accused the Government of failing to halt the disappearance of taxonomy research in the UK even though the House of Lords called for urgent action more than two years ago.

In a letter sent last week to Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, leading biologists warn that the level of expertise in so-called systems biology - which involves understanding and documenting the diversity of living things - had been falling for a decade.

Sir Neil Chalmers, president of the Institute of Biology and former director of the Natural History Museum, said: "There is a real danger that the UK will lose its international standing in this field if urgent action is not taken."

The scientists attacked the Government for failing to set up a guiding body as recommended two and a half years ago by a House of Lords Select Committee report about the threat to science underpinning conservation.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agreed to take the lead on establishing this body. But the letter says: "Although we have offered our support to the Defra unit tasked with taking this forward, little progress has been made. We are increasingly concerned about the inexplicable delay."

The complaint was lodged by the Institute of Biology, the Linnean Society of London and the British Lichen Society. It was endorsed by other learned societies including the Biosciences Federation, the Marine Biological Association and the Association of Applied Biologists.

They argue that taxonomy is the core of modern biology as it underpins fields such as genetics, ecology, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and palaeontology, and is essential to the Government's biodiversity agenda.

The scientists warn that young people are not going into systematics research because of poor training, a lack of funding and the declining professional reputation of the discipline.

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