Taxonomy is classified as discipline in critical decline

Lords' report calls for urgent action as lack of expertise reaches crisis point, writes Zoe Corbyn

August 21, 2008

Systematic biology and taxonomy - the science of describing and identifying plants and animals - is in critical decline and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) must act before it is too late.

These are the conclusions of a report into the health of the discipline released last week by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

A paucity of professional taxonomic expertise within and outside British universities means demand is outstripping supply and some areas such as fungal taxonomy have reached "the point of crisis", the report concludes.

The committee adds that a further decline of the subject will have serious consequences for Britain's ability to conserve its biodiversity, protect endangered species and measure the effects of climate change.

Lord Stewart Sutherland, cross-bench peer and chair of the committee, told Times Higher Education: "We as a country and a Government have to get our act together. Unless you can identify what species are around at the moment you won't be able to identify whether they are increasing or decreasing in the future."

The report recommends that DIUS takes the lead in ensuring that the discipline is adequately funded and promoted in the future. As a start, the committee suggests the rescue of an international collection of fungi at Kew Gardens, which is in danger of being lost because £750,000 of government funding needed to maintain it is in doubt.

"Systematic biology appears to be suffering the consequences of a situation where diffuse responsibility (among government departments) results in no responsibility," the report says.

Concerns about the state of the discipline expressed by the taxonomic community have gone "largely unheard by the Government and by the research councils", the committee says. It explicitly criticises the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) for sending out "confused" messages about the basis on which the council is providing funding for research in the area. It calls on the council to make a "clear statement" setting out its approach. The report also recommends more dialogue with researchers on priorities for the field; that efforts to attract young researchers be increased; and that research councils and institutions do more to harness the potential of web-based taxonomy.

The inquiry is the committee's third on the topic in 15 years. Previous recommendations had not been acted upon, Lord Sutherland said.

A Nerc spokeswoman said the organisation did fund some taxonomic research where it was "required to answer important scientific questions" and Nerc had provided supplementary evidence to the inquiry to clarify this. She added that Nerc would be addressing recommendations made in the report through the Government's formal response.

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