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Systematic Biology in the UK


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22 January 2002. Below is the final version of the Associations response to the House of Lords request for evidence for their enquiry on 'Systematic Biology and Biodiversity in the UK'.

1. Systematic Biology is a fundamental science that underpins all other areas of biological research, and its survival as a scientific discipline in the UK is therefore vital. We welcome this review and recommend an urgent overhaul of funding to promote taxonomic expertise in the UK.

2. The Systematics Association believes that considerable changes have been made in the organisation of Systematic Biology since 1992, and several major funding initiatives (NERC’s Taxonomy Initiative, Darwin Initiative, Wellcome Biodiversity Fellowships) have allowed Taxonomy to make important advances, especially in some aspects of molecular Systematics and bioinformatics.

3. However all these funding initiatives have been short-term and patchy in their coverage, and have failed totally to provide the basis for a sustainable maintenance of wide-ranging taxonomic expertise across the UK. Even more disastrously, research in whole-organism identification, the fundamental core of Systematics, has become virtually impossible to fund, and its teaching has all but disappeared in Universities.

4. The UK Research Councils do not currently fund Systematic Biology per se, wrongly believing this to be the province of major government-funded institutions rather than universities. There is a misconception that molecular and computer techniques alone can be maintained in isolation from core expertise in whole-organism identification (i.e. alpha-taxonomy). The ‘hypothesis-driven?focus of UK Research Councils does occasionally allow for the development of a Systematics related methodology, but funding the application of such techniques is virtually impossible.

5. Current funding levels for Systematic Biology are unsustainable; the UK cannot now support the work needed to implement current and future policies on biodiversity. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a coherent funding policy for UK Systematics. Without such a development, UK expertise in many areas of Systematic Biology will have disappeared within the next two decades. Research in whole-organism diagnostics (alpha taxonomy), has already almost disappeared from Universities.

6. The UK needs to provide comprehensive education and career prospects in Systematics. Training in Systematics awareness should start in schools, and be developed by modules taught throughout the Higher Education system to explain the fundamental role of Systematics. A viable career structure must be available for post-graduates, which is currently lacking. The Systematics Association works with many excellent young Ph.D. students (via our conference bursaries, training courses etc.), there is a high demand for places on MSc training course (e.g. NHM and Imperial College), and our post-graduate textbook describing taxonomic methods is a best-seller. There is clearly no shortage of interest in Systematics among young UK scientists; we clearly need them, but the problem is in finding them suitable permanent positions once they have graduated.

7. During the review period, the Systematics Association has contributed a significant proportion of its resources to a number of initiatives designed to promote Systematic Biology both within and outwith the UK. These include awarding small grants and awards for taxonomic research, establishing an annual Young Systematists Forum, and awarding bursaries to allow young and recently graduated taxonomists to attend our highly successful and international Biennial Symposium, a conference designed to provide a forum for UK systematists and publicise the role of Systematics to a wider audience.

8. The large number of high-quality applications for our small grant schemes reflects a demand for funds and recognition from the Systematics community. However, these important but limited measures can neither meet existing demands nor attract or retain young researchers into what remains an exciting but inadequately resourced field.

9. The Systematics Association is urgently fostering links with international bodies, both in Europe and the USA. One example is PEET, a recent US (NSF-funded) initiative to promote taxonomic expertise in the USA, which would be a good model for a similar development within the UK. The President of the Systematics Association will therefore participate in the 2002 PEET meeting; we also propose to encourage and fund attendance by a senior UK Research Council administrator. The UK is in danger of losing its international standing in Systematics, and other countries are doing much more to combat this universal problem.

10. Our main recommendation is that a central funding body must be set up for UK Systematics, and it should be in a position to develop and fund a strategy that will ensure that all branches of Systematics survive and develop. The body should also draw up a clear statement of the range and scope of Systematics research, and explore international collaboration with Europe, with North America, and with developing countries lacking a taxonomic infrastructure.

11. Recent developments in the field of e-Science should be actively developed as a method of making taxonomic data more widely available. Thereby it will help provide the framework for a sustainable systematics research infrastructure in the UK. This should include biodiversity data (i.e. databases including species lists, checklists, keys, maps and inventories), character state information (i.e. descriptions of species in monographs and regional accounts), and techniques (for example, an online version of our techniques textbook). To achieve this, e-Science must include a programme of acquiring and transforming non-digital data (i.e. in papers and monographs) which are currently not easily accessible. E-Science is an important enabling technology for Systematic Biology, but cannot be effective without a diverse body of well-funded taxonomists.

Professor Chris J. Humphries

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