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TUESDAY 5 FEBRUARY 2002
McColl of Dulwich, L
Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L
Walmsley, B (Chairman)
Memoranda submitted by the Systematics Association and the Linnean Society Examination of Witnesses
PROFESSOR CHRIS HUMPHRIES, President of the Systematics Association
SIR DAVID SMITH, President of the Linnean Society, examined.
76. Good morning Professor Humphries and good morning Sir David. Welcome to our sub-committee. Thank you very much indeed for giving us evidence this morning. Thank you, also, for the written evidence that you have provided for us. Perhaps I could kick off this morning by telling you that evidence to us has suggested that it is alpha-taxonomy that has suffered in particular over the last ten years. Perhaps I could ask you both, would you agree with this and are there any groups that have suffered in particular? Are they of particular significance and importance, in terms of either the UK or the CBD or any other treaty? Professor Humphries, would you like to start with that one?
(Professor Humphries) I would like to say that for the last 20 years or so there has been a real decline in many areas; cutbacks in alpha-taxonomy have occurred in mostly marine organisms and many land plants. If I can name one particular group that is suffering very badly at the moment, that is mycology, the study of fungi. The CABI organisation has cut back on jobs, Kew Gardens made a decision to axe it altogether in the future, and the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens have already axed it. If you look around the world, there are places like Canada which actually do not have any systematic mycologists whatsoever. The leading countries at this time, I would think, are probably the USA and Sweden. I think the decline of this particular subject is because the infrastructure within universities and institutions has become deprecated by gradual losses through retirement and things like that, rather than any particular planned exercise.
77. Are you suggesting there has not been sufficient succession planning?
(Professor Humphries) No, there has not.
78. Whose fault is that?
(Professor Humphries). I think there are several reasons and several different people you could point at. I suppose the main thing is that when people leave a particular job, a department decides to shift into a different area of research and there is no doubt that the expanse of molecular biology, for example, has pushed out some of the more classical approaches.
79. You suggest in your written evidence that part of the problem is finding young scientists suitable permanent positions. Would you like to comment further about that?
(Professor Humphries). Yes. I will give you one example. The Systematics Association held a biennial conference in September, which was designed particularly to encourage young students to come and present their work. We had 95 papers presented from all over the world. I should think, out of those, there were two-thirds from students and there were some 20 posters as well. When I quizzed them about jobs they were going back to, I do not think that there were any going back to a permanent position. Some were going to post-doc positions, some were still continuing with their PhDs, but there were quite a number with no job whatsoever to go to.
80. So the interest is there, but the jobs are not?
(Professor Humphries) The interest is there, I think, on a global scale.
81. What about the role of systematics in under-graduate biology teaching? This is a fundamental of what drives the proportions of staff members in different disciplines within a department. Has systematics significantly declined because there is only a limited amount of time in an under-graduate curriculum? Has systematics declined because of pressure on other disciplines and, as a consequence, the number of staff members has declined?
(Professor Humphries) Yes. I can give you another example. My own university was Kingston Upon Hull, and I did a degree in botany there. The Botany Department had quite a large systematic component. That department was swallowed up by zoology and then zoology and botany together were swallowed up by genetics, so the systematic component disappeared virtually overnight - and so did several other subject areas - plant pathology, for example.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
82. I wonder. Professor Humphries, if the demise of certain groups of organisms is based on the "need to know", in a way. If one needs to know something about, say, insects populations for disease control, shall we say, then there is a lot of effort put into that, or if one needs to look soil micro-organisms effort is put into that, to the distraction of other groups that are not touched. It does seem to me that where there is a need to know, then there is a lot of effort put into it. It is not even over the whole spectrum.
(Professor Humphries) I think even in groups with a need to know basis, such as, for example, a study by the CABI Organisation, the decline in the number of entomologists over the past few years, as a direct result of their partners in the commonwealth countries not buying into the system, has created quite considerable gaps. Mosquito research, for example, is one are where the number of systematists involved has gone down, and there are plenty of other examples.
83. I have been told there is only one man in the United Kingdom who knows anything about Culicoides.
(Professor Humphries) That is right.
84. Sir David, would you like to contribute on this question about the decline over the last ten years and any particular groups?
(Sir David Smith) I would agree with Professor Humphries on the question of fungi. I can actually give you a personal experience. When I bought the flat in which I live in Edinburgh two years ago I found a fruit vine growing out of the skirting board. It took me two weeks to get an identification - with all my knowledge - and that was a worry because of a building and a survey. I can leave with you a talk by the Earl of Cranbrook when he was Chairman of English Nature, in which he says things like: "I am aware of the importance of fungi ecosystems ... English Nature has no adequate in-house knowledge of fungi... not able to devise programmes for conservation ... aware of concerns regarding decline of fungi in woodland but have no criteria for pesticide control and management." I have also been involved with the marine environment, and let me give you some examples. Within the last 15 years it has now known that about 20 per cent of photosynthesis in the ocean is due to a group called micro-algae, which simply were not known about until the last couple of decades. As we now know, there is a great importance of di-methyl-sulphide produced by plankton (this is the work of Professor Lovelock in ocean climatology). Other groups include nematodes and many insect groups - half of all known species of spiders were described after 1966, and that is still a growing problem, especially in tropical areas.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
85. To what extent do the places of publication of systematic information influence how systematic biology and systematics biologists are perceived by the rest of the scientific community? Coupled with this is the requirement, in describing a new species in zoology, of conforming, I believe, to the fact that it has to be published in writing and approved by an international commission. I want to move on to the question of the web, but could you answer that first part?
(Sir David Smith) Perhaps I should preface what I say by emphasising I am not a sytematist, I am by origin an experimental biologist who has become interested in the environment. The rest of the scientific community scarcely ever see the publications in which systematic information is published. The type of journal is very important, for example, in molecular biology. You get respect for publishing in top journals. It is far less important for systematics where it is the reliability of the description which counts and is the species, as they say, "a good species"? So, really, the rest of the science community sees very little, and it has a rather 19th century image, as a consequence, of how systematics operates.
(Professor Humphries) Shall I enter as well? The effect of this is quite considerable, really. I would like to think there is a spectrum of activity in systematics and taxonomy, and at one end of the spectrum is the alpha-taxonomy and at the other end of it is the study of relationships and genomics and all the interesting work of that kind. It is no surprise to say that the lasting publications come from the descriptive work and from the major monographs. These are the main bread and butter that museums and some universities publish. The study of relationships, on the other hand, especially using molecular data and that sort of thing and where they fit into the tree of life, are the sort of things you get into high-impact Journals such as Nature and Science. Two exceptions of alpha-taxonomy which do get into the top journals are, basically, dinosaurs and human origins. They always get good press in Nature, for example. A recent position paper by Charles Godfray said that systematics should make use of the obvious benefits of e-science. This is all very well, and to a great extent he is making a play for the service end of systematics nomenclature identification, and those sorts of things. However, for many years to come there is going to be a definite need for monographs, floras, formal lists, checklists - all those kind of things - for the tropics, particularly, and for major monographs which can be used in laboratories and in the field at the same time. I would like to criticise the ISI system. The impacts of papers are measured over a two-year period, on the whole, and take no account of the lasting nature of the monograph. A monograph, if it is written well, will last one hundred years or more. So there is no assessment of how many times that is used. Also, the way taxonomic information is cited is often left out of any kind of equation. For example, let us suppose we had a new account of a group with lots of new names and lots of new species recognised. These names are used repeatedly in later publications, but they are never considered to be citations. So I think the impact factor needs to be re-assessed.
86. If I can just follow up this concept of Professor Godfray and your rigorous defence of the monograph. I do not think anyone is suggesting the monograph be no longer used as a medium for publication. However, for example, amongst the many different pieces of information we have had can I quote something from the Natural Environment Research Council, who said that "If
taxonomy and systematics are to thrive in this country in the future, as we hope they will, then
they must renew themselves; they must embrace modern methods and techniques, such as genomics, bioinformatics, and the worldwide web. This does not mean we still do not need to
address classic taxonomic questions - we certainly do - but we need to use new techniques such
as ingenious, web-based solutions, recently suggested by Godfray". Would you accept that? Do you accept that, at the moment, one of the problems that systematics and taxonomy have is one of perception amongst other scientists?
(Professor Humphries) Yes, I would accept that, but I would also defend the position that e-science is being rigorously pursued. There is a new organisation, called GBIF which is attempting to bring all the major databases of the globe together. I work at the Natural History Museum and in the Natural History Museum we have a whole section now devoted to writing the front ends of databases to go on to the internet. So, turning to genomics, the zoology department at the Natural History Museum has made a switch over the last ten years or so from vertebrate biology to invertebrate biology and, particularly, into process research, and this takes advantage of all the large databases containing sequence data as well as providing information to put into that database. So I think it is being embraced, and I think papers like Charles Godfray's are looking at one aspect. That was the point I was trying to make.
87. If I might return to this, he is trying to introduce a sense of urgency and excitement to a discipline which, at the moment, has a poor image amongst, for example, students and the like. In his paper I read that he thinks it would not be unrealistic for the major private foundation, who wants to be associated with, say, a first wave of revision of the Lepidoptera. Is this not the sort of breadth of thinking that is needed in order to introduce new funding and new interest, alongside the sort of traditional monographs that you are espousing?
(Professor Humphries) I think all monographs should venture to be on the web, as a matter of interest, but there are still problems with priority of names and that kind of thing. Again, in defence of what is actually going on, Norman MacLeod, the head of our Palaeontology Department at the Natural History Museum, runs a website which takes publications solely for publication on the web, involving palaeontological material. In terms of its look and what goes on, it looks very exciting to me. So I think what is happening is that there has been a response, but Charles Godfray, perhaps, is trying to push it faster than it is actually going. That is my impression.
88. Could I just revert to what Sir David was saying a moment ago about the somewhat 19th century image that systematics and alpha-taxonomy tends to have? One is given the impression overwhelmingly in the evidence that has been submitted that our systematics is a kind of core to the whole of biology; there is a kind of infrastructure to the whole of biology. Are we to understand that not all biologists would agree with that, and that they do not regard systematics as underlying everything that they do?
(Sir David Smith) I regret that I think I would agree with you, my Lord. Too many modern, experimental biologists and molecular geneticists do not, I am afraid, regard it as fundamental to biology.
89. Before we leave this particular area, could I just return to Professor Godfray's proposals again, and ask you both: do you think they are feasible? Over what time-scale, and what are the resource implications for the United Kingdom's involvement in such an essential, international initiative?
(Sir David Smith) I think they are, in principle, feasible. As I say, I am not a systematist, but from my discussions with systematists some of them are deeply unhappy at some of the details of how it would operate. If you look, however, at other areas such as gene sequencing and things of that kind, I think in principle it is feasible. If I may go back to my problem with the fruit vine growing out of a skirting board, for many areas now if I want to find out information I go straight to the web. This was an area in which I could not do that. I did not know where to begin - partly because if you go to a natural history website you do not find anybody who can help you there. I think there is such a natural tendency these days, even for people of my age, to go to the web to find information - we get very used to it. In serious science, in star surveys and things of this kind, I think this is where it probably has to go, particularly when you bear in mind that people are now putting good illustrations on the web. I think, in the long run, this has to be the way, but I am not a systematist.
90. The resource implication and the time-scale?
(Sir David Smith) I am sorry, the time-scale is, as it were, the length of the proverbial piece of string! What is needed is the initial initiative and drive to start it going, to help those who are able to do it to put it on the web. I come from a learned society and I am aware, for example, in certain areas there is much more knowledge with amateurs now than going to professionals, and encouraging them. I think it needs a multi-faceted approach. Perhaps we can come later as to how I can see all this being organised.
(Professor Humphries) I think systematists are fairly maverick, to use that comparison with
astronomy, in the sense that they develop their own databases and some are faster than others. The one that Charles Godfray mentions in his article is by my colleague Paul Williams, who I have
worked with for ten years. We run now three websites and it has taken ten years to develop those three. One is just about to come on-line and was paid for by the Nuffield Foundation. These things take a lot of time and they take a lot of knowledge. Paul Williams' own website dealing with bumble bees, of which there are 240-odd species, has taken him most of his career to work up into a reasonably satisfactory knowledge base, and his website is terrific - as a result of him knowing the organisms well and having a talent for writing those kinds of things. I think if you are going to give it a push some agreement about priorities would be a good thing, and then push into those areas, perhaps, the things that we know are missing greatly under the CBD, for example. That has certain requirements for certain parts of the world, so it is best, probably, to concentrate there, but how long it will take and how much it would cost is a big question.
91. I want to ask questions to do with the universities. Nowadays, university core funding is dominated by the Research Assessment Exercise, at least for the research-intensive universities. What effect has this had on the health of systematic biology? Also, what has been the knock-on effect of decisions taken by research councils about grant applications from the universities? For that matter, what is the subject background of the assessors?
(Sir David Smith) If I may begin, I have at least five reasons here. There are no systematists on the Research Assessment Exercise panels for biology. This is not surprising, given the paucity of systematists generally in universities. A factor that is used in the research assessment, are so-called "impact factors" in journals. Taxonomy journals have very low impact factors. I think this is unfair, because when you describe a new species this is indicated by the abbreviation that goes after the name - you do not cite the original paper as you do, say, with DNA structure. So, taxonomic journals have low impact factors. Another factor in looking at success in research is the size of grant income, and research grants to carry out taxonomy are really quite small. Numbers of papers are important. In much of modern science now work is increasingly in large groups, so they produce many papers, but there is a regrettable tendency to go in for what is called "salami slicing" - i.e., instead of publishing one big paper after two years they publish ten over two years. That is not really possible in systematics research. Books such as monographs are much less favoured than are papers, and, in general, there is this horrible phrase "cutting edge". Alpha taxonomy is not seen to use "cutting edge" techniques. If you do the kind of taxonomy like looking at DNA and mitochondria, it is not too difficult to get a grant, but the actual basic business of needing to put a name on an organism (which is what alpha-taxonomy is about) is not perceived as cutting edge. The pressures on universities are considerable, and when there are vacancies in posts such as taxonomy or ecology, there is a strong tendency for universities to employ so-called molecular ecologists or molecular taxonomists - people who use molecular techniques.
92. Are you saying that you are more likely to get a research grant if you have already done a lot of papers, and because it takes a long time to produce this sort of work you are likely to have an apparently shorter track record?
(Sir David Smith) Yes. The reality, hardly ever stated in print, is that when people put in grant applications in the rest of science, they have usually done part of what they are applying for. I used to do it - although I do not apply for grants any more.
(Professor Humphries) I would rather comment on the research council side. There was a meeting in Reading in July 2000 when the Chief Executive John Laughton gave a speech saying that taxonomy should no longer be funded by the NERC because it is not innovative - as Sir David has just said. NERC itself has very little money available for competitive research, and moves are now afoot within the organisation to harbour that principle. It seems to me, by having a huge amount of money in thematic research, rather than response mode, where you can apply from any place for funding, has greatly decreased the amount of money that is spent on taxonomy. Of the research councils, it is only BBSRC and NERC that you can really go for. Of those two, NERC is the one, I would imagine, that should have it, but if you look at their budget (and I have a paper by Jim Mallett, which you should have received), compared with taxonomy some £137 million is spent on science, and on taxonomy it is a very small amount, less than £2 million, or something like that.
93. The amount of money is, of course, at the end of the day, very significant, but the question is what starts the money off at that level? NERC, as a matter of policy, has said that it will only support work that is hypothesis-driven. That rules out alpha-taxonomy from the word go.
(Professor Humphries) It does.
94. Before you even consider how much money there is.
(Professor Humphries) Yes, I accept that.
95. Does that not mean your organisation is no longer fit to fund such work?
(Professor Humphries) If you are not going to fund such work then it is bound to die off, is it not? Looking at Ed Wilson's comments, saying what the demands of the Convention on Biological Diversity are going to be for this century, it is going to be two things: trying to find out what there is out there and then fitting it into the tree of life. The tree of life research, which involves the molecular side and that sort of thing, does give you your innovating end, but the basic building blocks, which Professor May talked about ten years ago or more, have got to be produced as well. It is the central aspect of systematics. One of the most famous systematists of the 20th century, Willi Hennig, said that the refined phylogenetic system requires its building blocks and the tree all being studied at the same time.
96. If I may make a remark, my Lord Chairman, it is a long time now since I was in the research council, but in my day there was the Science Research Council, of which I was Chairman, and it was the Research Council of last resort. That is to say, if you are interested in doing something in the field of one of the oriented research councils and they would not pay, you could go to the Science Research Council and make your case there. That would catch up with the situation like alpha-taxonomy, but I do not think we have such a body now.
(Professor Humphries) No. In the case of the Flora Europaea, for example, which is one of the most successfully managed flora projects, which lasted from 1957 to 1980, publishing in total six volumes with a revision of the first one, the secretariat (which consisted of about three people) and all the expenses for travel and so on was funded almost entirely from an SERC grant throughout most of that period, or a series of grants. The result was a highly useful flora.
97. The SERC was the research council of last resort at that time
(Professor Humphries) Yes.
Sir David, I noted that in your written submission you point out that despite their stated policy NERC actually do fund some non-hypothesis-driven areas of research, such as gene sequencing. How do you think they get away with it?
(Sir David Smith) I think the problem probably lies in this kind of area. Gene sequencing, which is not hypothesis-driven, is modern, it is providing a core of information which, hopefully, is going to be useful later in molecular medicine, and so on. I think when research councils such as NERC are confronted by taxonomy - again, with very few taxonomists on the council - they just see tens of millions of species and it takes years to write a monograph of 100 species, and where do we go? I think it is this lack of any structural or conceptual approach. It is not only gene sequencing, I think some of the geological work that is funded is not hypothesis-driven.
98. You said there was a lack of a structure. Within NERC or within the community?
(Sir David Smith) I think it is unfair to say NERC. I think systematists working in their way are on one side and the body with the money on the other, and there is a lack of an intellectual framework to say how should we approach this. Of course we cannot go funding monographs of every group of 100 species, but I think it needs a clearer approach.
99. In the evidence which we have seen, there has been a lack of any quantitative grip or presentation of the problem. The impression that has come across is of this enormous, infinite infinity of work to be done. Frankly, faced with a proposal like that the Treasury will not provide. I think what one would like to see in many areas is some estimate of the size of the task, or constraints on the task, the resources needed and the rate at which progress will be made, because whether we like it or not these are the terms on which research councils now operate. I feel,
myself, that it is a lack of any of this element of approach which has been quite damaging to the very important discipline you represent. Would you agree with me?
(Sir David Smith) I would agree. I note you have a question on the sort of structure that ought to be there, and I have views on that.
Chairman: Perhaps that leads nicely on to Lord Selborne's question.
Earl of Selborne
100. It does. I think we are coming back, again, to the need to find a package which the funders can buy into, and we recognise that NERC do have a problem - as indeed do the other research councils - with something which appears to be open-ended and not dramatically different from what it was in the last century. In the Linnean Society evidence, Sir David's society points out that responsibility for funding is split between at least four different government departments, each with different priorities for systematics and its associated disciplines. It goes on to refer to the United States' National Science Foundation which "... has a Systematics and Evolutionary Biology Committee which oversees a well-funded and dedicated programme with initiatives such as their special competition, Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy ...". Is this a structure that would recommend itself to Sir David for this country? If so, how would you set up its terms of reference and how would they, in turn, be able to get a grasp of something which is so difficult for the other funding organisations to grasp at the moment?
(Sir David Smith) I think one can get some useful guidelines from the so-called PEET initiative in the United States. We do not have anything quite like the National Science Foundation, but my own approach to this is influenced by my experience as a member of the panel for the Darwin Initiative, which I think was very successful. This was for introducing taxonomic expertise into countries overseas. So my model would go more on the Darwin Initiative than a research council model. This is because when we viewed applications to the Darwin Initiative we did not just judge them on research and merit, we had a range of criteria, such as, in the Darwin Initiative "Will this leave a footprint in the particular underdeveloped country?" We really need more applications for poorly studied areas such as marine microbiology. We were then able, without all the overwhelming bureaucracy of a research council grants committee (which I have sat on for quite long periods), to make very strategic grants. Also, it was very bottom-up driven. In the case of something to take forward here, I would myself focus on (if I was on a Darwin Initiative panel for the UK) projects that further the conservation of biodiversity in the United Kingdom. I think we are already contributing to what is happening overseas, and I think it should be wide enough not just to involve museums, collections and universities but, also, learned societies (because there are groups where all the expertise is virtually in amateurs not in the professionals), environmental charities (I have been a trustee of WWF) and, also, it ought to be able to enter as the PEET initiative does - and as we did in the Darwin Initiative - grant applications for educational projects, even as low down as the primary sector. So, I think, rather than impose some top-down strategy, one needs to look at what is the bottom-up availability set within criteria such as "We will judge your application and what it is going to do for the conservation of biodiversity in the United Kingdom". In the Darwin Initiative the Treasury gave us something like £3 million a year and, as I say, I think it was very successful. It did depend on having, in my time, an excellent Chair, who in my time was Sir Crispin Tickell. Again, he was not a systematist but he could see the broad strategic picture.
(Professor Humphries) In my view, the real strength of the UK research structure lies in the diversity of its funding sources but only if you look at that across the whole spectrum of sciences, and if one gets a grant turned down you can always turn to one of the other ones or even a European source of funding. It seems to me that consolidating things down into one single source or one super body cuts out opportunities, especially if some particular policy decision is made which says, for example, they are not going to do anything with hypothesis-driven research. Bringing things together is extremely difficult. Ever since I have been a student, Kew Gardens and the National History Museum directors have attempted to bring the two bodies into one management structure, and it has never been worked out completely how they might do that, so imagine if you try to bring together research councils and, also, bring in the Scottish Office and the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens - it would be extremely difficult to do. I am involved with the PEET programme and this year they are inviting a number of people over to the States to try and enhance what they have done already and to pinpoint those areas of priority. What I would like to see, I think, would be to have the research councils re-think their remits and have some systematists on the terrestrial and aquatic committees for, say, NERC and start having some priority areas of funding so that people like universities and museums anywhere can apply for grants which are targeted into targeted research and take it through on that basis.
101. I was a bit bemused, my Lord Chairman, by Professor Humphries' statement that he believes that a multiplicity of funding sources is much better than the alternative of one major system. It is in this country with this multiplicity of research councils that the funding of alpha-taxonomy in universities, at any rate, has fallen to the floor. It is our very system that has done that, because they are able to pass the buck to somebody else.
(Professor Humphries) To clarify, yes, they have passed the buck instead of actually implementing within their own programmes the taxonomic part. It depends who runs these organisations and who they get on to their committees that decides the subject areas, it seems to me. I would like to see that built up so that it would include systematics rather than trying to produce some super body.
102. So you would rather change the organisation than the whole system?
(Professor Humphries) I think it would be easier to do that.
(Sir David Smith) If I may, my Lord Chairman, I would like to add two further points. If the eventual solution is to go back to the research councils, I do hope it will begin with an analysis of why the NERC taxonomy initiative did not really have the success it was hoped. I have seen a confidential assessment of that initiative (confidential to NERC) and that is why I worry. On the second point - Lord Flowers' point -I have sat on the research grant committees of three different research councils and the really difficult areas are those which fall between two research councils, and there are committees which have tried to link two research councils, but in our present structure it does not work.
103. This is a question addressed specifically to Sir David Smith, concerning your letter to Mr Meacher and Professor King. You say, with reference to the proposals formulated by the Select Committee under the Chairmanship of Lord Dainton ten years ago, that"... a decade later the plight of systematic biology research has worsened, the situation now extending into biology of most kinds of whole organism ... still too few people employed ..." etc, etc. When the Committee reported ten years ago the Government response was to say "It is for the academic and research community in biology to assess the adequacy of the supply of qualified systematists. It must be for that community to consider the relative place, the different approaches to the study of biology ... etc, etc "... and to determine and make known their own recruitment policies." What is there in your letter to Mr Meacher and Professor King that might provoke a more helpful response, in your view, than that? Would they not still be in a position to say that it is for the profession of biology to set its own priorities?
(Sir David Smith) I do not think it is very easy to answer because (and this is where Professor Humphries may disagree with me) coming from the non-systematics area of science I am aware of how rapidly we network - big research groups get together - and we can get together an initiative. The classic in this case was the development of the human genome, which had a lot of critics when it was first mooted, but they got themselves together and it was well-organised. It is somehow in the nature of systematics that they are not such a well-integrated community with very little contact between, say, somebody who looks at the systematics of protozoa and somebody who looks at birds. They do not cohere in the same way. Systematics is much more an area pursued by individuals rather than large research groups, with their layers and their leaders and their post-docs. I do not think it is fair to say "Leave it to the science and the systematics community". Also, the systematics community should be divided between the universities, the museums, the gardens, zoos and the collections, and there is not any good coherence between them. Although some of what I say may, by implication, criticise the research councils, I do not mean that because they have a limited remit too, which is why my experience of the Darwin Initiative - which I think was successful - leads me to think in that direction rather than saying "use an existing structure like a government department or a research council".
104. You talk about the Institute of Biology, which has a working group on this. What has the Institute of Biology done over the past decade to address this general problem?
(Sir David Smith) The reference to the Institute of Biology is this: that it perceives that other sciences, like chemistry and physics, are far more effective political lobbyists because they are seen to speak with one voice. They see that the problem in biology in the broad sense, and I even include parts of medicine, is that it does not speak with one voice. So the working group (of which I was once a member) aims to set up a bio-science federation to try and pursue particular projects, and the only particular project that they had as an example was one we were running in systematics, and they took that as one of their examples. There has now been an agreement to go ahead and develop a bio-science federation but this is now at what is called the implementation group stage. The Institute of Biology is trying to get together a lobbying structure that seems to have worked so well for chemistry and physics, and systematics is only one small problem.
105. Sir David, how do you think the systematics community could allay Professor King's fears expressed in his reply to your letter that a national body would just become a talking shop?
(Sir David Smith) It depends on that national authority body's status, its funding and what it can do. One of your questions refers to the United Kingdom Systematics Forum which did produce a very good document The Web of Life, which I am sure you have seen. However, these were hard-pressed people working in their spare time, many of them in museums where the emphasis is much more on revenue-generating projects rather than on research. They just do not have the time and the energy to do the very specialist lobbying. It depends on the terms and conditions of this national body. If it has authority over some money, for example, then they will have authority.
106. On this question of national bodies, perhaps you can clarify what has happened to the UK Systematics Forum. Also, various submissions of written evidence have suggested there is now a need for a new national body for systematic biology. Does this mean that the Systematics Forum has failed to carry out its task or does it need resuscitating?
(Sir David Smith) I am sure you are familiar with this, but it was originally funded with a temporary grant from the Office of Science and Technology. That grant came to an end in 1998, just about the time of the publication of The Web of Life. This was then taken under the wing of the Linnean Society and we in the Linnean then commissioned a review by Valerie Bott, who is a member of the Museums and Galleries Commission, of just what had been the problem. There were a variety of problems, apart from those I have already mentioned, such as people working in their spare time, the chairman left for a post in Scotland, the co-ordinator left to do some research, and while this strategy sets out priorities - it set out for example a priority should be the targeting of studies and organisms relevant to society - there was then nothing further and deeper, for example, "We need to do this", nor did they have the time or the effort to do it. They were going to make a submission to an appropriate research council but, as Professor Humphries has already said, there was then a conference organised by NERC at which was raised this business that problem-orientated research would not be funded. I would not wish to see a body like the Systematics Forum, as it was, resuscitated, because I do not think you can expect it to do any more unless it has a status and authority, somebody to report to, a line management, whatever you call it.
107. You are nodding in agreement?
(Professor Humphries) Yes, I agree entirely. Like a lot of initiatives this one did not have any muscle, it was irrelevant, and it lacked political clout. Steve Blackmore, who was in the chair, did work very hard at it and in addition to The Web of Life he did produce some kind of working structure about where to move next. Still on the museum computer is a data base of specialists throughout the country in particular areas, and it was moving towards the idea, "How do we bring these people together", but that has not been up-dated for nearly two years now. Officially, since the removal of OST funding, effectively the project is dead, as Sir David has already described.
Earl of Selborne
108. Clearly Professor King was mildly disillusioned, by his reference to a talking shop, with the ability of the systematics community to carry this forward in the past. Do you think if the resources had been there - and I recognise they were not, it had become a voluntary measure for hard-pressed workers without resources - had there been a funding stream, would the systematics community from somewhere have come forward with a strategy which would have been coherent and capable of further advancement through suitably funded programmes? At the moment we seem to have had a UK Systematics Forum which run into the sands, run out of ideas, run out of momentum, and I understand there was a lack of resources, but if the resources had been there to at least prime the pump, what would have happened?
(Sir David Smith) I do think it would have had more of a success but, as I say, I am not sure I would have started from there, as it were. I would have constructed it differently, had different people on it, I think it has to have users of systematics as well as systematists, a wider variety of bodies. For example, I am aware that both DEFRA and NERC have conservation of biodiversity amongst their priorities, but people able to articulate taxonomy into those priorities should be on such a committee. In other words, I would really have constructed it differently with a different remit. Again, I come back to the one pragmatic example which worked very well, which was the Darwin Initiative.
109. Perhaps I could turn to the question of what perhaps we wrongly describe as the systematics community, because what has come across is that we have a rather fragmented, disparate group, and interactions between that group or those groups with Government and other official bodies. Are those interactions satisfactory? Do they exist? Is this a bit of a fluid relationship?
(Sir David Smith) I will answer very briefly before passing rapidly to Professor Humphries. I have just no experience of these kind of interactions.
(Professor Humphries) NHM and places like us were formerly members of the Civil Service Department and that became detached and as a result we all set our own agendas for what should be done. The interactions tend to be of a very personal nature between one individual in one institution and another individual in another institution. They become a little more formal when there are things like contract work. For example, the links we have with University College are quite formal in the sense we go for European funding and that sort of thing. In a similar way, the student grants which we get force us to make links with universities so students can get degrees and register properly and so on, and they are conducted in the manner in which they are normally conducted in universities. So the links are pretty fluid, to answer your question.
110. Can I pursue this, it is a little off to one side but I think it is important. You mention European Union funding, and that is something which has not come into our discussion today. Is that significant in the systematics area?
(Professor Humphries) In one or two cases. The success stories that I know about are, for
example, SYST-RESOURCE programme or the COBICE system, and there are two new ones
now, one in Stockholm and one in Madrid, and this uses Marie Curie grants and various other
schemes to bring people together. I have just come back from Copenhagen, paid for by the COBICE project. It proves to be extremely useful when you are doing joint work. That is one level. The other level is the network, and Jeremy Young in the Natural History Museum produced a network for looking at palaeontological problems which brought in industry and all sorts of organisations that were useful in oil exploration.
(Sir David Smith) Professor Humphries referred earlier to a successful project called Flora Europea which has been going since 1957. Recently, the Linnean Society together with a range of European bodies has acquired a substantial grant of several million euros for a project called Fauna Europea, which is aiming to make lists of animal species in Europe along a similar pattern of Flora Europea, and that involves a networking between different countries. That is a little more towards making species lists. It will have less impact on taxonomy but there is European money and there has been a significant input.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
111. Just one thing about funding. I was reading in the papers this morning about what by any accounts is the absolutely massive funding in the States to deal with bio-terrorism - billions of dollars going into it - working on the need to know about the organisms around us and monitoring and surveillance. Could this lead to an increase in the study of organisms, a bit like the old Sputnik which stimulated so much research in the States 30 or 40 years ago?
(Sir David Smith) I am not sufficient of a microbiologist to know. Undoubtedly in areas like anthrax and smallpox that would be something of intense molecular taxonomy. I am not sure that would extend into the really, to my taste, needed areas like marine microbiology or even, for that matter, at an earlier time someone mentioned soil microbiology. That is not terribly well understood either. I cannot see it doing that. That would be very closely allied to pathogenic organisms.
Lord McColl of Dulwich.
112. Do you think it is possible to indicate how much taxonomy is enough to maintain or improve biodiversity and how much should the UK contribute to that global task?
(Sir David Smith) Again, I can only go back to my experience on the Darwin Initiative where the Treasury allocated us £3 million a year for projects to help the position in under-developed countries overseas. We felt that was just about enough in terms of the amount of expertise we actually have in this country and what we give elsewhere. If it had been £30 million, I think it would have been a waste of money because we do not have that number of taxonomists. I am guessing here but the average cost of a project in the Darwin Initiative is about £30 to £45,000 so you can get quite a lot of those for a similar sum, and then you spread into education and take an analytical look at what you mean by conserving biodiversity - woodlands, seashores, pasture land, agricultural land - and then, when you get to woodlands, what is the big problem in Britain about conserving biodiversity in British woodlands, and you can see from there what is actually out there and can contribute to this. I can say from my knowledge, we must know all about the fungi associated with tree roots, but if you gave me the money to do that I could not find anybody to do it.
113. Professor Humphries, would you like to add anything to that?
(Professor Humphries) Yes, I would like to talk about national institutions and the ones which were built throughout Europe. They, largely from the late 18th century onwards, brought together materials from the spoils of colonialism, if you like, and there was a gradual assembly of all this material, and then during the 20th century there was a processing of all of this, and that is when the business of writing big floras came into being and monography work and so on. The development of Agenda 21, CBD, in 1992 has led to the Darwin Initiative, as you have heard already, which is an extremely good programme, and to build on that in the future has led us to think that we need to do bilateral agreements with countries that we have good resources from, like Central America, Nepal, India and so on, and repatriate the data and work jointly with people in those countries to give them the expertise too. It is a sad fact that the Western institutions still hold the key to this so-called taxonomic impediment, and if we set up a series of priorities within the remit of CBD then you can move that forward.
114. So it is the capacity-building we have been hearing about from all quarters?
(Professor Humphries) To some extent, yes.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. It only remains for me to thank you both, Sir David and Professor Humphries, very much for coming this morning and for the written evidence you have already given to us. Thank you very much indeed.
LORD MAY OF OXFORD, a Member of the House, President, Royal Society and
DR RACHEL QUINN, Policy Unit, Royal Society, examined.
115. Good morning, Lord May, welcome to our Sub-Committee. You are wearing two hats this morning, I understand. One as President of the Royal Society and the other as yourself, a very eminent scientist. It might be helpful on occasion in your evidence to clarify on which behalf you are speaking in answering some of the questions. Perhaps you would be kind enough to introduce your colleague, who is very welcome?
(Lord May of Oxford) Thank you. This is Rachel Quinn, who has a PhD in Ecology from Imperial College, who in the Royal Society is the person in the Policy Unit who sits on top of these kinds of issues. I thought it be would helpful for me to have her here and helpful for her to have the experience of the meeting.
116. Indeed. Presumably Rachel has been involved in the written evidence we have received from the Royal Society?
(Dr Quinn) Yes, I was.
117. Perhaps I can start the questioning. Could you tell us whether, and to what extent, you have used taxonomy or taxonomic information in your own scientific career? Can you also say something about the broader significance of systematics to society. I know you have an interest in that.
(Lord May of Oxford) Let me first, far from clarifying which hat I am wearing, further confuse you. I see myself as appearing before you in a sort of mixture, myself with a professional interest in these questions and, with all due immodesty, I tend to be the person who, when one has international conferences on biodiversity - like the one the US National Academy of Science had a few years ago, the Biodiversity Two meeting, a decade after the one which gave us that word, which tends to involve people in taxonomy, systematics, conservation - gets asked these days to give the talk on how many species there are and rates of extinction. I also will occasionally refer to the document the Royal Society gave you, in which I was not involved but with which I agree point by point. I should also declare an interest as Lord Oxburgh's predecessor as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Natural History Museum and various other interests.
118. Thank you.
(Lord May of Oxford) In turning to your question, I would like to take a couple of minutes by way of preamble to say, in particular, if you can summarise the Royal Society's document in three sentences, it says that systematics, beta-taxonomy, really has benefited from the Dainton Report and is fairly healthy; a mixture of the Dainton Report and the scientific advances which make that an exciting subject. Alpha-taxonomy, which I would call descriptive taxonomy, is not in such good shape. Thirdly, the access to this information seriously needs being brought into the 20th and maybe even the 21st century. Still coming to the question you ask, views in science of taxonomy and systematics to my mind span the spectrum from, at one extreme, those who see it as stamp collecting - and indeed in my view many of the practitioners although doing valuable work are essentially stamp collectors - and at the other end those who could be summed up rather rhetorically perhaps by saying, "Without the bricks that taxonomy gives us and the building plan that systematics gives for putting them in place, the house of biology is a meaningless jumble." There are of course lots of problems in biology which do not need such taxonomy and systematics, but there are many problems in ecology, evolution and in environmental science that do. Many fundamental and evolutionary questions depend on knowing what we have today and indeed what we had in the past, and that partly is why with the new molecular techniques of systematics - putting things, reclassifying, looking at the tree of life - beta-taxonomy in this appalling jargon, which is one of the faults of the subject, is healthy. Ecology - and I will give you three examples in a minute - often suffers from the lack of a taxonomic data base, and our ability to predict what will happen if extinction rates accelerate and whether ecological systems will be able to continue to deliver services. Those are fundamental questions but their application to practical issues from ecology are hindered greatly by the lack of taxonomic knowledge and systematic compilation of such knowledge as we have. Now the three examples. The problem which engaged me first 30 years ago, which drew me from physics into ecology, was the issue of how the structure of an ecological system, the number of species in it, the web of connections amongst them, relates to the ability of particular systems to handle a disturbance or an alien or an extinction of a species, and that is hugely handicapped by the fact that disproportionately alpha-taxonomy, focuses on the things that taxonomists like, which are vertebrates. So our ability to answer questions about food web structure are hugely hindered by the fact that the information tends to come in terms of the links that connect the various named bird species but then there are other huge groups which are just dumped in as spiders or bugs which undercut an analytic understanding. The second example. Setting aside whether it is important for our continued aesthetic or dependence on services to preserve species, if you agree you want to conserve species, a great deal of the current activity in that area, in which I am involved, consists of identifying hot spots. Chris Humphries, whom you have just spoken to, identified with one of these approaches of particular interest and particular efficiency in conserving things. But if you turn to look at what is actually being implemented by conservation movements, it is virtually entirely based on data involving birds, mammals and some plants. There is a blithe assumption that because they often have bigger ranges, that will conserve invertebrates and other organisms. When you look at that in detail, particular studies in Britain and the United States, it turns out not to be true. If you ask the question, are we wanting to preserve the greatest amount of independent evolutionary history which is written in the genetic constitution of species, our vast taxonomic ignorance of invertebrates leaves us unable to answer the question of what we ought to be doing to act optimally. The third example is not my own but an ex-colleague's from Princeton. He is a little unfashionable as an ecologist in that he is interested in some down-to-earth questions which combine fundamental issues, such as, given, inevitably, that the tropics are going to be subjected to more and more use by humans, what are the minimal number of tree species you need to preserve in order to preserve, say, the five primates in a conservation area. That is unfashionable because many of his colleagues say that is a counsel of despair already, we want to preserve pristine cathedrals as sacred sites, but the practicalities are that you want to know what we have to do, recognising we will lose something to preserve as much as possible. He again is hugely handicapped by taxonomic ignorance of the plant and tree species and many of the invertebrate populations in the area he works on.
119. We heard from our two previous witnesses that mycology is a great area of difficulty. Would you agree with that?
(Lord May of Oxford) It is one among many. If you heard from one of the mycological chauvinists, you would have heard a grotesquely exaggerated account of that.
Chairman: I am sure we did not!
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
120. I was going to quote to you your own words but you have done it already
(Lord May of Oxford) Without attribution!
121. "The house of biological research is a meaningless jumble." When I started off as a scientist I suppose I was a systematist at one time. It led on to many other things. You have already identified a number of areas, I would particularly identify insects as being very much in need of study. The question is, how to change this. To the previous witnesses I suggested maybe it was a question of the need to know about certain things. If you can identify areas where you do need to know, and you have given the example of tropical areas and support of vertebrates there, then you can focus in on that. Would that be a way to repair the problems that there are and the big gaps you have identified?
(Lord May of Oxford) I would say, yes and no. Yes, an area that I can see being sexy and commanding funding is the sorts of problems I outlined, but the kind of information you want has to have been laid down earlier by people whose main concern was just the obsessive focus on finding out what is there in the invertebrate fauna. That is to say, I personally do not think that the answer is finding particular projects which have clear application and using that as the excuse to develop alpha-taxonomy. I think there has to be a commitment to the subject for its own sake because you cannot really know what it is you are going to need to know until you have a better feel for it. Let me put it another way: taxonomy, systematics is a community at present that is very weak on self-analysis. Many of the things you will have heard, for example, about the state of alpha-taxonomy I believe are impressions validated by repeated assertion. One of the things in our document is the suggestion that we need a clearer understanding of exactly what it is we do not know and what are the shortfalls. One which we have a rough idea of, but it would be better if we had a better understanding, is the demography of the discipline. About a third of all the people who work in taxonomy systematics work on vertebrates, about a third on plants and about a third on invertebrates, whereas by the most conservative estimates there are a hundred times the number of invertebrates than there are vertebrate species, so one of the things we need to do is shift that and yet it is not clear to me how you do that. Another which underlies the input you had from DEFRA, who just felt the whole thing was too much, is that we have currently got named and recorded something like 1.5 million species, give or take 10 per cent - amazingly, we do not know the number - and credible estimates of how many there might be of other species and plants and animals and fungi alive on earth with us today plausibly range from 5 to 15 million, I would guess 7 million, and if that is right, that means there is another 5 million to be classified. Currently we are adding to knowledge net at the rate of about 10,000 species a year, about 13,000 when we resolve synonyms, so at that rate it will take us 500 years to do it, and I have some comments on that later. One of the things I think we need is more of a commitment to basic taxonomy, to finding out what is there for its own sake but done in different ways, and using the information which comes out in a much more high-tech way than the discipline itself is always comfortable with. That is going to need, to my mind, a blend of the people who are in the discipline today and new kinds of people, the sort of thing Charles Godfray has suggested to you.
122. Like so many things, it seems to me that the start-off in what you are saying must occur at school.
(Lord May of Oxford) Yes.
123. I am amazed how little interest children at school have in science in general, let alone biological science, let alone systematic biology, and I am not sure how one handles that.
(Lord May of Oxford) Again, I am not sure it is as true as the really bleak picture would paint. If I remember from the Joint Nature Conservancy Council, some eight years or so ago we were presented with a rough study which to my memory, which may be faulty, suggested that among young children and teenagers amateur entomological clubs and societies were as healthy as they have ever been. That is something that one ought to know, because if it is true it is important, and if it is not, among many things one needs to re-invigorate the subject at that level. But equally the suggestion is that the people thus drawn into biology, as they proceed up through secondary school and university, get deflected out to seemingly more exciting areas, partly because the excitement they had experience when young is now displaced to the intellectual excitement of molecular biology whereas taxonomy as presented seems relatively dreary. My feeling is that need not be so. If you have a combination of existing crafts of taxonomy with much more a presentation of its ultimate fruit as in the idiom of information technology, you may lose fewer of those people. All these discussions are handicapped by the appalling lack of analytic information about it.
Earl of Selborne
124. I would like to follow up Lord May's very interesting observation that down there at the grass roots there are people who are quite passionately keen on biodiversity, as it is now called, certainly in learning on the ground. In the last ten years at least, as the Royal Society points out, beta-taxonomy has been re-invigorated, molecular biology and other things have played a large part in that, so the trick now is how do we get alpha-taxonomy re-invigorated. Lord May has referred to laying down information, not the sort of concept which lends itself apparently to a lot of support from the research councils but, nevertheless, if something innovative which captured the imagination not just of the research councils but perhaps society as a whole could come forward, it may do the trick of re-invigorating alpha-taxonomy, very much needed with the biodiversity projects and our commitments to the Convention for Biological Diversity. That leads me to the Royal Society's support of Professor Charles Godfray's proposal, simply because I think you see this as something which apparently might capture imagination, might get some additional funding, not just from the normal sources. I wonder if Lord May would like to comment on whether an international initiative such as that, or indeed some other international initiative, might be the trick for sparking this re-invigoration of alpha-taxonomy.
(Lord May of Oxford) Again, yes and no. Going back to one step, if one goes to Selborne itself and the field station there and you see the enthusiastic young kids, you wonder what we do wrong with them afterwards. Charles Godfray himself was one such young child who kept the interest but fused it into something that is right at the cutting edge of ecological evolutionary research based often on taxonomic things. We need more people like that. Whether we are going to do it by getting an international group, I do not know, but the problem with international groups, particularly the ones put together with taxonomists and systematists, is that insofar as it is permissible to make generalities about the personality type which ends up in a discipline, they tend not to be very good at having the Godfray-like vision. There are, as you probably know, at least a dozen different initiatives to produce the global data base that works to a common format, and they have been working at this for ten years and we do not have it yet. The Global Biodiversity Informatics Facility may eventually do it and there are within that movement some particular people but, constitutionally, I think ultimately things come down to people rather than mechanisms. It is a mixture of the two. I would be wary of just prescribing a particular mechanism because I would join my voice to the chorus who have felt that the systematics forum, while not without usefulness, certainly was not the solution to some of these problems we had hoped it might
125. What would it take to realise the Godfray vision?
(Lord May of Oxford) Ultimately what we are trying to do is engage. We keep being told there are fewer people at the start of their career, but we cannot be sure because we do not have statistics on that and we do not have good analytical statistics on the number of under-graduate and graduate courses as best I understand it, but if we had that factual knowledge and it was distressing, it is going to take a long time to fix it. We have to engage young people and we have to put in place in courses and we have to have incentives to do that. Part of it is going to be embracing a vision of taxonomy that includes the present craft of obsessive description but in partnership or otherwise so it is much more directly joined to either fundamental research applications in evolution or, more commonly, a mixture of basic research and application in ecology and conservation biology, and it has to do it moreover in ways that break free of the fashion that accords effort roughly equally to vertebrates, invertebrates and plants, and accords the effort proportionately to where the independent, evolutionary history resides. Even answering that question automatically engages you with molecular biologists.
126. My Lord Chairman, we have been told that the Research Assessment Exercise has led to a decrease in the systematic biology done within universities. If you agree with that, Lord May, do you have any consequential comments on the nature of the process? Anyway, to what extent can any such decrease be mitigated by the work of non-university institutions, such as the NHM and the Royal Botanic Gardens?
(Lord May of Oxford) I do not know whether the RAE has had an effect. The RAE has had various effects but I cannot imagine any human institution which could have had as many effects as are attributed to it. Again, it would be more convincing if it were backed with some factual analysis. It is true that some of the RAE assessment committees, but only a few, were sufficiently ill-informed about using citation analysis or impact factors for journals as not to realise they cannot be used except discipline by discipline because they vary so much. The average lifetime - just as a digression, parenthetically - of a citation, in the sense from when the paper is published to when the modal citation was, varies from something of the general order of a year to two years in molecular biology to more than seven years in ecology. As the impact factor for journals is calculated only over the last three years of citations of the paper, you can see some of the problems which creep in, but most of the panels are aware of that. Turning to the larger question of whether the decreasing investment in courses and otherwise in universities can be picked up by dedicated institutions - Kew, NHM and others - taxonomy and systematics always has been primarily practised in museums. It in fact gives a particular problem for such institutions. The Natural History Museum, for example, is supported by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, most of whose museums have a modest degree of scholarship in support of the collections but which are totally dissimilar to the Natural History Museum which is more than half a fundamental research institute, like the Max Plank Institute, the world's leading one in taxonomy and systematics. That is inevitable but it is not going to flourish unless it is connected to thriving programmes at least to the under-graduate level in universities. It is not going to thrive for two reasons. The obvious one is that it will not get the flow-through of the next generation of younger people. The less obvious one is, what more responsibly conducted bibliometric analyses show, that the value for money you get from research, the output in papers and citations and patents and the inspirations for patents in relation to the money you spent earlier, is a factor two or more better in those countries where research is ordinarily done in universities or university-like places, whereas dedicated research institutes although they may do wonderful science tend to do it in a less cost effective way, and I think that is because they tend to evolve rigidities by virtue of their separation from the continual presence of the irreverent young which is a characteristic of the best research places. So the trick in places like the Natural History Museum, which will always be the primary site for alpha-taxonomy, is to make sure that it is richly connected through joint appointments and other programmes to universities, both for the next generation and for the liveliness that that brings. The Natural History Museum in my opinion, and I do not doubt in Lord Oxburgh's opinion, has done an excellent job on this, others have not. I do not think the answer is then picking up the slack but they will always be the key parts of the programme. I think the answer is research councils being less driven by facile waves of fashion and making longer-term investment in subjects like taxonomy, which is stamp collecting but is much more an enabling discipline, and a recommendation that special provision be made in that sense. Just as the Dainton Report suggested the emergence of molecular systematics was going to transform beta-taxonomy, to help bring that about by short-term special funding from NERC, so too we ought to be thinking of how one transforms in certain ways along the lines of Charles Godfray, and I have a couple of other ideas which, regardless of the questions, I will manage to shoe-horn in, which will be the subject of special fostering of alpha-taxonomy by appropriate research councils and others.
127. Lord May, we have heard that the three major institutions are responsible for 90 per cent of the UK's systematic output. Is that a fair assessment? Has it gone up or down?
(Lord May of Oxford) It sounds reasonable but (a) I do not know and (b) I am not sure anybody knows. The interesting question is whether anybody has looked at it as distinct from pulled a figure out of the air and said it a lot.
128. Lord May made much of the need for these institutions being closely networked in with universities and so on. Hear, hear to that, and I believe it is taking place to a reasonable extent at least in the post-graduate field in research. But unless there are under-graduates coming forward you do not start the process off.
(Lord May of Oxford) That is right.
129. I do not know that these institutions have done very much at the under-graduate level.
(Lord May of Oxford) It is not just our problem. To go back a hundred years, most of the major universities had a museum which was actively engaged in the teaching process. If you go to North America, my old university, Princeton, has just closed down the museum, and most of the ones which survive are there as a kind of gentle ornament.
130. Manchester, I am glad to say, is very active in this.
(Lord May of Oxford) In North America, which I know better, I would say Berkeley, under the inspired leadership of its director, David Lindberg and his wife, to my mind is the only example of a university museum which is still right at the front of both taxonomy and research. Michigan tries, but most of the others are fading because it is difficult. My view is you do not have to have the museum in the university, it is more having a leader who has this more generous vision of how the necessary, in a sense, stamp-collecting personality gets connected to the fruits of that labour, and it is seen as a necessary enabling activity rather than a discipline in itself.
Chairman: Lord Rea, you were going to ask about teaching but do you think it has been covered?
131. My question was about teaching in schools and universities and you have been talking about that for last 15 minutes, so I do not think there is an awful lot more to be said. I was going to ask you to develop that theme which you have just touched on, which is how to capture the obsessive descriptive stamp-collecting personality and connect it to the apparently more exciting aspects of science, and perhaps to not regard stamp collecting as a dead subject, equivalent to people in anoraks train spotting, but maybe to realise actually some people get quite a lot of excitement out of stamp collecting and it is not such a dead end.
(Lord May of Oxford) Again, I have no easy answers. It seems to me the places which do continue to teach courses and continue to engage good students in the UK are the places where there are individuals who combine that interest with a wider canvas. There are a bunch of younger people in this country who are as good as you will find anywhere. They do need a degree of encouragement, I think, because by the time you get right at the top it is often seen as rather an old fashioned thing to do. There is the further problem that there are so many areas of science which are interesting today compared to the past. So in one sense the physical sciences suffer because many of the people who might have done it yesterday now go into a vastly expanded biological science, and within that taxonomy suffers because people who went into it because they had an interest in natural history discover other areas. You could argue, it is trying to keep pace with the frontiers which exist and the people we put in, but that widens it well beyond 15 minutes.
Lord Rea: When I was at school I had a very good botany teacher and he got me interested in describing all the species in a grid, but, as you say, I got seduced away from that by the zoology teacher who was more exciting, and then at university I got seduced away into medicine from zoology, so it is difficult going on being a stamp collector when there are so many other attractions.
Chairman: A lot of competition. Can we move on to Lord Selborne. If we are going to ask all the questions, we must keep it fairly brief
Earl of Selborne
132. I will forgo my question but just ask what were the bright ideas Lord May wanted to put into the discussion.
(Lord May of Oxford) One thing I would have answered was the question about the Systematics Forum. There is in taxonomy a list of things we ought to ask questions about. Some of them are just factual and some are background to doing things. Two of them I have referred to already. One of them is, it would be good if somebody really could do a more analytic study on the demography of taxonomists in two respects. One is the age spectrum. The Dainton Report had the age structure but it did not compare it with the average age structure of academia. Is it indeed true that the cadre of practising alpha-taxonomists in the UK today has an age profile which is characteristic of a species heading for extinction, or is it just that they are a fair fraction of older people in academia more generally as a result of various factors. Secondly, within the first one of the demography of taxonomists, a little more analytic study of what they work on and the degree to which fashion rather than analysis of the job to be done drives it. Secondly, the thing I touched on, it would be good to have an analysis of what are the under-graduate and masters courses taught in the UK and how have they changed over time. Is it true there are fewer? This is the sort of thing they would have been doing but it is not the sort of thing they do, which is exasperating in my view. It is what the Systematics Forum should have done. I hectored them but just could not get it done. I have some constructive comments. I have said that each year we add to the total of the known species about another 10,000, but I cannot tell you how much that costs per species. It would be very useful to have accounts to give to the research councils and more of a sense of the cost of the enterprise as we currently do it. Then, looking to the future, I would like to see the discipline ask itself, as it is beginning to, how can we go about the task of seeking out in a systematic way new species in novel and imaginative ways. There is quite an enterprise on this and it has begun, which I will not go into technically, and a lot of people are thinking about it, but it would be nice to see more thought go into that and moving away to a faster if slightly sloppier process than the thing we have, because the rate limiting step of adding to our knowledge of the creatures and plants we share the world with is always going to be collecting them. I would also like to see preliminary thinking about something which is going in my view to come over the next ten or 20 years and is going to upset greatly a lot of conventional taxonomists, which is the step we really can speed up greatly. I believe ten or 20 years from now, when you have collected in the field a new species but you do not know whether it is new or not, you put a little bit of it into a large widget which will first of all seek for particular genes and then go straight through to place it in the phylogenetic tree of life, so that the process which currently takes roughly twice as long as collecting things in the field, the process of keying them out, will take ten minutes, so you will have shortened the task. Most people do not even realise at present one of the most widely-cited dramatic upward revisions of how many species there are on earth comes from a chap who looked at beetles in the canopies of tropical trees, and he has never keyed out the collection, he has used a chain of theoretical arguments to estimate how many are new to science. The reason he has not keyed it out is it would have taken him several years and it would have been very boring. But that involves a completely different cast of characters, the kind of people who gave us the gene sequencing machines. We need people to be thinking ahead to that and getting together and putting proposals together in the same imaginative way as people like Walter Bodmer and others did to start on human genomes 20 years ago. Finally, we need not merely the getting-together of the alpha-taxonomists with people more skilled in information technology but the making of machines to do the things that machines can do, which is not collecting in the field, but looking across the sweep of the tasks to be done, whether it is vertebrates, invertebrates, and looking at the things we have at the moment. The Natural History Museum has to make agonising choices of which aspects of the collection it continues to foster and do scholarships on and build, and those where it will just curate the work in a holding operation. People keep talking about co-ordinating this so we share it, but there is not much room for co-ordinating in the UK because there is for animals just one big institution and a few smaller ones, and for plants there are two big ones and some smaller ones. Internationally so far there has been endless talk and no action. There is a set of things which, if you could do them, could begin to build something. The conservation movement has the red data books of categories of endangerment, and they could be in a sense drawn into this too. I would have liked to see the UK bid to have the Global Biodiversity Informatics Facility, which is beginning to be established, because I think we have people who might have helped supply this vision, but the relevant department just felt it had enough calls on its expenditure and was not willing to do it.
133. Lord May, the consequence of your suggestion that in future we will have a portable field-sized sequencer ---
(Lord May of Oxford) Not portable, no. You have to bring it back home, but that is no problem.
134. --- some form of rapid sequencer, indicates that you consider it to be absolutely crucial that we establish a structure which will enable us to foster these collecting skills and the in-depth knowledge of the genera and species which would enable people in the field to recognise they have something new. Would that be a reasonable summary?
(Lord May of Oxford) I am actually saying something which many of that community would regard as an anathema. That is my vision of the future of this discipline, basic alpha-taxonomy, collecting things, seeing whether they are new and establishing that. At the moment that community will go into the field, but some of them will not even go into the field, they will just work on the past collections. I am proposing in a sense to abolish the work on the past collections because that will be done for you. I see that as being helpful - but of course it will never work out exactly like that - because the young people who get into entomological clubs and the like are exactly the people who want the romance of the collecting. The great majority of those bright young people would see alpha-taxonomy research work, the tedious keying out, as just boring, and thus they shy away from it, because that seems to be what it is about. The ones who want the romance will become ecologists and go and study things, handicapped by the lack of knowledge of alpha-taxonomy.
135. Sadly, we have not got time for the other questions we had for you, but I think we have covered most of the ground you would have liked to cover in answer to our questions.
(Lord May of Oxford) I think we have covered everything I wanted to say but I would just want to say one last thing, which is, why should, after all, the UK do this? We have been talking about the need scientifically but there is a finite amount of things we can do so why should we do this? Why should not someone else do it? I would say there are two reasons why the UK should do this. One of them is, it is an area where we have a comparative advantage. Our imperial past has simply given us strengths of collections and strengths of traditions. Secondly, and more morally, we have an obligation. Our imperial past has given us the reference collections for many parts of the developing world. I think the Darwin Initiative was a great start and it really has done a lot. I was rather shocked at what I conceived to be your draft Question 7 which you were going to ask on the basis of a statement from officials at DEFRA, who said that the Convention for Biological Diversity sets out a potentially endless task in terms of identifying organisms. Someone who drafted that should help explain why we have done such a dreadful job of not carrying our end of the burden given by the Convention for Biological Diversity of helping to conserve things in the dependent territories.
136. On that point, thank you very much indeed. Lord May, and also your colleague.
(Lord May of Oxford) Thank you very much.