Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the reports of the Science and Technology Committee on Systematics and Taxonomy: Follow-up (5th Report, Session 2007-08, HL Paper 162) and Systematics and Taxonomy Follow-up: Government Response (First Report, HL Paper 58)
In introducing this debate, I pay tribute to those who prepared and published two previous reports on relevant and related matters: the late Lord Dainton, whose report was published in 1992, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, happily a member of this committee and still with us, whose report was published in 2002. It is on those foundations that the present report was built, and they were the benchmarks by which we measured progress, or the lack of it, in government and public sector responses. I am also deeply indebted to the superb team of committee members, the committee secretariat and our special scientific adviser, Professor Geoff Boxshall from the Natural History Museum.
Let us begin at the beginning, with definitions. The opening paragraph of the report says:
“Taxonomy is the scientific discipline of describing, delimiting and naming organisms, both living and fossil, and systematics is the process of organising taxonomic information about organisms into a logical classification that provides the framework for all comparative studies”.
If I was in any doubt about the need to restate these definitions clearly, the Word package on my computer prompted me to do so by indicating that it regarded the word “systematics” as of dubious provenance.
The next question that the report addresses is why these skills are important. Consider the case of Charles Darwin, whose 150th anniversary is, as we all know, being widely and royally celebrated this year. Question: what do Charles Darwin and Andy Capp have in common? Answer: a fascination with pigeons. For Andy Capp the fascination had to do with their racing capacities. In fact, had they been contemporaries, they might well have met, for Darwin tells us that,
“I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs”.
There is a thought to tempt the imagination—a meeting between Darwin and Andy Capp. I wonder how David Attenborough would have handled that one.
To return to the original point, Darwin tells us in the first chapter of The Origin of Species that it is always best to study some special group. His chosen example, “after deliberation”, was domestic pigeons. One might even say that the mighty edifice that we have come to know variously as “natural selection” or “evolution” was based initially on a minute and detailed study of what we all see daily in Trafalgar Square. But, of course, the difference is between how we see and how Darwin sees.
We see grey, sometimes intrusive birds whose aerial gifts are to be avoided. Darwin saw and was “astonished” by the variety of breeds—the carrier, the short-faced tumbler, the common tumbler, the runt, the barb, the pouter, the turbit, the Jacobin, the trumpeter, the laugher, the fantail, not to mention,
“several other less distinct breeds (which) might be specified”.
He goes on to say that,
“at least a score of pigeons might be chosen, which, if shown to an ornithologist … would certainly be ranked by him as well-defined species”,
but not, he adds, as “the same genus”.
And so, in nine beautifully lucid pages in the opening chapter of his great book, Darwin distinguishes his interest in pigeons from those of Andy Capp and the tourists in Trafalgar Square. How does he do this? He sees in a different way. He provides detailed observations. He describes some experiments in breeding. He marshals his evidence. He offers a hypothesis or two. He even explains where his opponents go wrong. And so, monumentally, he begins to build the intellectual edifice which changed our understanding of the world in which we live. The Andy Capps of this world focus on details relevant only to the dual primary purpose which he saw of pigeons—speed and endurance. Darwin comments that,
“they win their prizes by selecting such slight differences, yet they ignore all the general arguments, and refuse to sum up in their minds slight differences accumulated during many successive generations”.
So I ask again, why are taxonomy and systematics so important? I have given one example already. One answer is that they lie at the very foundation of our understanding of the natural world, and not only because Charles Darwin shows us that in a most spectacular fashion. For even if, per improbabile—to invent a Latin phrase—he were wrong, it would require a similarly rich cocktail of observation, experiment, analysis, hypothesis and evidence-based conclusions even to begin the argument with him. I am tempted to add, “Fundamentalists please take note”, but that belongs to a different debate.
A rather different answer to the question of importance lies in a concept which we have all learnt to use with respect—biodiversity. We have come to understand more fully the importance of the variety to be found in the natural world and the complex interrelations within that variety. I recently read with delight of the fact that Scotland—it was not because it was Scotland; it was just a good example I happened to have to hand—has amazing biodiversity: 10 species of reptiles and amphibians; 63 species of mammals; 242 species of birds; 240 species of fish; 20,000 species of plants and fungi; 24,800 species of invertebrates; and, at an estimate, 40,000 species of virus bacteria and protozoa. I dare say some noble Lords in this Room could correct me on the specific numbers, but I was simply staggered and amazed. How do we know this? Because we have in our society the skills and techniques of taxonomy and systematics.
Of course, a fundamental and important question follows: does it matter that we know this? The answer is a resounding yes, for many reasons. The big reason is that changes in biodiversity can be either consequences or harbingers of climate change. Equally important, therefore, is to enhance even further our ability to measure changes in biodiversity, and that requires the skills of taxonomy and systematics.
The implications of these measurements for food supply and safety are central to our capacity as a race, let alone as a society, to prepare for that change. The absence of bees and butterflies, of which we heard something last summer and the summer before it, will affect my crops of fruit and vegetables, but their continued presence has much greater significance than that—ultimately, the capacity of the human race to feed itself.
If changes in biodiversity have such potential gravity, the importance of the study of taxonomy and systematics is beyond question. For coherent thought and therefore policy preparedness in such matters, the measurement and analysis of change in the biodiversity of our community is essential. For that, we need taxonomists and practitioners of systematic biology.
I began by setting out the social and economic reasons for the importance of these disciplines, because I realise that I am in a political context and utilitarian arguments are important. The disciplines are essential for our survival as a human race. Other important arguments will be elaborated by my colleagues who speak after me. I shall briefly mention just two by way of an amuse-bouche for the wider discussion that will follow.
First, sheer intellectual curiosity about the natural world is of value in itself. From a utilitarian point of view, that almost always has to be the forerunner of the technologies and understandings which change our society for the better. Sheer intellectual curiosity is a driving point. The pursuit of such curiosity must be based, as it was in Darwin’s case, on observation, experiment, analysis and evidence-based argument, and on learning to see as a taxonomist and as a systematician. It must be based on taxonomy and systematics.
I advance a further argument. In this country, due in part to our adventurous history during the past 200 or 300 years, we have three of the most important, relevant collections in the world: in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in the Natural History Museum and in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. These collections must be curated, maintained and expanded; we have an intellectual as well as a moral responsibility to do so. Other societies, some of which were once our colonies, are often the source of these collections. They will want to use them as reference points for understanding changes in their own regional biodiversity. Whether we like it or not, we are the curators; we are responsible for the maintenance and expansion of those collections.
I have given two examples—there are many others—of why the disciplines are important. I turn briefly to how we assess government awareness and policy in these matters. First, I acknowledge and thank the Government, whose response indicates acceptance of a number of our central recommendations. There has been significant progress following the reports of 1992 and 2002, and the signs are that, with the help of our continued prompting—and that is a manifesto of the Science and Technology Committee—there will be further progress from 2009.
I shall give some examples of acceptances and moving forward. NERC will commission a study which will deal, I hope, with our concerns about numbers of future scientists in this area—so there will be hard evidence. NERC and the Natural History Museum have agreed to study further the national priorities that we should formulate in this area. BBSRC and NERC will provide funds for the development of a road map for delivery of internet-based taxonomy. I am happy to say on a very specific point that our pleas concerning the needs of the fungal reference collection at Kew have been heard and, in part, answered.
There are a number of further positive responses that will doubtless be discussed by my colleagues, one of which I will mention because I am particularly pleased by it. In their response, the Government imply an understanding of the importance of biodiversity-related topics in schools. However, lest the Minister believe that he can now relax, I reassure him that there is a “can-do-better” coda to this report, and doubtless we will hear much of that in the debate that follows.
I highlight two examples to which, for various reasons, I attach particular importance in that regard. The first is the rejection of our recommendation that there should be a lead department in this area. We thought hard about that, and we had many arguments for and against. We came to the conclusion that a lead department would enhance our capacity significantly in important respects. The policy needs in this area are great. Significant developments of policy will be required whether we, or the Government, like it or not. Their commitment to one of their central focuses being climate change indicates that, for the reasons I have already given, a lead needs to be taken, rather than things falling between the cracks. That is at the core of our recommendation and our disappointment that it has not been accepted. We see that there are dangers to our traditional strengths in the supply of sufficient numbers of well trained people in these fields.
My second example also perhaps relates to the need for a lead department. We noted that the notion of co-ordination, or joined-up government, as it was once called, was not being fully exercised. A good example is an apparent failure on the part of the government response properly to consult the regime in Scotland. The evidence for that is a short and rather pathetic paragraph—I speak now as a Scot—that apparently summarises its response to what we believe is quite a significant report. That is underlined by the fact that one of the three great national collections is in Edinburgh, and therefore significantly the responsibility of the current Scottish Parliament. There was a lack of joined-upness there, which was a pity. I hope that we can do better next time.
I look forward to the contributions that are to come, including the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, in thanking our clerks and our special adviser for all their hard work. The noble Lord reminded us that your Lordships’ committee has been concerned about the state of systematics and taxonomy since 1992. Since then we have been bringing this concern to the attention of the Government by reports, follow-up reports, correspondence and debate. Frankly, we are not sure if the decline has been halted or reversed. Have committee members been banging their heads up against a brick wall, or are we getting somewhere by wearing away the stone with a constant drip, drip, drip?
I apologise to my academic colleagues, who are probably giving me nought out of 10 on my report card for mixing my metaphors. I agree with the noble Lord that we are getting somewhere—but my metaphors are mixed because the messages are mixed, as are the messages from the Government. The greatest mixed message of all is the assurance that Defra will monitor the ecosystem. That requires the expertise of taxonomists, but nobody is sure if there are going to be a sufficient number to carry out the work. We are told that NERC will commission a study this year to find out the number and trends. Hopefully, we will then know.
We are all agreed that web-based taxonomy is having, and will have, an enormous impact on taxonomy services and knowledge. We believe that a road map for delivering internet-based taxonomy should be developed. But the Government are referring to biodiversity data, whereas the committee wants to use the internet as a means of identification. Is that a mixed message or just confusion?
During our debate with the Government there has been an exchange of views about the management and culture of science within the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, explained the importance of understanding environmental sustainability. This is why taxonomy and systematics should be firmly in a powerful lead government department, such as DIUS—a department strong enough to halt its decline. At present, though, the responsibility for systematics and taxonomy is spread over many departments.
Again, the response we get is mixed. We are told that the Government’s role in science is to set the overarching strategy, and it is left to the research councils and others to decide how research money is spent, yet we are told that occasionally cases arise where Ministers rightly provide strategic direction. Is that a message to try harder to persuade the Government that systematics and taxonomy are of sufficient importance for Ministers to give strategic direction? Or is it a message saying, “Don’t talk to us, talk to the research councils and others”?
I come back to my original question: are our concerns being acknowledged and acted upon or are they being ignored? Our concerns are clear—recruitment, funding, governance, availability and distribution of knowledge—but the response is mixed. Yes, there will be a study of numbers and trends; yes, there will be dialogue on priorities and some work on distribution. Very good, but is it enough?
I am a lay member of this committee. I do not have any special scientific knowledge. But our report reflects the thoughts of many well informed people who are concerned that if we do not boost the taxonomic community, both professional and voluntary, then we will miss out on some important aspects of environmental sustainability through ignorance or neglect.
I am an unashamed supporter of this Government. I know that the economic crisis dominates government thinking at the moment, as it should. But fairly soon politics will be moving into election mode, a time when many issues are raised and when perhaps climate change will again come to the top of the agenda. During that debate, it would be nice for the Government to be able to say “Yes, we listened to your concerns about ecosystem services and have done something about it.” There is nothing mixed about that message.
I join with others in thanking our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for proposing that we return to the subject of systematics and taxonomy. I can record with some pride that I am the only person, I think, who has served on all three committees. I know that others present gave evidence in 1992, but I suspect that I am the only survivor of the committee, so at least I represent historical continuity. I am certainly familiar with some of the issues that are pleaded on behalf of the systematics community, and indeed with some of the criticisms, which should be acknowledged, that sometimes the taxonomic community does not always sell its wares as effectively as the user community would wish.
The 1992 report chaired by Lord Dainton was well timed. That was the year we signed the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit at Rio. With that, we assumed responsibilities formally—to which I hope we had already committed ourselves both nationally and internationally—for conservation of the diversity of species and to put policies in place, both nationally and internationally, to achieve just that. We see that working through the system at the moment. We should give credit to the Government—to successive Governments in fact—for having led the way in many ways on national conservation policies. They have not always been effective—that is the nature of things—but at least a big subject has been addressed.
Since 1992 the agenda has changed. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, it has become more immediate. Climate change was obviously not the issue in 1992 that it is today. There was concern about deforestation, which has certainly increased; land-use change; overexploitation of natural resources; and the limited availability of water, not just for our own purposes but to sustain habitats, particularly those that rely on water for their nature. In all these areas systematic biology has a role, some would say a fundamental role. After all, you cannot conserve something unless you understand it. However, we have to acknowledge that taxonomy and systematics is only one of the scientific disciplines that has to be brought to bear on these issues, and it is there to complement, to provide underpinning and to provide the fundamental understanding of the contribution of other scientific approaches which are critical.
I must declare two interests: I chair the trustees at Kew and the partners board of the Living with Environmental Change programme. I mention that programme in particular because it is mentioned at paragraph 3.21 of the government response as one of the interdisciplinary programmes that will determine what issues taxonomy and systematics can contribute to. That is absolutely right. Living with Environmental Change is an umbrella programme straddling all the research councils and a number of government departments, including the Environment Agency and many others. It is all about collaboration on meeting these environmental changes, not just climate change. I suspect that taxonomy and systematics will indeed make a contribution to just about every programme, whether it is to do with the environment and human health, the depletion of natural resources, land-use change, and much else. It is one contribution alongside others.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, reminded us—I am sure that this is absolutely correct—whether we like it or not, we have inherited a historical obligation. We have these national collections. These are the type specimens, the voucher specimens, for countries, not just our colonies, all around the world. You have to refer to these specimens if you are to determine the nature of your diversity and the extent to which it is changing. Indeed, the astonishingly effective modern techniques of DNA sequencing and the like still ultimately rely on these voucher specimens to determine the type specimens. Whether we like it or not, the Natural History Museum, Kew and Edinburgh have not just a moral obligation but—something rather stronger—a duty to curate those specimens as well as add to them.
That is what is happening. With the increased interest arising from the Convention on Biological Diversity, most member states which have signed that agreement are progressing well on preparing their conservation plans and that obviously requires an inventory of the habitats they value most. That means that we get specimens coming back to the Natural History Museum, Kew or Edinburgh. The speed of accessions is increasing and it is actually a problem keeping up. It is a question not only of curation but of working on these specimens. Modern molecular morphological phylogenetics, which is determining the evolutionary relationship of these species, is advancing enormously fast with the new techniques to which I referred.
If we are to measure how successful taxonomy and systematics are in serving the user community, we have to ask not just whether we are continuing to collect and identify new specimens or curate existing specimens but, much more practically and more importantly, whether this information is useful. Can people access it? Is it relevant to the sort of studies that are arising from our obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international obligations?
The measure of output is quite a challenge, and this is where I think we have to ensure that the taxonomic community—led, one would hope, by a government department, but at least by a champion within government—has a sort of checklist from time to time. What is the product of taxonomy and systematics? Is it helpful? Does the user community find it timely and relevant? Are we developing a better understanding of the role of individual species in ecosystems? From that, does a prediction flow of which habitats are vulnerable? It should. Is there a determination of which management policies would be most appropriate for these ecosystems, and a formulation of conservation policies and restoration policy programmes? I am delighted to say that, as a result of the seed bank programme that Kew introduced at the turn of the millennium, we are now seeing this part of the collection being used for restoration ecology around the world. It is a great success for those who had the vision 12 or more years ago to start that very ambitious programme.
I have referred to the great advances in recent years in phylogeny—that is, determining how organisms are evolutionarily related. I do not think that there is any doubt that the integration of phylogeny into other areas of biological research has become standard. However, the area where there is continual debate—and the written evidence is in the report—is what is usually described as “descriptive taxonomy”. The problem, which causes people to throw their hands up in the air with horror, is that there is never an end to it. However, there has to be some determination of priorities. We can probably list all the plants and vertebrates. In 2010, we are due to do what Darwin asked for—that is, to produce the definitive list of plants in the world. It will be a draft list, not a definitive one, but at last a list is coming out. However, no one is going to attempt to do that for invertebrates or nematodes and many other such species. Therefore, when you come to descriptive taxonomy, you clearly have to determine priorities and this is the difficult area.
The other problem, which is always being addressed by the taxonomic community, with perfect justification, is that taxonomy in universities has melted away, or at least there is very little left. Our three reports seem to suggest that the United Kingdom is particularly bad in this respect, but it is also true of Europe and other countries. Therefore, the obligation to do training and research in taxonomy falls more and more on the national centres of excellence: the Natural History Museum, Kew, Edinburgh and, indeed, regional universities. That, again, is an inescapable fact, although I should not give the impression that no systematics is going on in universities. The modern techniques to which I referred—relying on DNA sequencing and the like—clearly does happen in universities and is a growth area.
So we need appropriately qualified specialists to carry out this inventory and these conservation assessments in areas to be agreed as priorities. Someone has to determine priorities. There is always an individual who determines for himself what he or she wants to work on, but that is not good enough. There has to be international collaboration; we cannot all duplicate, and we must certainly think of ourselves as Europeans, and perhaps as a much wider community. As has been said, it is essential to embrace these exciting new practices in the web-based environment. That is much easier for new accessions—you can put them on to the web because you collect them in a form that is immediately available. It is much harder when 250 years or more of material has to be digitised, put on the web and made accessible. That is essential. The report says that the taxonomic community needs more money for this. In practice, there are charities around the world that we rely on—American charities and one or two others. The sums are enormous and it will take a long time for even the priority areas to be fully digitised, cross- referenced and accessible, but that must be determined as a priority.
The way in which these issues have shot up the agenda arises from the consequences of the Convention on Biological Diversity. I know that the Addison rules prevent me from speaking in any sense for Kew; therefore, I cannot thank the Government for their support on mycology, but were I allowed to do so I certainly would have wished to. I remind the Committee to what extent mycology has collapsed. In the 1992 report, we pointed out that plants and fungi go together in many communities; you really cannot study one without the other, certainly when it comes to restoration. But mycology is in dire straits, more or less, as it was in 1992, and I am delighted that there has been some temporary support.
Why does the Science and Technology Committee keep on returning to this issue? Some people must think that we are obsessed with it. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, made it very clear how central it is to so many policies. If there remains a concern, it is that because this is an area which can and should contribute to any number of scientific endeavours to underpin policy, it is for the taxonomic community to demonstrate effectively what its role is, how it can contribute and how it can ensure that it is focused on the areas of greatest priority. It is reasonable for the Government and the research councils—not just NERC—to engage in a debate with the systematics community to make it clear what is expected and to measure the outputs so that some sort of clarity is achieved. At the moment it is fragmented and, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, pointed out, there seems to be a lack of adequate consultation between government departments in formulating the first response—at least as far as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, was concerned.
There is a live issue here: we keep on challenging the taxonomic community to make itself relevant, to be focused and to underpin. It points out that because of a lack of recruitment, training and research, some areas of its discipline is declining, although not all. That is why, ultimately, an overall review would be enormously helpful to that community.
I join with others in thanking all the committee members—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for choosing the topic and providing excellent leadership—our outstanding secretariat and our adviser, Professor Geoff Boxshall, FRS.
I mention FRS because, as will emerge in my remarks, one of the problems we have encountered is a feeling that much of descriptive taxonomy is not a sexy subject. On the other hand, it is worth emphasising that the Royal Society, which is often thought of as a rather stuffy institution, has elected in recent years quite a few taxonomists and systematists, not all molecular people but many classical people who would be at home in a 19th-century institution. We need to recognise that.
I begin with a digression that will circle back to relevance. On a personal note, I find one of the extraordinarily interesting features of the House of Lords Select Committees—no other country’s upper house can say this—is the way we can put together, partly but by no means exclusively through the Cross Benches, individuals with the highest levels of expertise, authority and standing in the subject under study. At its best, this leads to a harmonious engagement between civil servants and Ministers, who can take advantage of constructive reviews to reinforce strengths and to address weaknesses. It is like the visiting committees that well run universities bring in every couple of years to take a critical view of departments. At its best, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being involved in some things; on the other hand, at its worst, you tend to get a clash between independent expert opinion—which, admittedly, can sometimes shade into independent expert opinionatedness, but which is always eager to help—and self-satisfied bureaucratic rigidities which are resentfully dismissive of any call for change.
The saga that has already been sketched a couple of times about the taxonomy and systematics Select Committee 1 in 1992, Select Committee 2 in 2002 and Select Committee 3 in 2008 has interesting examples of the best and the worst. That brings me to the wonder and hope that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, will still be around for taxonomy and systematics Select Committee 4 in four years’ time.
Amusingly, my noble friend Lord Krebs and I appeared together as a duo on the 1992 committee. Lord Dainton’s inquiry had good outcomes, partly, but by no means wholly, because my noble friend Lord Krebs shortly afterwards took over as the chief executive of the Natural Environmental Research Council. The 2002 inquiry of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also revisited many of the things that had been promised but had not been done and had another go at things that had not been accepted. There has again been some progress. From what we have heard and what has been described—I shall not revisit this in any detail—there have been some good things and some bad things, and I shall speak to two particular bad things.
However, before I do so, let me reinforce some of the good things, but in a shaded way for one of them. The NERC is to commission a study of the state of taxonomy, including the number of taxonomists, trends, job openings and so on. This goes back to 1992, when it was called for but not done. This prompted me at the time to get together with Kevin Gaston in the Natural History Museum to produce a paper in Nature on the taxonomy of taxonomists. Part of the fault is that the taxonomy community is not as introspective as it could perhaps productively be and, shamelessly to digress, it is a community where roughly one-third of it works on vertebrates, particularly birds and mammals; roughly one-third of it works on plants of all kinds; and roughly one-third of it works on invertebrates, the small things that arguably run the world. In fact, if you use the number of species, both known and probably there but not yet known, in relation to the workforce, the workforce is out of whack with its proper job description by a factor of 10 vertebrates to plants and a factor of 100 invertebrates to vertebrates. I digress, but that is a very welcome study.
The conjunction between the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Natural History Museum to convene a dialogue on priorities for the UK systematics community is praiseworthy, as is Defra’s recognition of its proper obligation to bring the fungal collection from CABI into Kew. The commitment by NERC and SERC to web-based taxonomy has been welcomed, but, even here is a foreshadowing of the negative points on which I shall now dwell, because absent in those plans is a commitment to the associated taxonomy qua taxonomy; as, for example, simply in online identification tools.
The first of the two hobbyhorses that I wish to ride, I shall ride briefly, and it pertains to the Department for International Development. Our committee recommended in its report,
“digitisation projects that focus on the biodiversity conservation and sustainability needs of developing countries”.
This was sent to DfID’s address. The recommendation is a paraphrase of DfID’s stated priorities; that is, the sustainability needs of developing countries. In a tour de force of cognitive dissonance, DfID’s response was to reject that recommendation on the ground that it did not match its priorities. I would ask the luckless Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, whose fault it is not, whether that is one of the things that he would undertake to address in connection with DfID. The response was a little puzzling, although—I shamelessly and probably improperly digress again—I half suspect that it might be a hangover from agitated interaction between DfID and the Royal Society five years ago, when I was its president and Clare Short was the Secretary of State, over the department’s plans essentially to dismantle long-standing research collaboration with developing countries in Africa, partly on the ridiculous grounds that such tertiary education projects in countries that were in crying need of primary education were elitist and therefore taboo. That disappeared with Clare Short’s tenancy of that office, and Hilary Benn quickly righted it, but I suspect that in some dark corner of DfID is the person who rejected that recommendation.
There are two more serious, overarching themes. One of them has been referred to already, although it will not prevent me revisiting it; namely, the lack of a lead department to co-ordinate addressing issues which involve in various combinations, at the very least, six government departments: DIUS, DfID, Defra, DCMS, which funds the research in the Natural History Museum, the FCO, which is responsible for overseas territories—I could speak also about those, but I shall let them go—and Research Councils UK, which, when I had tenancy of the Office of Science and Technology, was effectively a ring-fenced entity, separate from the DTI.
The second of my concerns is the seeming lack of awareness of the nature of the subject of taxonomy and systematics, much less of its current health, within Research Councils UK more generally. Our worry about that is expressed quite trenchantly in the report. Particular emphasis was laid on the Natural Environment Research Council, whose approach we found “confused”, but there is a more general failure of co-ordination in Research Councils UK.
I return to the theme with which Professor Sutherland began by quoting from an article written by Dr Sandy Knapp in the magazine of the Linnean Society of London, in which she pointed out that the scientific world was different in the day of Charles Darwin. In those days, it was natural history. Observation and description were very much a part of mainstream science, whereas today there is often a feeling that biology means work in laboratories and testing hypotheses. We encountered that in an explicit quote from the Natural Environment Research Council, which said in response to our worries:
“Research proposals including classical taxonomic approaches may have the best chance of success if they take account of … the hypothesis testing science that typifies responsive mode grants”.
In more detail, NERC spends only about a quarter of its money on responsive mode, responding to the best proposal—blue skies; about a quarter on proposals directed in particular areas, not one of which encompasses taxonomy and systematics; and half on national capabilities, which are mainly its own institutions. That is a bit of a change from when John Cadogan was head of the Office of Science and Technology. Our aim then was that half the money should go on responsive mode. That means asking the best people to say what the best proposals are. The notion that they have to be judged against some simple-minded notion of how you do science by testing hypotheses is just plain batty. It is ignorant and it is stupid. I have lived four decades of lucky life in a variety of areas, and there is no recipe for doing science. Certainly an important ingredient is just doing descriptive things.
In conclusion, I seriously hope that the rejection of the idea of a lead department responsible for co-ordinating the various needs that we will hear more about will be yet one more time revisited and that abrupt rejection will be overturned.
Thank you very much.
I join with others to congratulate the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and the supporting staff, whom I found particularly helpful. I was very pleased to be invited by the chairman to serve as a co-opted member of a committee on systematics and taxonomy, as in my early scientific days I started off as a systematist interested in taxonomy. My particular interest was in metazoan invertebrates and their role in disease, particularly nematodes and transmitting arthropods.
The committee concluded that systematics and taxonomy are of fundamental importance to our understanding of the natural world and, I would add, to a full understanding of the threats of pathogens, their transmission and their control. These pathogens are at the periphery of our country and will come out in the tropics we know not when.
The committee also concluded that disciplines such as sequencing and taxonomy were in decline in the United Kingdom and that if that decline were allowed to continue, there would be serious consequences for the country’s ability to deliver a host of policy aims, including disease identification and surveillance of exotic threats, and an effective response to climate change, wildlife biology, and so on. We said that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take a lead role, a recommendation which was not accepted. In particular, the report identified fungal taxonomic problems. Fortunately, that has now been attended to, at least partially. My noble friend Lord Selborne has a strong association with Kew and, no doubt, will be guiding the work there.
Another area where taxonomic development is hard hit is entomology. An excellent article in the February issue of Biologist by Dr Simon Leather of Imperial College London gives a succinct analysis of the future of entomology, while one of his colleagues has written bluntly that British entomology may be on the verge of extinction. The decline has been progressive since the 1970s. Although there was only one entomological department in the United Kingdom at that time and one BSc entomology degree, at Imperial College, seven UK universities offered a degree in agricultural zoology, essentially specialising in entomology and parasitology, including plant nemotology. Now there are no entomology departments, no undergraduate entomology degrees and only one Master of Science degree in entomology, which is at Imperial College. Typically, students registered for zoology or biology degrees will cover the whole of invertebrates in 12 lectures.
Hitherto, much of the enthusiasm for entomology has been taken up by amateurs, who have often been parsons and other men of the cloth who have studied part time. Some of us will be familiar with the natural philosophy or natural biology of so-and-so in so-and-so village. Here, too, there has been a marked 35 per cent decline in membership of the Amateur Entomological Society.
When exotic disease strikes this country, as it has quite recently with bluetongue, there is a scramble for experts who can identify the transmitting insects—the Culicoides, or midges, as they are often called—to assess the vector potential of the various strains of the midge. Although we do a reasonable job, we have to rely somewhat on people on the continent of Europe to help us out. The number of species in the phylum Arthropodium is massive. Many of them are still unknown and likely to remain so until we have many more people looking at them in detail. The dearth of entomologists and the lack of entomological training are an important issue. That should be compared with the vertebrate situation where, with few exceptions, the fauna is well known, well studied and well written up.
How do we compare with other countries? The country that I know best is the United States, where I worked for 15 years. Now, with homeland security developments, it is keen to develop science across the board, including invertebrate science. For example, in the United States there are 16 universities with departments of entomology, offering Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in entomology, and an additional 22 universities that offer entomological minors.
In the United States, the major funding agencies—the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—are aware of the importance of entomology, and grant applications to these bodies in entomology, for example, are given the same scrutiny as other proposals via the section on tropical medicine and parasitology, of which I declare an interest, having been the chairman of that study group several years ago. Additionally, the US army and US navy have their funded research programmes, although I understand that the navy is closing down its research facilities.
The problems in the United Kingdom are not unique in Europe. For example, in France concern has been expressed about the shortage of medical and veterinary entomologists. At present, there are approximately 100 such people, of whom half are over 50. That indicates that recruitment is not as good as it should be.
In my opening comments, I mentioned my interest in nematodes, which includes parasitic as well as free-living and soil parasitic nematodes. Often, soil nematodes are included with arthropods—wrongly, of course; nevertheless one has to put up with it. However, as with arthropods, little is known about the free-living nematodes, except where they cause plant diseases, such as the genus Caenorhabditis, which has been used at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge in the development of a vast understanding of cell biology. As with many other invertebrates, their importance could be crucial, especially where climate change may cause changes in their populations and also in relation to their vector potential for viruses and other pathogens.
I have pointed out on more than one occasion that with parasitic nematodes, which cause disease in man and animals, the free-living stages that occur in the soil vastly outnumber the parasitic forms that occur inside animals or humans. We know so little about them but suspect much of them. An example of this suspicion, although we do not know it for certain, is their role in the genetic exchange of anti-parasitic resistance between the parasitic stages that occur in the soil.
Having been somewhat negative about science and the support for science, I am pleased to acknowledge what I consider to be an innovative project on the gene sequencing of Caenorhabditis in California, USA, in relation to these free-living forms of parasitic nematodes. It will provide a strong base for diagnosis, surveillance, the development of anti-parasitic compounds and a better understanding of drug resistance and vaccine production. As I said, much basic information has been gleaned on cell replication biology by the study of these free-living nematodes at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.
The downstream application of the genome sequence data will provide a powerful tool for the way in which we do science in the field. Especially, it will provide enhanced preparedness for potential exotic invaders. I have often said that the price of freedom from exotic infections, which is likely to increase with climate change, is constant vigilance with regard to what is going on. For constant vigilance, a stronger base of systematics and taxonomy than we have at present is needed.
I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Sutherland of Houndwood for his excellent chairmanship of the committee and for introducing the debate. I also extend my thanks to the committee secretariat and our special adviser, Professor Boxshall. As has been mentioned, I have been involved with the story of the Select Committee’s interest in taxonomy since the Dainton report, although I do not quite have the pedigree of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who has served on all three Select Committees.
Following the 1992 Dainton report, I prepared a separate report for the Natural Environment Research Council on taxonomy. I then became the chief executive of NERC and had the pleasure of implementing my own recommendations, which included the introduction of a taxonomy training initiative. I should also mention an interest as chairman of the Natural History Museum in Oxford.
I re-read my 1992 report just before the debate and the questions that we are raising now have a depressing ring of familiarity about them. It is almost as though there has been a dialogue of the deaf between the Select Committee and the taxonomy community on the one hand, and the Government on the other. I hope that the Government’s ears are open and listening today.
In my contribution I will refer to three topics, some of which have been covered but bear repeating. First, I will make a brief comment on why taxonomy matters; secondly, I will refer to the current lack of strategic vision in the UK; and, thirdly, I will speak about the role of regional museums.
In his novel The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann wrote:
“You ask what is the use of classification, arrangement, systematization. I answer you: order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject—the actual enemy is the unknown”.
Taxonomy is the science of bringing order and simplification to the bewildering diversity of the natural world. Indeed, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and father of taxonomy, liked to say:
“Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit”,
which translates as,
“God created, Linnaeus organized”.
Linnaeus based his classification on observable anatomical characteristics of plants and animals. While many present day taxonomists still rely on such features, molecular taxonomy, which relies on gene sequences, has, to a substantial degree, eclipsed the more traditional methods of determining the relationships among living organisms. Increasingly in the future, taxonomy will be based on gene sequences and be internet-based. This reality should be recognised in any future strategy for this country.
As we heard in the introductory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, classification reflects the evolutionary tree of life. This was famously enunciated in the debate in Oxford on 30 June 1860 between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley when the Bishop—described on another occasion by Disraeli as “unctuous, oleaginous and saponaceous”—asked Huxley whether he was descended from a monkey on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side. In the oft-quoted reply, Huxley said that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. One member of the audience, a certain Lady Brewster, is said to have fainted.
Thanks to modern molecular taxonomy, things have moved on. Lady Brewster would surely have fainted all over again had she read the Sun headline on 20 June 2007, “Grandad was an anchovy”. It is pretty unusual for the Sun to carry major stories about taxonomy, but this one was a blockbuster. Gene sequences have shown that an eldritch and unprepossessing fish-like sand-dwelling marine animal called amphioxus is close to the 550 million year-old common ancestor of all vertebrates, including you and me. It has many blocks of genes in common with humans, a phenomenon known as synteny.
As we have heard, taxonomy is not only intellectually exciting, it has many practical applications. Let me provide just one instance. We know from taxonomic and phylogenetic studies based on gene sequences that the virus that causes AIDS, HIV, has been transmitted to man more than once from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys, and first became established in humans in Kinshasa in the middle of the last century. Taxonomy of the AIDS virus today provides essential information for public health issues such as the spread of drug-resistant mutations and the introduction of new strains by immigration. Taxonomy of the AIDS virus also proved the innocence of Bulgarian nurses who were under a death sentence in Libya for allegedly transmitting the virus in a children’s hospital.
If taxonomy is so interesting and so important, what is the problem that has led the Select Committee to hold three inquiries in the past 17 years? The problem with taxonomy, in my view, is that it is an underpinning science for a whole host of other branches of biology. Indeed, no experimental or observational scientific paper in biology can be published without reference to taxonomy, since the author must refer to the species that he or she has studied. The fact that taxonomy is underpinning means that too many of the funders of research take it for granted or believe that it has all been done. However, as we have heard, taxonomy is by no means a completed task but a rapidly changing branch of biology. In my research career, the group of species that I have spent many decades of my life studying, the Paridae or titmice, are now designated as belonging to different genera, whereas 30 years ago when I started out on my research they all belonged to one genus.
I repeat, taxonomy is part of the infrastructure that enables biologists, whatever their field of interest, to carry out and report their work. However, while in areas such as space science, particle physics, oceanography and molecular biology the research councils and the Government accept the need to invest substantial sums in underpinning infrastructure, this is, sadly, not true of taxonomy. There simply has been and is no strategic programme of investment in research or training in taxonomy. Nor did we detect in our inquiry any associated strategic direction for the subject, although we hope that as a result of our recommendations that strategic direction should appear. All the funders of taxonomy from whom we took evidence said that they were users of taxonomy, not funders of the underpinning scientific knowledge.
We are all users of the roads and the trains, but someone has to take responsibility for building and maintaining them. The same is true of taxonomy. As we have heard, the situation is exacerbated by the lack of leadership among government departments. Although we heard claims of co-ordination, a more honest and accurate claim would be one of confusion. I hope that in his response the Minister will assure us that if we come back to this in five years the situation will have changed, there will be a strategic vision for the future of taxonomy and there will be a lead government department.
I turn now to the national and regional taxonomic collections. The major centres in the UK for taxonomic work are the natural history museums and botanical gardens. As we have heard, for historical reasons the UK has some of the world’s most important, indeed astounding, taxonomic collections, which serve as reference material for researchers all over the world and as places for taxonomic research and education. They also have—this has not yet been mentioned and I shall elaborate on it in a moment—a major role in public outreach. I shall give noble Lords some figures. The Natural History Museum in London houses an estimated 70 million specimens, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew well over 6 million, and the national museums and gardens of the devolved countries collectively also well over 6 million specimens. However, the English regional collections are also of great importance. The second largest collection in England is in Oxford, with more than 6 million specimens in the Natural History Museum and the Fielding-Druce Herbarium, and Cambridge and Manchester also have very large and important collections.
How are these institutions in England funded? Kew and the Natural History Museum in London, as we have already heard, receive grants-in-aid from Defra and DCMS, but the regional museums do not. Our recommendation 3.29 was that the Government provide continuity of funding for regional museums but the response from DCMS, in my view, was disappointingly vague. I hope that the Minister will confirm to us that DCMS will indeed provide a guaranteed continuity of funding for the regional museums in England and for the important work that they do.
I return, finally, to the role of museums and collections in education. Our recommendation 3.28 referred to the disappearance of taxonomy and biodiversity from the school curriculum. In their positive reply, the Government recognised this issue and, among other things, referred to the role of the Natural History Museum in London in providing high quality out-of-classroom learning.
I emphasise that, in addition to the Natural History Museum in London, which does a superb job, the regional museums also play a key role. I have some illustrative figures for the Natural History Museum in Oxford. It is visited by 72 per cent of the primary schools and 94 per cent of the secondary schools in the local education authority area, and the majority of these visiting groups receive a taught session from an education officer. More than 400,000 visitors arrived at the museum last year, many of them children, and more than 1 million visitors went to the website, yet the funding for this important work is very precarious. I am sure that similar figures could be produced for the other major regional museums. Again, I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government are committed to continuing their funding for educational and outreach work in regional, as well as national, museums and collections.
I end with a quotation from the late American biologist and writer, Stephen Jay Gould. In his book Wonderful Life he writes:
“Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing, with each species in its folder, like a stamp in its prescribed place in an album: but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos”.
I hope that the Minister’s reply will both be more than a dull catalogue and show how the Government intend to avoid future chaos in their approach to taxonomy.
It is a great pleasure to start the winding-up speeches at the end of this fascinating debate. As I listened, it occurred to me that, had the Minister not had such an eminent background, he might have been slightly intimidated by the galaxy of scientific talent ranged against him today, of which I count myself as very much the most junior. However, I am sure that none of them would dream of using their great gifts to obscure the truth, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.
The committee was very well served by its scientific adviser, Professor Boxshall, its Clerk, Christine Salmon Percival, and her team, and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, who today has given me a unique experience, as I never expected to hear Andy Capp debated in your Lordships’ House.
As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and others have said, the Science and Technology Committee seems to return to the issue of systematic and taxonomy with monotonous regularity. However, one should not confuse the word “monotonous” with the word “boring”. The subject matter of the report and this debate is far from boring; indeed, it relates to one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines affecting our ability to survive the threat of climate change and to mitigate the effects of man’s activities on the biodiversity of the planet. That is why we keep returning to it. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, underlined its underpinning role in many scientific disciplines, and the subtitle of my 2002 report made reference to the fact that it is the science underpinning conservation.
Maintaining the biodiversity that this generation has inherited on our blue and green planet is one of our most serious responsibilities. There are those who think it is easy and we just have to stop doing a lot of the things we are doing; there are those who think it is impossible; and there are those in the middle ground, like me, who believe that we can tackle the threat of climate change by making sensible adjustments to our lifestyle that will not cause us too much grief nor hinder the development of less developed countries, which have a right to strive to live as comfortably as we do.
We must take action to reduce emissions, of course, but at the same time we must protect the living things of this planet, living within their carefully balanced ecosystems which are so easily upset. During the past 200 to 300 years, man has upset numerous ecosystems to the extent that plants and animals living in them have suffered and even died out because we have either destroyed their habitat or modified their climate so much that they cannot survive. Unlike animals, plants cannot get up on their legs or their wings and walk or fly to the next valley, so there are particular problems with plant conservation. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the board of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, an international charity that co-ordinates the expertise available within botanic gardens to secure plant diversity according to internationally agreed priorities. By the way, I was invited to take up that post as a result of chairing the committee’s previous report on this subject in 2002.
When we talk about the conservation of any species, plant or animal, it is vital that we know what we are talking about. Scientists must be confident when they note reductions in populations that they are all talking about the same thing. The only way they can do that is by having clear, internationally agreed identification and naming criteria. Here I declare another interest as patron of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Both my interests are unpaid.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, talked about the importance of type specimens, many of which the UK holds on behalf of the world because of our rich heritage of collecting over hundreds of years.
Despite two previous reports, the report that we are discussing highlights two key matters that are still outstanding: first, the lack of awareness of the state of health of the discipline among the relevant research councils, and, secondly, the lack of a lead government department, leading to the danger of poor co-ordination. As our specialist adviser, Professor Geoffrey Boxshall, has pointed out, these two issues interact to give a compound negative effect.
I am pleased to welcome the Government’s acceptance of the first issue and the announcement that NERC will commission a study this year of the current number of taxonomists and trends. However, once we have that report to hand, it is unclear who will act upon it if there is no lead department. The Government seem to believe that diffuse responsibility would be better than the transfer of the lead responsibility to DIUS, as the committee recommended. In my view, that will lead only to numerous interdepartmental meetings in an attempt to co-ordinate action, whereas it could be done much more efficiently by one department—that is, the department that has the responsibility for the initial and ongoing training of taxonomists through universities and other institutions. If the Government want endless meetings, so be it. A life of endless meetings seems to suit some people but I am afraid it does not suit me if there is a better way.
We are not suggesting that there should be no responsibility in any other department—that would be nonsense. Defra, for example, should have a great interest in the matter as well as the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and we have made recommendations to DfID. But we note that, in co-ordinating the Government’s response to our report, DIUS did not even consult the Scottish Government, who fund the RBG Edinburgh, the third largest taxonomic institution in the UK, as mentioned by our noble Scottish chairman. So it is no wonder that we view diffuse responsibility with some suspicion.
However, if the Government are adamant that they will not designate DIUS as the lead department, they will not be surprised when this Committee keeps a very close eye on what happens to the findings of the NERC report and asks a lot of questions. Can the Minister say how it will be decided which department will have the responsibility of ensuring that any recommendations by NERC are carried out? Indeed, will NERC be making any recommendations, or will it simply present the Government with the facts of the decline of the discipline, which this Committee has already done three times?
I turn now to the serious matter of stimulating the recruitment of taxonomists, of which there is a serious shortage. We must not be misled by some of the figures that appeared during our investigations. For example, of the PhDs under way at RBG Kew, its evidence showed that only 15 of the 80 projects included a substantial amount of descriptive taxonomy. The Government’s response to our report stated that from 2002 to 2006, 83 of the PhD studentships funded by NERC included elements of systematics and taxonomy. I strongly suspect that these were very small elements and that very few of them helped to produce expert taxonomists. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, gave examples of the negative consequences of this among entomologists.
One of the Committee’s most serious complaints was about the lack of awareness at research council level of the problems of taxonomy, and I make no apology for returning to this issue. We welcome the forthcoming NERC study but it is vital that it makes an effort to not only count taxonomists but to understand how they work. As the noble Lord, Lord May, pointed out, the lack of proportionality between taxonomists and the living things they study is outstanding.
As an illustration of the lack of understanding with which taxonomists have been dealing, I should like to quote from an e-mail received yesterday by the Committee’s clerk from Dr Henry Disney of the University of Cambridge. He complained that,
“NERC still fails to understand the way a leading specialist in alpha taxonomy works. This remains a major reason for the current decline in fundamental alpha taxonomy. As a recognized leading specialist on a large family of flies … I am representative of those who are unable to procure funding from NERC because of their inappropriate criteria”,
a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord May. The e-mail continues:
“The demand for the PRIOR specification of hypotheses to be tested when one applies for funding to revise a taxon means one has to do much research first in order to generate the hypotheses to be tested. Who funds this prior research? Furthermore, part of being recognized as a leading specialist is that the unexpected constantly arrives in the post … In practice I am obliged to routinely reject most requests which lack novel biological data or are not specimens of applied significance. Even so I have a 20-year backlog of randomly collected specimens. I concentrate on the processing of specimens with novel biological material. Since 1984 I have been funded entirely by private trusts … as NERC routinely rejects applications for undertaking fundamental alpha taxonomy. My current funding for 2008/2009 is £500 only! Despite this I have the highest publication rate and the largest number of co-authors … from the largest number of countries overseas, of anyone in my Department—the Leading Department of Zoology in the country”.
Dr Disney’s funding came from the Leverhulme and the Isaac Newton trusts, and the Wingate Foundation—all charitable organisations, like my own BGCI. So I am surprised and dismayed that the Government, who rejected our recommendation in paragraph 7.6, should give assistance and leadership to voluntary organisations and action in their efforts to fill the gaps.
In other respects, the Government response paints too rosy a picture. For example, the committee recommended that more resources should go into web-based taxonomy and that a road map should be developed to ensure correct priorities. In their response, the Government refer to NERC’s extensive use of internet resources for biodiversity. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, pointed out, most of this relates to biodiversity data, geographical data, lists of species, and so on—it does not relate to taxonomy per se. Without the development of online identification tools, which was the committee’s point, such data cannot be collected or relied upon, so the Government must be realistic about this.
I share the regret of the noble Lord, Lord May, that DfID does not regard it as part of its responsibility to the less developed countries, many of which are biodiversity-rich but cash-poor, to support online resources. That would help them to develop their home-grown capacity and expertise, and their ability to identify, monitor and conserve their own rich biodiversity. Many of the plants most in danger are used for food, medicine, shelter and warmth, so they must be protected from overharvesting and habitat destruction.
DfID no doubt believes that human beings are its major responsibility. If that is the case, it should remember that human beings live in habitats and ecosystems too. If we, by our actions or neglect, destroy our habitat and other living participants in our ecosystem, we sign our own death warrant. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, our enemy is the unknown.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and his committee and welcome their work on systematic biology and taxonomy, which has reminded us of the importance of taxonomical skills. How appropriate that this debate should take place in the year of the bicentenary of the birth of Darwin, who was responsible for arguably the most fundamental revolution in taxonomy. He took it from a finite science to one which recognised the evolution of species. My noble friend Lord Selborne spoke of the ongoing importance of the collection and classification of specimens which evolution, among other things, makes so important. Indeed, it was Darwin who really showed us that homology of one organism with another was about both structure and derivation from a common ancestor.
While this field does not often grab much parliamentary attention, it is very important that we give due consideration to these matters. My noble friend Lord Selborne said that some people might think that the committee was obsessed with this subject. Thank goodness somebody is because the scientific process of classifying organisms and understanding their relationships is fundamentally necessary to meaningful comparative research into the natural world. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said that it underpinned much of biological work. He described it, very eloquently, as the infrastructure. It provides invaluable data to help with the conservation of species and, indeed, entire ecosystems. As the report says, it underpins understanding of how large-scale events such as climate change and global health threats affect the world, and my noble friend Lord Soulsby has explained his concerns in the area of entomology in particular.
I am sure that Members of the Committee will join me in paying tribute to those people who work tirelessly in the fields of taxonomy and systematics, too often for inadequate recognition. It is because of that that we welcome the Government’s response to a number of the committee’s conclusions and recommendations.
In large part, the Government have said that they agree with the committee’s recommendations. For example, they recognise, as do we, that a decline in taxonomy and systematics in the United Kingdom has an adverse knock-on effect on related research in policy areas such as conservation, the monitoring of climate change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others have said, and food security.
The report recommends—I think all noble Lords will support the proposal—that importance is attached to field trips and other practical exercises in schools, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Sutherland, referred, which raise awareness, understanding and early enthusiasm for taxonomy. I hope that the Minister will agree that schools and schoolchildren should be encouraged, for many reasons, to participate in this kind of activity. What steps are the Government taking to remove the fear of the compensation culture which, by frustrating efforts to organise outdoor field trips, may well stifle enthusiasm for science and the development of an early interest in taxonomy? As the report rightly points out, it is the school pupils who gain an interest in these fields who will go on to be future volunteers, creating invaluable involvement in biological recording. My noble friend Lord Soulsby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, have lamented the state of university-level study in this area too.
While I accept that the Government have a point when they say that responsibility for encouraging volunteering in a sector lies primarily with that sector itself, I fear that they are being a touch disingenuous in distancing themselves so fully from the report’s recommendation that they should show leadership in encouraging volunteers. The Government have a role to play here and, as the noble Lords, Lord May and Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, among others, have said with some force, what is currently lacking is any sense that the Government are co-ordinating their own departments properly.
This brings me to the Government’s response to the recommendation that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take the lead in co-ordinating matters relating to systematic biology. I accept that there will be a need for different departments to be involved but, like the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, I fear that the Government’s response is a trifle unhelpful. The committee’s recommendation would not preclude the involvement of different government departments but it would allow for one department to co-ordinate activity, investment and information exchange among the others. A reduction in lost or duplicated material would surely be almost inevitable in such a scenario. Like the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, I wonder if the Minister could not reflect again on his Government’s response.
Having said that, I urge some caution in promoting the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills as it is currently configured as the lead department. The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report, published in January and based on DIUS’s first departmental report, was somewhat less than glowing. The opinion of the committee was that the department,
“has not yet found its feet”.
I hope it was not government embarrassment over this that led to their rejection of the Science Committee’s recommendation for departmental leadership.
While my noble friend Lord Selborne referred to it in his contribution today when he talked about the prioritisation of effort, I noticed no reference to Europe in the Government’s response. What effort, if any, are they making to co-ordinate work on taxonomy and systematics with our fellow members of the EU? Other noble Lords have referred to co-ordination with Scotland and my noble friend Lord Soulsby mentioned the importance of the United States in this field, particularly in entomology. Again, it would be interesting to know what co-operation was going on across the Atlantic.
We on these Benches realise that the critical importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to our economy and our society means that improvement in our national performance in those subjects must be central to a future Conservative Government’s policies. The report indicates that we have some form on this, in that it refers back to its own predecessor, Systematic Biology Research, published in 1992, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, referred and which my noble friend Lord Selborne said he was jointly responsible for. That report served to stimulate several measures that were implemented during the term of office of a Conservative Government, including the Natural Environment Research Council’s taxonomy initiative and the Wellcome Trust biodiversity initiative. The report acknowledges that those initiatives of the early 1990s were successful and that their contribution is still felt today. I recognise and welcome the resources that the present Government have made available in past years for the promotion of science, but it would be encouraging indeed if they were to use the current report as a springboard for fresh initiatives which would secure the United Kingdom’s standing in this area for another generation.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for securing this debate and for leading the committee in producing this report. I am grateful to him and to his colleagues for their recommendations. The report has not only focused the Government’s attention on this vital scientific discipline—an underpinning infrastructure, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, described it—but given me a chance to hear further the committee’s insights into, and views on, systematics and taxonomy. I recognise, as my noble friend Lord Haskel said, that there is no stone which can resist the constant drip-drip-drip of its constructive advice. I am certainly listening to the committee’s concerns and I shall take action.
It is the Government’s aim to ensure that this country maintains its position as a leading science nation. Systematics and taxonomy are important to the research base, and we are committed to protecting and strengthening them. They are, as the noble Lords, Lord Soulsby and Lord Krebs, said, essential underpinnings to work on biodiversity, understanding ecosystem services and climate change. I was struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, about the value of sheer intellectual curiosity. In our efforts to develop a wider understanding of science in our community and a scientifically literate society, the communication of the power within science—of the power of curiosity about things, asking why they are as they are and going further to try to understand them—is vital.
This science has important economic aspects, too, of which I give just one example. UK taxonomists helped to identify the mealy bug attacking cassava in Africa and its natural enemy in South America. Their discovery led to savings of up to $20 billion.
The impact of this area on public attitudes to science is also vital. I have in mind the great public interest in the national collections. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about the importance of field trips in science education, which we are actively encouraging within the Government. I share his concern about the development of the compensation culture in our society, which make such trips more difficult to organise than they would otherwise be.
We accept that the Government have an important role in encouraging volunteering in this area, and we are pursuing it. I am happy to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about DCMS funding of regional museums. DCMS allocates £45 million to regional museums through the Renaissance in the Regions programme. That funding is committed for the remainder of the current spending period. The DCMS is also committed to funding the strategic commissioning education programme for this period, which I hope gives the reassurance that the noble Lord sought.
I listened carefully to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord May, about the cognitive dissonance between the stated priorities of DfID. I shall look at the matter again and discuss it with my colleagues from that department.
I also accept the concerns expressed by a number of noble Lords relating to the failure to consult fully, particularly on the collection in Scotland. Scotland has an excellent research record in taxonomy and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has a high international standing. We were originally confident in the preparation of our response to the committee’s report that the state of the discipline in Scotland was covered, but we have taken the point on board.
We have accepted 20 of the 25 recommendations produced by the committee. We agree that within these recommendations the internet will play an important role in the evolution of taxonomy. I have noted in the debate today the concern about whether or not we have missed an important point on the full potential of web-based resources, in particular in relation to taxonomy tools. I will take this back to the department and look into it further. Most importantly, we note the concerns that have been expressed by the committee around the lines of communication between the taxonomy community and the research councils. The committee has helpfully highlighted the concern in this area and I shall explore it further.
I am also grateful that the committee has given credit where it is due and has noted the progress that we have made. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for highlighting the cross-research council programme of living with environmental change. This is an example of the excellent work which the research councils are doing in working across disciplines. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, made a point about international collaboration. That programme has been looked at very closely by the American Administration as a model for the way in which this area should be addressed.
The committee voiced serious concerns about the health and sustainability of the discipline, and this is of concern to the Government. That is why the forthcoming review being carried out by NERC is extremely important. It will give us the data that we need for a stronger evidence base upon which to make future decisions. It will be led by an expert committee and the review will seek a better understanding of the responsibilities among the various UK institutions which cover taxonomy. The committee will examine which aspects of NERC’s four-year strategy will require new taxonomic knowledge and skills and will make recommendations on how these needs will be met. It will also look at the key issues in taxonomic research which could attract research council funding and which could make a fundamental contribution to both UK science and our society. It will be a thorough review. I hope that reassures the Committee about the Government’s commitment to sustaining systematic biology and taxonomy in this country. The review will include the recommendation of mechanisms for collaborative operations across departments and disciplines.
Following completion of the review, we will look again at whether there is a compelling case for there to be a lead department for this discipline. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked how this would be delivered. I would point to the recent innovation of the creation of the new Science and Innovation Sub-Committee. My role as Science Minister and a seat in the Cabinet provide an opportunity for cross-departmental issues to be addressed and for decisions to be taken. That is the mechanism by which it will be done. At this point, I am unsure as to whether locating responsibility in a single department such as DIUS would be an appropriate solution. However, I am prepared to look at the matter again, based on the data which come out of the NERC review.
It is important to recognise, as Members of the Committee do, that DIUS does not have overall responsibility for particular areas of science. Funding specific activities in the research base through the science and research budget is the responsibility of the department. However, it is important to stress our belief in the crucial centrality of the Haldane principle—that decisions relating to funding are made by the scientific community—and the importance of the independence of the research council.
I noted that the committee regards the concerns around this underpinning infrastructure of the science of taxonomy to be of fundamental strategic importance. I accept that DIUS has a clear role in providing strategic guidance, and therefore I can see the argument that, where there are problems, this may be one of those areas where, in DIUS’s role as championing UK science and in my role as Science Minister, it is DIUS’s responsibility to take action.
In conclusion, I remind noble Lords that in the great majority of recommendations the Government and the committee are in agreement. We have accepted them in large part and are busy implanting them. We both want to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of this discipline internationally, and I am grateful for the committee’s assessment that, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, described it, significant progress has been made. However, I take the point that over the 17-year period in which a number of reviews have taken place in this discipline, there are areas where, as the noble Lord said, we could do better.
Further work is now needed to establish the structures that will support that ambition, based on data which will be generated from the review. I am clear that, with continued prompting from this committee, we can expect further developments from the Government in this area.
I shall read Hansard to see whether there are any questions that noble Lords have raised this afternoon that I have not answered. In particular, I think that it would be useful for me to give a full description of the international collaborations that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, asked for, both transatlantically and within Europe, and I shall ensure that that is done by the department.
I simply thank all those who have taken part. The quality of the debate demonstrates very well what a rare privilege it is to be chairman of such a committee and such a group in preparing this kind of report. Perhaps it is going too far to say that the expertise and interest around the table is matchless, but I can say for sure that they would be pretty hard to match.
I also thank the Minister for his sympathetic and informed reply. It was, dare I say, of the kind that we might hope for from a former member of the Select Committee. We appreciate his comments and will study them in Hansard.
The message is very clear: these disciplines are of fundamental importance for science, for the nation and for the Government. We have national strengths in these areas—talented people and outstanding collections—but both might be at risk if we do not take action on a systematic and long-term basis. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction.
In conclusion, I do not know whether the Minister ever saw the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” but in that film Butch and Sundance—Paul Newman and Robert Redford—were bank robbers fleeing the forces of law and order. I do not press the analogy too closely but they are fleeing the forces of law and order over desert and mountain. However, the forces of law and order continue to pursue them. At one point, they turn round and one says to the other, “Who are these guys?”. The answer in this case will clearly be Selborne, Walmsley, Soulsby, Krebs and May, who have already been at it for 17 years and will, I hope, be ably supported by those of us who are rather newer to the game.
Committee adjourned at 6.34 pm.