UK Taxonomy & Systematics Review Published

The inquiry into taxonomy and systematic biology by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee found that the discipline is in crisis and more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline. Following the inquiry the committee recommended that NERC undertake a study to identify opportunities for improving the prospects of the profession. This study has now been published accompanied by a strategy to ensure sustainability of the profession in the long term.

The review was in three main parts; the current status and trends in taxonomy including research into funding sources, the numbers of taxonomists, trends in the numbers, sources of young skilled staff and gaps in taxonomic expertise, future needs in taxonomy including identification of the elements of NERC’s strategy ‘Next Generation Science for Planet Earth’ that will require taxonomic knowledge, elements of taxonomy that could attract research council funding and elements of taxonomic work requiring the most funding for development, and finally an assessment of operational requirements. Accompanying the review a set of strategic recommendations for the future development of taxonomy and systematic in the UK was also published.

The report found that there are around 1100 active taxonomists in the UK, over half of whom are involved in identification of specimens working in industry, government and academia. Surprisingly they found no evidence for an aging skills base within the professional taxonomy sector, however there is some evidence that the skills base is aging in the voluntary sector. Taxonomists involved in descriptive, delimiting and revisionary studies are not being replaced by universities, leading to a decline in overall numbers. Funding for taxonomic studies comes from a variety of sources both national and international including government departments. Worryingly universities are failing to provide suitably trained graduates and postgraduates for jobs in the commercial biostratigraphy and environmental consultancy sectors. Importantly the study found that although voluntary taxonomists are important for the delivery of government policy they cannot replace professionals.

The review led to a list of over 20 recommendations being published which will ensure that the profession of taxonomy will remain sustainable into the future. These include:
1. Development of a UK Taxonomy Co-ordination Committee (TCC) to review the National Strategy in Taxonomy and Systematics, and monitor levels of investment in taxonomy.
2. A study should be undertaken to determine whether the distribution of the UK’s taxonomic collections is the most efficient for today’s needs
3. As part of a co-ordinated global programme major taxonomic organisations should take the responsibility for leading the provision of resources for particular taxa.
4. NERC should continue to support PhD training in taxonomy and assess the consequences of its recent decision to stop supporting taught masters.
5. NERC should explore whether lack of training opportunities is the reason for the difficulty in recruiting trained taxonomists by environmental consultancies and the skill deficit in micropalaeontology.
6. Provision of small grants for volunteer scientists and recognition of their contributions by learned societies and other bodies should be encouraged.
7. The TCC should bring together the UK taxonomic community to list and prioritise time-limited major research programmes or “grand challenges” that would advance UK taxonomy and systematics.
8. NERC and BBSRC (and where relevant MRC) should ensure their support of taxonomy is coordinated and complementary.