LONDON--Explorers such as Charles Darwin won fame for bringing exotic plants and animals back to England for classification and cataloging. But now, the field of taxonomy itself is in danger of dying in Britain, says a report released 16 May by the British House of Lords. The imminent demise threatens international conservation efforts, the committee warns.
Later this year, Prime Minister Tony Blair will lead the U.K. delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. In preparation, 11 members of the House of Lords' science and technology committee convened in December 2001 to hear evidence from experts and determine whether systematic biology--the science that identifies, names, and uncovers relationships between living things--is in decline.
It is. Since 1992, funding for systematic biology at major research institutions in the United Kingdom has dropped between 15% and 25%--a drop of about $21 million a year, the report found. Furthermore, funding bodies have increasingly favored subdisciplines in systematics that use new molecular and genetic research to uncover evolutionary relationships over the subdiscipline of taxonomy--which focuses on identifying and naming organisms--expert witnesses told the committee. The committee also found that taxonomists aren't getting any younger. "The leading experts in many species are [in Britain], but they're getting old," says report chair Joan Walmsley of the House of Lords.
The decline of taxonomy and systematic biology is potentially disastrous for conservation work, the report warns. If the trend continues, says Paul Henderson, director of science at the Natural History Museum in London, "there isn't going to be the expertise in the future that can identify the world's diversity." Without good taxonomic information, conservationists can't properly monitor species or implement conservation plans.
The committee calls for funding levels to be returned to 1992 amounts(adjusted for inflation), priorities to be set for future systematic biology work, and a pilot study to put taxonomic information online, among other recommendations. Walmsley expects that recommendations will get a fair hearing in Parliament. But saving the field will take more than money, she says. Taxonomy, which evokes images of white-haired scientists examining dusty museum specimens, needs a makeover. Young people need to get the message that "it's very exciting work," says Walmsley.
Report can be found online at