HL Deb 12 July 2002 vol 637 cc916-52

1.10 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

rose to call attention to the agenda for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in the light of the report of the Science and Technology Committee What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation (3rd Report, HL Paper 118), and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it was a great honour to be asked to chair Sub-Committee I of the Science and Technology Select Committee of your Lordships' House and it is a pleasure to introduce today's debate on our report, What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation.

I am grateful that we have had a chance to debate the report before the Earth summit in Johannesburg although, because it is a Friday, many noble Lords who would have wished to make a contribution are unable to do so. Although the Government have not yet had the opportunity of giving their considered response to the report, the committee felt that in light of the relevance of our report to the forthcoming Earth summit, which will be attended by the Prime Minister and for which the British delegation is preparing itself, we wanted an opportunity of emphasising to the Government our main areas of concern.

We are most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, for responding on behalf of DEFRA. Our report calls on DEFRA to do a number of things. Ten years ago, just before the Rio summit on biodiversity, the Select Committee under the late Lord Dainton reported on the situation of systematic biology research in this country. Systematic biology is the science of identifying and naming living things and determining their evolutionary relationships with other organisms, living and dead. Lord Dainton's committee was responding to concerns that systematic biology was suffering from poor financial support, particularly in relation to grant in aid funding to the major systematic institutions. The committee reported a very sorry situation and highlighted the dangers to the ability of the British systematic community to respond to the demands made on it. A number of short-term measures to stimulate systematic biology were introduced following the Dainton report. The Natural Environment Research Council developed a taxonomy initiative and the Wellcome Trust set up a biodiversity initiative. The UK Systematic Forum was established. All of those schemes had a beneficial effect on the sector but they were fixed term and have now finished.

The Dainton report laid great emphasis on the importance of the great collections, which are the result of our imperial past and the enthusiasm and expertise of British amateur and professional biologists over two or three centuries. The recommendation of Lord Dainton's committee to maintain government grant in aid funding to the great collections in real terms was envisaged as ensuring that they would be well maintained for the benefit of biologists in Britain and around the world. The government of the day accepted the recommendations of the Dainton report.

Since then, successive governments have launched many conservation initiatives and undertaken major international obligations in relation to biodiversity, most notably the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—otherwise known as CITES—both of which were entered into at the first Earth summit at Rio. All of this has meant an even greater need for the knowledge and expertise of our systematists.

Worries were raised with the current Select Committee towards the end of last year that the systematic community was still facing many of the same problems outlined 10 years ago. We decided to do a follow-up report, looking at whether the situation identified by Lord Dainton and his committee had improved or worsened. We felt that the matter is even more vital today than it was in 1992 and we felt a duty to find out whether the government had done what they undertook to do. We therefore set out to establish whether systematic biology is in decline in the United Kingdom, and why; clarify whether it matters, and what impact it has on the conservation of biodiversity; and identify what action, if any, is required.

Our committee was blessed with the assistance of a very able and dedicated group of people. Our specialist adviser, Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, gave us an enormous amount of wise counsel on factual matters and helped us identify who we needed to hear from; I am most grateful to her. Our staff team was absolutely wonderful. Their genuine interest in the subject, their good humour in arranging our hearings and their patience over our deliberations were beyond the call of duty. I hope and believe that they enjoyed working on the report and obtained considerable satisfaction from the positive response of the scientific community to the result. I thank them very warmly for their hard and effective work.

I would also like to thank my colleagues on the committee for their patience with me, a "first-timer" in the chair of a sub-committee. They guided me in the right direction, asked extremely perceptive questions and generated very lively and stimulating debate.

The report is the result of evidence from many eminent people, all of them experts in their field; the committee is very grateful to all of them. As a very basically qualified biologist myself, I was often awed, during our investigations, to be in the same room as half a dozen of the world's greatest experts in various species and genera. It was also amazing for me to hold in my hand a glass jar bearing a label with the signature of Charles Darwin. I was in the presence of legends, both living and dead, a good deal of the time during this work.

It is always invidious to pick out a few from many helpful people. However, we received particular help from the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew—both of which we visited—and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, which we were sadly unable to visit because of time constraints. The noble Lord, Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society and one of the recent eminent Cross Bench additions to your Lordships' House, was also very helpful and gave evidence to us. We talked to scientists, academics, research councils, learned societies, politicians, civil servants, representatives of museums and gardens, NGOs and international bodies; all of them were unstinting with their knowledge and patience.

In the end we came to the conclusion that the threats to the science of systematic biology in this country are still severe. We concluded that it does matter, more so today than ever before, because of the greater and more pressing threats to the biodiversity of the earth. We have made a number of serious recommendations, to which we sincerely hope the Government will respond.

Why do we conclude that the threats still exist? We found that despite signing CBD and CITES, among other international agreements, grant in aid from successive governments to the major UK systematic biology institutions has declined in real terms over the past 10 years by between 15 and 27 per cent in real terms. That is putting the quality of curation of this priceless heritage and invaluable scientific resource at risk. It is also limiting the ability of these great institutions to respond to the challenges and opportunities that modern technology brings for them to share, via the Internet, their unique collections with the rest of the world, in particular those countries that are cash poor and biodiversity rich.

We found that systematic biology is in what some would regard as terminal decline in our universities. Many of our most knowledgeable systematists are approaching retirement and, despite efforts at succession planning, not enough younger scientists are finding the jobs that will give them the chance to develop the same level of expertise. Difficult decisions are having to be made about abandoning work on whole genera. When that expertise is lost and those work programmes are halted, it will cost a great deal more to replace them, if that can ever be done at all.

Evidence was given to us that few universities have a serious taxonomy department. Lord Dainton referred to systematic biology in British universities as being, in danger of extinction as a sustainable discipline". Evidence from Universities UK and the 2001 research assessment exercise supported our conclusion, from replies to our questionnaires, that the situation has worsened. Reported declines were from 10 to 14 per cent. There has been some success in developing masters courses in the past decade but students find it difficult to pursue a research career in taxonomy beyond that because there are few PhD scholarships and post-doctoral positions available. The work that identifies and describes organisms, sometimes called "alpha taxonomy", was under the greatest threat. We put that down to the difficulty of finding the money for the posts for taxonomic work and for equipment needed for the modern techniques that assist today's systematic biologists to identify specimens and reach conclusions about their relationship to other known living things.

In Darwin's day, identification was carried out simply on the basis of the morphology of individual specimens and populations, with the assistance of a hand lens or a light microscope. Today, advances in identification and the understanding of the evolutionary relationship have been invigorated by advances in molecular biology and gene sequencing technology. But it all relies on expensive equipment and the ability of scientists to use the Internet and share information, which requires costly computers and software.

The shining light among all the gloom was the Darwin Initiative. It was set up in 1992 with the objective of helping to safeguard the world's biodiversity by drawing on the UK's strengths in that area to assist countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources and expertise. We heard that the work of the initiative is universally recognised as having been of enormous value. But although the remit has broadened over time, the budget of £3 million per year has not increased with inflation.

As I mentioned earlier, we set out to discover whether all that mattered, and concluded that it did. It matters in a moral sense and a selfish sense. We concluded that systematic biology provides a vital contribution to pure knowledge of the living world. That is of value in itself, but it also provides a significant resource for conservationists. A flourishing systematic biology sector is also vital for identification of species with beneficial medicinal uses, in pest control and veterinary medicine, fish farming, horticulture and in identifying indicator species that help us to monitor environmental change.

A great milestone in the history of global conservation was reached with the agreements made in 1992. The treaties agreed at Rio were in response to growing awareness of the damage man has done and continues to do to the other living creatures with which we share the planet. Wrong in itself, such damage is also short-sighted because in the end it will disadvantage man himself. In the few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution man has damaged the environment to such an extent as to hasten the extinction of hundreds of species. Unfortunately, since we do not know how many species we had to start with, we have little idea of what we have lost, how those losses have impacted on populations of remaining species and what potential value to mankind has been lost with them.

While production and wealth have grown at an unprecedented rate in some parts of the world, one third of humanity remains locked in grinding poverty, unable to secure adequate sustenance today, let al one a promising future tomorrow. Furthermore, our ability to address these problems is increasingly threatened by the degradation of the environment on which all of humanity, rich and poor, depends. The loss of natural resources, changes in climate and weather patterns, rising sea levels, decline of fish stocks, pollution and soil degradation will affect us all ultimately, but it is the poor who will initially pay a disproportionate price. That is why the summit scheduled to take place later this year at Johannesburg is the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Its agenda has clear links with that of its predecessor held at Rio.

However. the scientists most vital to identifying the effects on the biomass of man's activities, by identifying the species that make up living populations, are systematic biologists. Those scientists are vital to the actions that still need to he taken to implement the good intentions that came out of Rio and the good intentions likely to come out of Johannesburg.

Of the 11 action points in the World Wide Fund for Nature's wish list for the UK delegation in Johannesburg, at least five concerning sustainable timber, fisheries, fresh water arid the marine environment will require a flourishing UK systematic biology community. And that is only part of one NGO's wish list.

It became clear to us during our deliberations that, while it is both impossible and probably unnecessary to have a complete inventory of the earth's species in order to assist in meaningful conservation, we know worryingly little about some very important taxa. We heard estimates of between 5 and 13 million for the number of species there are in total on the earth; yet only 1.7 million have been described. We know a lot about the flowering plants and vertebrate animals but, even for those groups, estimates vary from one expert to another.

I recently read a new estimate of the number of species of flowering plants made by David Bramwell, a fellow student of mine at Liverpool University in the 1960s and now the director of the botanical gardens at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. He believes that past estimates of 300,000 species are about 40 per cent too low and that 50,000 species remain to be discovered. Others may disagree with him. People are always revising such estimates.

Despite the fact that one of the four aims of the CBD was to indicate species under threat of extinction, the convention of the parties to the CBD identified what it called a "taxonomic impediment" to the achievement of its aim due to a global lack of expertise in systematic biology. Yet the need for that knowledge is urgent and growing. We still have it here in the UK and must preserve it, but not like a desiccated specimen in a herbarium. Rather it needs to be a lively flourishing science taking advantage of all modern techniques.

The World Conservation Union recently reported that 24 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are considered to be globally threatened. Since that organisation's previous assessment in 1996, the number of critically endangered species has increased—a stark warning of the urgent need for action to conserve biodiversity before it is too late. And those are the groups of organisms about which we know most. We heard during the course of our work that we do not know nearly enough about the copepods in the marine biomass that are so important to the food chain in the sea and the fungi on land that are so important to soil fertility, to name just two under-investigated groups.

So what needs to change? We believe that the UK has a particular responsibility in the world, because it is a comparatively rich country with a great deal of expertise in the field and because of the heritage of the great collections cared for by our botanical gardens, universities and museums. Our proposals are addressed both to the Government and to the systematic community itself.

To the Government we have proposed that grant-in-aid funding needs to return to the level of 1992 in real terms, as the government of the day indicated to Lord Dainton that it would, so that the great collections can be preserved. They are not just of historic value but are used every day by biologists all over the world and cannot be replaced. We also recommend that the Government develop and publish a clear, concise summary of their policy on biodiversity conservation activity in the UK and on the international stage.

We believe that it is good to talk. So, in recognition that funds are limited and priorities have to be identified, we recommend that DEFRA takes the lead in setting up a body with the express purpose of bringing together representatives of government departments, ecologists, conservationists and systematic biologists to identify priority areas where taxonomic research is most needed in order to implement government policy on conservation and for other national purposes such as health and agriculture.

We recommend that the systematic community looks seriously at how it can digitise the collections and share information and agreed species' names and descriptions on the Internet. We suggest that a pilot scheme with some priority species be initiated under the auspices of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility of which the UK is a member. That will serve to preserve the information and repatriate it to the countries from which many of the specimens came. It will assist with the development by those countries of knowledge of their own biodiversity which will help them in developing both economically and sustainably. However, it will also serve to improve the image of systematic biology that has suffered from an image of anorak-clad scientists poring over disintegrating specimens in dusty archives. I know that that is not true, but the rest of the world does not.

We also recommend that systematists increase their efforts to demonstrate the relevance and importance of their own discipline, particularly in the presence of the funding councils. We also published recommendations as to how the funding councils themselves can respond to the plight of this vital enabling science. We would like to see the funding for the splendid Darwin initiative increased. It has proved its success and has potential for a great deal more. We would like to see the Darwin initiative's budget earmarked for projects with a significant taxonomic component to help build taxonomic capacity in developing countries, including projects to digitise UK-based collections.

The noble Lord, Lord May of Oxford, is very disappointed that he is unable to be with us today as he is busy admitting new fellows. He wrote: This careful and thoughtful report is hugely important. I most strongly endorse both of the Select Committee's basic recommendations. First, we simply need more people and more financial support for the basic task of identifying and cataloguing the diversity of life on earth … Second, the report deserves to be influential in its advocacy for digitising collections in systematic biology at a faster rate than currently prevails". I am grateful to the noble Lord for his endorsement.

The noble Lord also told me that a study group of fellows of the Royal Society and other interested people has already been set up to evaluate scientifically the variety of methods used to measure biodiversity status and to assess their efficacy for conservation and development.

I await with great interest what the noble Baroness the Minister is about to tell us concerning the Government's initial response to the report. A partnership between the Government and the scientific community is needed now in order to address the problems we have identified.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in September will be attended by many interested parties, including heads of state. Our own Prime Minister was the first to commit to attend. I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to the issues of conservation and trust that his government will respond positively to the recommendations we have made. Without UK systematists, no commitments that the Government make at Johannesburg can be delivered. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

1.31 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness on moving this debate. As she said, it is the first time that she has led a sub-group of this committee, and I congratulate her on her contemporary style. I believe that we all related to it very well. I also congratulate her on the way that she publicised our report. The extensive press coverage is, indeed, a tribute to her efforts. I express my congratulations, too, to our clerk, Rebecca Neal. The lucidity of our report very much reflects her hard work. I also give my thanks to our special adviser for her guidance.

How many times have your Lordships seen Romeo and Juliet? Is it eight, 10 or 12 times? I saw a performance while we were working on this report. It was then that I became aware of the full meaning of Friar Lawrence's first speech. Noble Lords may remember that he enters collecting plants and speaks of their value to human health.

Within the infant rind of this weak flower Poison hath residence, arid medicine power". But he goes on to speak about the earth and how it is nature's mother. He continues: O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies In plants, herbs, stones and their true qualities; For naught so vile that on the earth doth live But to the earth some special good doth give". This report is about listing the true qualities of the plants, herbs and stones so that we can eventually know the special good that each doth give. Words such as "biodiversity" cannot match the elegance of Shakespeare's rhyming couplets. But our argument is: how can this biodiversity be protected if there is no record of what on the earth doth give?

As the noble Baroness explained, in the 10 years since your Lordships last looked at the matter of systematic biology, we have found that, during that time, funding has been reduced. Whereas once there were hundreds of specialists doing such work, there are now only a few dozen, and there seems to be a feeling of crisis.

The causes seem to be both a lack of resources and, as the noble Baroness said, the perceived dullness of the subject. Cataloguing and recording differences between varieties of plants and insects is probably not the most exciting area of science, nor one where world-shaking discoveries are likely to be made. Therefore, it is unlikely to attract the spotlight. Equally, the scientists in the field have done little to reverse that; nor have they made their work more accessible through digitalisation.

But that does not detract from the importance of their work. As Professor Charles Godfray of Imperial College said: It is an enabling science. It does not itself generate new ideas. It provides a vital database". Systematic biology could indeed be suffering from a lack of glamour. But in no way should the Minister allow that to detract from its importance.

That is a lesson that we are currently learning in many areas—not least in business. The lesson is that sustainable long-term success is far more likely to be enjoyed by businesses and organisations which are strong on dull qualities. Of course, we shall always celebrate individual achievement, and we all admire the talented stars and the celebrity executives. But research and experience have shown us that, over five or 10-year periods, the best performers were not those stars but often the rather dull organisations that carefully built up their teams, fostered a culture of discipline, self-belief and realism, and used technology, not for its own sake but as a means to an end. It is that kind of atmosphere and ethos which, ultimately, proves to be the most sustainable and successful but the least reported and celebrated.

I put it to my noble friend the Minister that there is a similar situation here. Of course, it took the genius of Darwin to make sense of it all. But would he have been able to make sense of it without the taxonomy which went on before and during his lifetime? No one can doubt the importance of the work of taxonomists. But it is perhaps a victim of its own dullness. Let us not ignore it because of the glitter elsewhere because in science, as in business, the glitter does not last.

I read somewhere that this Government need strategies. The Opposition are short on policies but the Government are short on strategies. One strength of the report is that it is, indeed, strong on strategy. I believe that my noble friend should find that of particular value. The first step in getting things done is to have a strategy.

Our strategy has several elements. We call for an increase in grant in aid to the major institutions which carry out this work in order to support the collections and the databases. At the same time, we say how the Systematics Association and the Linnean Society of London should modernise their work and demonstrate their relevance and importance. It is hoped that not only will that attract yet more funding; it should also make the work more attractive to scientists—both paid and volunteers.

I say "volunteers" because there was a time when much of the work was carried out by enthusiastic amateurs. I was reminded of that only yesterday when the Science and Technology Committee in the other place criticised science teaching for its dullness. I could not help reflecting on how collecting data, as part of a national systematic biology project which includes children, would surely make science lessons more interesting and, it is hoped, stimulate a life-long interest. It may even attract the interest of some of the charges of my noble friend Lord Warner.

We also call on the Higher Education Funding Council to find out whether the way in which its research assessment exercise is run has contributed to the decline of taxonomy by failing to provide sufficient funds. We also call upon DEFRA to take the lead in setting up a body in order to bring together the funding agencies, the museums, the universities and government to identity the priorities. It is hoped that the result of that strategy will be that taxonomists will themselves come together and work towards united objectives. Of course, we cannot do everything. As the noble Baroness told us, millions and millions of species are yet unknown to us. We need a kind of systematic national plan which states our priorities.

Like the noble Baroness, I, too, strongly support the recommendation from Professor Charles Godfray that systematics taxonomy should be digitalised. That would make the knowledge and information more widely available. It would also modernise the image of systematics. We are cautious and recommend a trial first.

It seems to me that this is a sensible strategy. It fosters the dull measures rather than the glitter of which I spoke earlier. It is within the resources and capability of the Government. It emphasises the inherent worth of existing people and does not depend on finding rare talent. It is the thoroughly practical kind of strategy which the Government would expect from your Lordships' committee.

The strategy and its objectives are also in keeping with the recent speech by the Prime Minister on science matters. As a supporter of the Government, I am proud of the steps they have taken to increase the spending on and the status of science. But as the Prime Minister said in that speech, we need to do more; I agree. Here is something more which can be done; which is both modest and sensible but is important. In his speech the Prime Minister spoke of the real concerns over biodiversity. It seems to me that our proposals in the report are helpful in two ways: a real "double whammy". They make a positive contribution towards allying the real concerns that people have over biodiversity, and fulfil the Prime Minister's concerns about doing yet more for science to overcome the disastrous period of underfunding and neglect in the past.

Perhaps the Prime Minister will use the summit on sustainable development to announce his support for our recommendations and strategy. The noble Baroness is right in calling attention to the relationship between our report and the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The relationship is obvious. How do we save plants and creatures from destruction if we do not know what they are, where they are or why they are there? We must save them for their powerful grace about which Friar Lawrence reminded us.

I cannot conclude without thanking Andrew Makower, who has been clerk of the Science and Technology Committee for as long as I have been a member of it. He has been a tower of strength. I am grateful to him for that and wish him every success in his new job.

1.42 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I am sure that this House welcomes the report. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, not only on chairing the inquiry but on the way she introduced the report so comprehensively today.

The report comes at an historic moment since 10 years ago, in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, the United Kingdom signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. This year, as has been said, the Prime Minister will follow up that commitment by leading the UK delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Part of the summit will be concerned with the conservation of the world's rich variety of living things, how to sustain it, and how to use it in an appropriate manner.

One might ask, as has been asked today, how well the UK has attended to its commitment of 1992. The answer must be that it has not done as well it should have done. The report gives a number of examples where funding for systematic biology has declined in real terms. Support for nature centres, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and in Edinburgh and other academic institutions, has declined. The number of workers in the field of systematic biology, and especially taxonomy, has decreased in universities, museums and various other organisations. In 10 years the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International, in which I declare an interest, has reduced the number of people concerned in taxonomies from 34 to 8. By any measure that is alarming. There was a time when it was possible to send to the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International specimens for identification. Those would come in from all over the world. It provided an outstanding service in the field of invertebrate biology. Now, much of that has gone, much to the detriment of systematic biology.

One might ask whether systematic biology matters. The answer must be a resounding "Yes". It is an enabling science, as has been stated, and is none the worse for that. It impinges on many aspects of life on earth, including human and animal health, agriculture and, in particular, the environment. A knowledge and understanding of systematic biology is essential to the understanding of the continuum of the biological chain of life from single-celled organisms in the sea to the complex Metazoa, mammals, vertebrates and man. All show an interdependence from which we should be able to read the effect of man's impact on the environment.

If we agree on the importance of systematic biology, it should go without saying that understanding environmental changes is important. To monitor and forecast them demands a knowledge of what is happening at the micro and macro level of ecological systems. It is also important, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, to know with what we are dealing. We need to know what our organisms are. Biologists throughout the ages have identified some 1.7 million species, but it is said that more than 5 million remain unidentified.

There is a constant loss of species. It has been said that 99 per cent of all the species which originally existed since life began on earth have become extinct. However, there is a constant replacement. New species occur the whole time. It is a dynamic situation.

Systematic biology is the discovery, description, naming and classification of living things and the study of the evolutionary relationships between them. It is probable that many biological scientists started off their careers with the thrill of discovering an undescribed species; of naming it; describing it; and publishing and receiving recognition for it. I have been through that process. It always thrilled me to see something which no one else has seen and to be able to describe it.

That still goes on. There are still people who generate that information. However, it has been complemented by new technologies in molecular biology, gene sequencing and electron microscopy. It is an interesting point that that new technology has not replaced the visual morphology conducted with a simple light microscope, but complements it. The decisions made many years ago on classification into genre, families and associations are still valid. So those early observations of Darwin—and fellow scientists since—based on morphology, were perfectly valid.

As the report says, morphology and systematic biology provide a common biological language, so that scientists throughout the world know what they are talking about when discussing a given species. There are many common names of species in different parts of the world that can lead to a degree of confusion. It will be even more helpful when modern information technology such as the worldwide web and digitisation of data become more accepted. We recommend that in our report. It will enhance systematic biology enormously.

My particular area of interest in systematic biology is in animal disease, and the danger of the spread of tropical diseases in particular, to the European Community and to the United Kingdom. Some major problems which might face us in the future will be transmitted by insects of various kinds. Can our resident species of insects serve as vectors for diseases of the tropics? Can tropical vectors enter this country? Can we recognise them when they do? Can they hybridise with our own species? Could we recognise that hybrid vector? Can we recognise the vector potential that may well be transmitted from a tropical insect to our own insects?

A few years ago Europe—not the United Kingdom— was threatened with a number of tropical diseases that were insect-transmitted. It was discovered that we had a single entomologist in the country who was an expert on biting midges. He was in great demand. I am not sure if he has retired. But that is the level of our competence in this area.

I turn to the Darwin Initiative. It has been an important source of funding for taxonomists for the past 10 years. It has a budget of approximately £3 million. That sum, alongside other support that was promised and expected for systematic biology, has failed to increase in line with inflation. That is contrary to the Dainton recommendations of 10 years ago.

The Select Committee, as the noble Baroness mentioned, now recommends "earmarking" the current level of spending of the Darwin Initiative at £3 million specifically for taxonomic studies. I have an innate suspicion of "earmarking" or ring-fencing any research funds. So often it leads to the exclusion of excellent research outside the ring fence. The recommendation to earmark Darwin funds for taxonomic work has caused concern in the systematic biological research field, for that very reason—it fears that excellence in research may decrease. The concept of earmarking is derived from the additional fear that taxonomic funds may be eroded further, and that the real value of earmarking will be to safeguard them. What is necessary is an increase in the £3 million that was allocated 10 years ago to the Darwin Initiative fund in line with inflation. That would still allow the best of the Darwin proposals and initiatives to take place, but at this increased level.

The Darwin Initiative is not the only source of funding for systematic biology. Perhaps the Minister can let the House have an up-to-date account of the present funding for systematic biology and where it comes from.

The decline in funding of important centres, such as the Natural History Museum and the Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh and Kew, must send the message that this country does not consider systematic biology to be all that important. I believe that to be the wrong message. I trust that this House will conclude that also.

The forthcoming meeting in Johannesburg in South Africa on sustainable development is an excellent opportunity for the United Kingdom to re-affirm its commitment to biodiversity and to the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, to make the commitment valid and credible, investment in systematic biology is essential. That must be done somewhat urgently, and it must be substantial.

1.56 p.m.

Lord Oxburgh

My Lords, I too offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on her splendid speech of introduction. Although not a member of the sub-committee, on a number of occasions I was privileged to be able to observe her committee in action, and I had the opportunity to observe her deftness in steering through this timely and valuable report. I also warmly welcome and endorse its recommendations. In doing so I declare an interest as chairman of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

I am also sure that all members of the Science and Technology Select Committee would wish to associate themselves with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, in appreciation of our shortly to be replaced Clerk, Andrew Makower.

Systematic biology is concerned with the description and classification and relationships between living things. Worldwide, about 1.7 million animals and plants have been described. That is out of an estimated 12 million. Some parts of the globe, such as the UK, are better known than others. We have a tradition of natural history. But even in the UK only 50 per cent or perhaps 60 per cent of species are catalogued.

Unfortunately, sometimes systematic biology is seen as a relatively unglamorous discipline. In the UK it is pursued by a declining number of staff in major museums and by a declining minority of staff in universities. The fact that it may seem unglamorous does not mean that it is not highly skilled and is not dependent on long experience. The question is, does this matter? Lord Dainton thought so. The committee thinks so, and I have to say that I agree with it.

Some of the reasons for this have already been rehearsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and by other noble Lords. I shall not repeat them. I shall take a different tack and one that suggests that regardless of other motivations, sheer self-interest tells us that we must take a close interest in systematic biology.

We need to start with a global view. What we see as our environment today—our surroundings containing plants, animals and microbial life—is something that has since time immemorial been continuously changing. As natural balances have shifted, it has changed from place to place and from time to time. Sometimes the changes have simply been oscillations; sometimes they have been unidirectional shifts and not reversed.

The different life forms that are within and part of that environment are each affected by the behaviour of the others and by changes in the oceans, the atmosphere and the solid Earth. In turn, life forms can profoundly modify their physical environment, both on a local and on a global scale. For example, the evolution of land plants profoundly changed the composition of the Earth's atmosphere.

We find a system of enormous subtlety and complexity. At a gross level, it is reasonably well understood; but in detail, it is mostly unknown. What is clear is that while in some respects that system is remarkably robust, in others it is very vulnerable. It is also a system that in some respects is highly non-linear. By that, I mean that for a while it may show little or no response to a particular external pressure or stimulus and then suddenly, without warning, may shift dramatically. That is why arguments such as, "Well, we have been all right so far", do not work.

As human beings, we tend to be sensitive to changes that affect animals or plants of a size that we can observe. We can notice thrushes, pandas and camels and become concerned about changes affecting them. That is fine, but even taken all together, all the birds and mammals represent a small fraction of the Earth's animal population. In contrast, most of us scarcely register the existence of the myriad of micro-lifeforms without which the higher animals could not exist. The fertility of our soil depends on earthworms and a teeming microbial population.

I reiterate that the relationships between all of those living things and between them and their physical environment is extraordinarily complex. A small change in one part can have profound and disproportionate effects elsewhere that are poorly understood. But what is new? That must have been the case since earliest times. What is different today is not change but the rate of change. What is different today is that one species, the human species, has increased in numbers faster than any other appears to have done in the history of the earth. Not only that, but it is doing so in a way that is extraordinarily demanding of space and resources.

Humans represent fewer than a billionth of the individual animals living on Earth today. Yet we take for our use approximately 40 per cent of the Earth's annual plant growth and roughly the same proportion of the produce of the oceans. We have occupied and modified to our purposes most of the temperate parts of the globe that have reasonable water supplies. Although that explosive growth in numbers has taken place over a few hundred years, that is but the blinking of an eye in the history of the Earth and the Earth has never seen anything like it before.

By our enormous success in predation—consider industrial fishing—and by taking over land previously available as natural habitats, we are driving many species to extinction. To be sure, it is nothing new for species to disappear in particular places, or indeed to become extinct—perhaps out-competed for space or food by others, by suffering predation, or simply by evolving into a new species. But the present rate of extinction is somewhere between 10 and 100 times faster than that found in the geological past. It is no exaggeration to say that if there were some kind of communal animal sentience and awareness, the speed and scale of disaster brought on animals by human beings would appear to them as would a nuclear holocaust to us in terms of land laid waste and individuals killed.

Although I have spoken largely of the direct human impact on animal life, there are, of course, indirect effects arising from the rapid climate change that seems to be driven by our use of fossil fuels. I shall not talk about those, but we must recognise that human beings have unwittingly triggered a series of global changes that they do not understand. Those changes will profoundly affect the way that and perhaps whether we can live in our world. They are important to us because they may affect soil fertility, and thus our ability to feed ourselves, or they may influence the spread of new or existing pathogens that affect our crops, our animals or ourselves. We simply do not know what will happen.

Furthermore, as climate patterns shift, humans will not be the only economic migrants. A range of organisms is already migrating to seek a better life with us. We are not prepared for them either. That tells us that regardless of moral or other imperatives, it is in our self-interest to understand these changes as fully as possible so that we can anticipate their consequences and, possibly, by quite small modifications in our behaviour mitigate the worst effects.

So what does all that have to do with systematic biology? If we are to understand changes in fauna and flora, we have to observe them, record them and measure them. Systematic biology is one of the essential tools in that process. It allows organisms to be identified and counted and changes to be measured. Of course, by itself that is not enough. Ecology—the study of how organisms interact with each other and their physical environment—then takes over. But without a basis of systematic biology, ecology cannot begin.

So what is to be done? I do not think that we can any longer regard systematic biology as simply one more academic discipline that, like others, will wax and wane over time in a way that will be of interest to few outside the academic community. As other noble Lords have emphasised, we need a national strategy for systematic biology and the political will to carry it through. That strategy must recognise that we cannot do everything. Cataloguing every living thing in the world is not practicable.

But in an area as restricted as the United Kingdom, the situation is better than in many countries. The faunal and floral population is less diverse than in tropical climates and the larger elements have in any case been studied for a long time. Even so, many species remain undescribed and their role in our ecosystem unknown. However, in a country where more than half of the task has been done, a concerted, co-ordinated and focused effort could yield results and understanding that would be invaluable to us and probably to the rest of the world.

At present, UK scientific priorities in that field are left to the inclinations of individual scientists and research institutes. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the international procedures for formally establishing new species have more to do with the 18th than the 21st century. The main national institutes in which such work is done are funded by different government agencies—as far as we can tell, without reference to each other; certainly without any co-ordinating or prioritising framework; and, above all, without any concept of an important national purpose. In all cases, the funding for curation and general maintenance of collections appears to be inadequate and is lower, in real terms, than it was a decade ago. Furthermore, the way in which we fund universities makes it financially unattractive to nurture disciplines such as systematic biology.

I urge the Government to think seriously about a national strategy, more for loss avoidance than wealth creation. There is an urgent need for additional funding for flagship institutions, but it should be related to a national strategy for future work at home and, as appropriate, abroad. The really good news is that systematic biology is not that expensive. A sum of £10 million a year over 10 years would transform the situation in the UK. I repeat, however, that the money must be carefully managed and targeted. It is such an important investment for the well-being of the nation that there is a role for the Office of Science and Technology to work alongside the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in co-ordinating the work of government departments and implementing the scheme, either directly or indirectly through one of its research councils.

In conclusion, I acknowledge my former colleague, Professor John Lawton, head of the Natural Environment Research Council, from whose recent speech I drew some of the numbers cited earlier. They do not differ greatly from earlier estimates, but they underline the urgency of the situation that faces us. We must do our best to act before the situation becomes even more serious than it is today.

2.9 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, we are deeply indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for introducing a debate on such an important aspect of conservation. It comes at an ideal moment, following the recent publication of What on Earth? by the Select Committee on Science and Technology and just before the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. The noble Baroness lists among her recreations being in good company; I hope that she will feel that, even in a thinly attended Friday afternoon House, she is indeed in good company among those of us who care passionately about the issues.

The Anglican Communion is arranging a congress in Johannesburg for the week before the world summit. Church leaders from all over the world will come together to build on the pioneering work on the environment and ecology done at the Lambeth Conference two years ago. I shall be one of two Church of England representatives trying to reflect on, discuss and make plans for the Church's contribution to sustainable development. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, took us back to Friar Lawrence, but it is, perhaps, worth recalling that among the most distinguished pioneers of systematic biology were some remarkably learned and enviably leisured 19th-century English parochial clergy. They did extraordinary work, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

The report is an excellent document. It presents a balanced and persuasive argument for better support for and co-ordination of systematic biology, as many noble Lords have eloquently said. The report identifies three important objectives of the science: to create a common biological language; to identify, in particular, the species that are of benefit to the human race; and to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity. In naming species and understanding how they relate to each other, systematic biology shows over and over again how amazing and how ordered our world is, in ways that fill us with awe and wonder at its infinitely intricate beauty. That response of awe and wonder should engender a sense of responsibility to take care not to disrupt ordered systems for short-term ends.

As has been said, systematic biology is a science in trouble, perhaps in crisis. One of the reasons why systematic biology finds it so hard to fulfil the criteria that would secure significant financial grants is that it cannot easily identify hypotheses to test or finite goals to reach. The subject matter is almost infinite, and it does not lend itself to tidy and manageable research projects of obvious and immediate utility. Many noble Lords have emphasised the fact that many species remain to be discovered. We must all realise—grant-givers most of all—that there is real value in gaining knowledge for its own sake, although it is also true that that knowledge will affect our attitudes and behaviour in countless ways and may contain, in itself, potential benefits for humanity, some of which are obvious, some of which can only be guessed at.

The link between systematic biology and the forthcoming world summit lies in the concept of sustainability. We must welcome the way in which the idea of sustainability has become so widely valued and so often discussed, although its meaning may not always be clear. It is beginning to be sought as an end in itself, not merely a means to human ends. It has great importance for the human race, and the anthropocentric motive for good environmental practice will take us further down the path of virtue than is sometimes acknowledged. We must recognise and welcome the altruistic and the self-interested reasons for pursuing sustainability in every aspect of human existence.

The main emphasis at the world summit will be on the need for the developing world to escape from the enslavement of poverty in ways that do not further damage the already deeply scarred and deeply suffering natural world.

Systematic biology explains and demonstrates the vast range of biodiversity. Most of the developing world still enjoys the resource of biodiversity. There are strong arguments for identifying, protecting and nurturing existing biodiversity in the developing world, precisely to underpin its economic development in sustainable ways and to protect developing nations from the temptation to import unsustainable and inappropriate systems that cannot survive local climates or flourish in local landscapes.

The careful preservation of wildlife can itself become a rich source of revenue, as many African countries are discovering. In celebrating and taking pride in their biodiversity, they can benefit from those who come from the great urban centres of the developed world, or from areas of a sterile monoculture, as ecovisitors to share in the awe and wonder that is denied to them at home. I believe that it is important to call them ecovisitors, not ecotourists, because they need to be limited in number and to understand what they have come to see and enjoy. That process, which needs to be managed very carefully, is a very important part of the economy of many developing countries and could become more important.

Systematic biology has led to a growing understanding of biodiversity. That, in turn, has helped us to understand the complex and subtle interrelationships of the whole of creation and how the human race finds its proper place in that complex pattern. We discover a new and very salutary humility. We can no longer credibly claim mastery over the creation. That distorted and arrogant creation theology, which was one deplorable strand of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, has to give way to a sense of real responsibility and shame for the mess that we have made of much of the planet, and to a determination to support and encourage sustainable ecological and economic systems. But if we lose the knowledge base provided by systematic biology, how shall we know whether our actions are hindering or helping the ecosystems on which we depend?

Some of the interventions of the human race— such as intensive agriculture, deforestation on a catastrophic scale, the prodigal use of water, the use of fossil fuel without regard to the consequences—have already done enormous damage to the intricate and detailed web of life revealed to us by systematic biology. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for his magnificent speech on that theme.

This science can illustrate our disastrous mistakes and help us to plot a better course in discovering how to meet our needs for food, energy and shelter in ways that are in tune with the Earth's structures and processes. Systematic biology promises no glittering technological prize, no magic solution to grab the world's headlines, but what it reveals and teaches may ultimately be a matter of life and death for the human race. Good science requires maturity, humility and vision. As the report points out, there is a serious dearth of scientists willing to work in this discipline, and the present population of systematic biologists is an ageing one. I believe that a proper understanding of how that discipline connects with the vital areas of agriculture, conservation and the needs of the developing world could attract young people to engage with it, provided that the additional financial resources for which the Select Committee has called are forthcoming. I join other noble Lords in their pleas to the Government to ensure that that is achieved.

The report also makes helpful and sensible suggestions about the enormous potential of the worldwide web in the task of species classification and the sharing of scientific knowledge. Systematic biologists themselves need consciously to build links with those who will benefit from their work, whose needs will at least partly dictate the course of future research.

This report makes it very plain that systematic biology is an academic discipline that needs and deserves much stronger support than it has received in recent years. We all enjoy the benefits of its findings. It is perfectly proper that funding for it should in large measure come from the public purse. We have seen far too many examples of the funding for vital areas of scientific inquiry slipping into the hands of private, profit-hungry organisations, with all the distortion of academic standards and objectives that that may entail.

It is in support of true sustainability—sustainable scientific research, sustainable application of knowledge to particular needs, especially those of the world's poorest people, sustainable economic and ecological systems—that I urge the Government to accept the recommendations set out in this report. The Government have been at pains to offer vigorous support to our brilliant biotechnological research and development. Systematic biology is indeed less glamorous, less sexy, but it is work that must continue to be done, and done well, if the human race is to be able to take its rightful place in the glorious creation of which we are a part and to play its rightful part in conserving it for future generations.

2.20 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, it is a pleasure to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on her skilful introduction to our debate and for successfully navigating our subcommittee through sometimes choppy waters. I too wish to thank our specialist adviser and staff who have already been named, as well as our resident specialist assistant, Adam Heathfield, who was always on hand and has been extremely helpful.

Although the preservation of biodiversity was a prominent aim of Agenda 21 at Rio and is again on the agenda at Johannesburg, as a member of the Select Committee, I must follow my noble friend Lord Haskel and quote the Bard. As the Prince of Denmark said, it is a custom More honoured in the breach than the observance". Although attention to biodiversity forms part of the conservation and sustainability package, it is treated almost as an afterthought when it comes to action. That may be because it is not easy to measure the benefits of a rich natural flora and fauna in direct economic terms. Of course it is accepted as aesthetically and morally right to maintain species, unless directly or indirectly they are harmful to man, but public resources for the support of biodiversity as such have always been thin on the ground. Perhaps that is why amateur enthusiasts have always had an important place in the collection of information about the web of life. Funding for systematic biology suffers as a part of the whole deficit in funding for the preservation of biodiversity.

From the time that life first appeared on Earth, species of living organisms have appeared, have survived for variable periods—some for many millennia—and then most have been superseded, sometimes through competition for resources with more efficient species, and sometimes through a failure to adapt to climatic or other environmental changes. Mostly, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, pointed out, species have evolved through gradual adaptation; evolution through natural selection has led to different species, although on occasion the original prototype can survive in protected and isolated areas.

Recently, the natural rate of disappearance of species has greatly accelerated due to man's activities and growing dominance. We know what happened to the dodo, the great auk and the giant moa when man rudely broke into their habitats, to which previously they had been happily adapted. We know also that the survival of many other species is precarious. Special steps will need to be taken in order to prevent their extinction. The CITES programme, mentioned by the noble Baroness, is one of the better examples of those efforts. However, once again Hamlet's words apply.

As the noble Lord has already pointed out, of the estimated total number of species in the world, only 1.7 million out of 12 million have been described and classified. That calls to mind a song by Tom Lehrer about the periodic table: These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard There may be many others, but they haven't been discarvered". It is highly likely that, given the present rate of attrition, many species will disappear even before they have been discovered. Those unknown species are likely to be among the less visible, often microscopic or sub-microscopic forms of life, which nevertheless are of crucial importance to our environment.

There is a useful graph in the web of life, a publication produced by the UK Systematics Forum, which no longer exists and which came into existence as a result of the Dainton report. It shows the proportion of the total estimated number of species that are known to exist according to the various biological phyla and taxa. While practically all the chordates—which include mammals, birds, fish, amphibia and reptiles—are known, only 15 per cent of the estimated 8 million insects are known; less than 10 per cent of the 1.5 million fungi have been logged; and even fewer of the 1 million or more bacteria or other microscopic and sub-microscopic forms of life.

Again, following the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, this may seem at first to be of less importance because we are not aware of these forms of life. However, the role played by fungi and micro-organisms in soil fertility, marine and fresh water quality and sustainability is enormous. Pollutants and toxins of many kinds may drastically change the balance of these organisms and thus they can be sensitive indicators or early signs of environmental degradation. For that reason alone it is highly desirable for there to be trained systematic biologists who can identify and measure these invisible micro flora and fauna of the soil, rivers, lakes and oceans.

Unfortunately—this is also to be seen in the graph in the web of life—there are very few professional systematists in the very branches of biology where there is most need of them to describe and chart unknown, but almost certainly important, species. For instance, there are only 20 mycologists—specialists in fungi—where probably 90 per cent of the species remains to be described.

Members of the Select Committee are very grateful to our hosts for devoting time to our visits to the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. I am sure that the same would have been said of Edinburgh if we had been able to go there. I found the two visits extremely valuable in getting to grips, both with the subject and with staffing and funding problems.

We heard of the need for, but also of the difficulties with and expense of, digitising their vast and unique collections. We also heard of the need to preserve the actual specimens to act as basic reference material. This is not the time nor place to go into the pros and cons of Professor Godfray's proposals to move over entirely to an electronically held database of living things. We discussed his proposals. They are a matter for on-going discussions within the systematics community.

Systematic biologists are now becoming more familiar with modern techniques of molecular and genetic identification. Attached to the botanical gardens at Kew are the Jodrell laboratories, where more and more of the research associates working at Kew spend part or all of their time. This runs alongside traditional, meticulous observation. As has been said, systematic biologists now have less of the "stamp collector" image than they used to. The new skills that they are developing apply particularly to the identification of fungi and microbiological forms of life because it is difficult to identify them through morphological characteristics alone.

Surely it has been a serious mistake on the part of successive governments that the funding of the two internationally unique institutions that we visited, plus Edinburgh and other collections throughout the country, should have fallen so much in real terms.

The diminution of teaching of systematic biology in universities has relentlessly continued since the Dainton report 10 years ago. An important reason for that is, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said, the focus of the Research Assessment Exercise, which tends to favour "cutting edge" science. However, there would be no shortage of interest among undergraduates if the opportunities for career pathways in systematic biology were there. The quality of those who apply to do PhDs in systematic biology is very high. Perhaps I may quote from paragraph 3.32 on page 14 of the report: Nevertheless when people apply for funding for taxonomic work from NERC, they appear to do disproportionately well. The average success rate for NERC's responsive mode funding is 19 per cent. Yet out of 33 applications for responsive mode funding for taxonomic work received by NERC over the last two years, nine were funded, equivalent to 28 per cent success rate"— 50 per cent higher than the average.

I very much hope that senior officials and Ministers, in DEFRA but also in the other government departments mainly concerned, will not only take note of this debate but will also read the report, and especially the evidence on which it is based, extremely carefully. It is more readable than most, thanks to our chairman and her team.

In conclusion, I should like to point out a fact referred to by other speakers. For comparatively little expense, the Government could make a huge difference—far less expense, for example, than the funds that the Export Credits Guarantee Department has laid out on building CO2 emitting coal fired power stations in the developing world. Money invested in systematic biology would bring long-term benefit to the environment rather than detriment, as the coal fired stations have done.

I very much hope that the report will persuade Ministers to enable this branch of United Kingdom science to regain its leading position in the world.

2.33 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, like other speakers, I begin by thanking the chairman of the subcommittee, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I congratulate her on the way in which she introduced the debate and on the way in which she chaired the committee.

I was invited to rejoin the Science and Technology Committee because I sat on Lord Dainton's committee which produced the 1992 report. Returning to the subject was in some ways a slightly dispiriting exercise. It was true that the report had had some modest influence. By far the most influential was the Darwin initiative referred to by other speakers. There was the NERC taxonomy initiative, which has now run its course, and there was, from systematists themselves, an attempt to set up a systematics forum which would have acted as a meeting point for all systematists—after all, this is a very wide discipline.

Sadly, the initiative has stuttered to a halt and has failed. If I strike a slightly discordant note, it is with a feeling of slight frustration that systematists have not played their part in trying to bring together a focus for debate as to where systematics can contribute, not just to the understanding of biodiversity but to the opportunities for applied biology based on the knowledge of systematics.

So let me say straight away that I think that there is an onus on the systematics community, on the Linnean Society—I must declare an interest as a fellow of the society—and on the Systematics Association. Indeed, the report includes a recommendation that the association should do what it has failed to do in the past.

In spite of the failure of the UK Systematics Forum to gather momentum as we had hoped, there has been much progress in the intervening 10 years which should not go unrecorded. There has been great progress in the area of molecular systematics, in genomics and in evolutionary development. In other words, it is pointed out just how vibrant this discipline is, and no one should be in any doubt that without the contribution of systematists, progress will not be made in any of those spheres. One cannot look at whole organisms without an understanding of how, in evolutionary terms, they fit into the scheme of things.

Let me follow the example of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who pointed out that we are discussing this report in connection with the hoped-for outcomes of the World Summit in Johannesburg. The section of the community we should particularly address—the same section that the right reverend Prelate looked at—is the poorest section of society. We have heard enough figures about the number of species in the world. Let us think about the number of humans. There are 6 billion people worldwide, of which 1 billion are either starving or malnourished. Those one in six are the population of the world which government and science have failed.

That may sound brutal. Your Lordships may say that it is the fault of government; that if only countries could get their act together, 1 billion people would be able to get access to fresh water, adequate food, energy and shelter, and would enjoy access to medical science. However, I believe it is a responsibility not just of government but of science. Those who are charged by the affluent nations to push forward the frontiers of knowledge have a responsibility to ensure that such knowledge serves humanity and not just those funding research.

The right reverend Prelate referred critically, I believe rightly so, to the privatised sources of funding. Once the priorities of research are determined by shareholders or the vested interests of those funding it, then the considerations of the one sixth of the population of the world are totally excluded from the burgeoning of scientific knowledge. This is why at the world summit we have to ask these questions very firmly: what is it that can be done by science here, where most of the intellectual base resides? What can be done to help in a form of sustainable development those poorest sections of the world?

We come back to a number of relevant disciplines of which systematics is a very important one, but only one. I am sure the water engineers, solar energy specialists and others have important contributions to make. I do not want to overstate the contribution that systematists can make. However, if we wish to reduce human and animal illness and increase productivity, we have to understand better the species with which we share this planet.

When one looks at the species that are most important, they are not those to which we relate most readily. We understand plants and mammals better than we do micro-organisms, parasites or even insects. It was no coincidence that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, when quoting Friar Lawrence, quoted species which tripped the mind. Even the Bard's pen could not make anything very fluent or poetical about parasites and microbes.

Nevertheless, if one looks at the third world's requirements, it is these organisms which probably deserve as much or more attention than the butterflies, birds and plants which we amateurs love to study and which are reasonably accessible and far less demanding in taxonomic terms. One then looks at where this great residue of collections and of knowledge lies in the United Kingdom. This country has a great responsibility in that it holds vast collections such as those in Kew, the Natural History Museum and Edinburgh. Those are three highly important collections, but there are also zoos, herbariums, other botanic gardens and culture collections. If that is put together with our systematics expertise, we have an overview of the biological resource and the collections that it constitutes.

The funding does not take into account the need to take a whole look at our biological resources and how they might complement programmes emanating from Johannesburg or elsewhere. Kew is funded by Defra—formerly by the Ministry of Agriculture—the centre at Edinburgh is funded by the Scottish Office and the Natural History Museum comes under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It would be unrealistic to suggest that that should all be changed. It is historical fact that that is where the funding streams come from. However, it is immediately clear why it is difficult to see a co-ordinated approach on how to use this remarkable national resource, which is a heritage of the empire and of the great interest in botany and zoology in the last century. We are under-exploiting and undervaluing the resource, apparently incapable of putting it forward in a co-ordinated form.

The systematics community, who come from a wide variety of disciplines, seem incapable of putting together the overall co-ordinated policy that is clearly greatly needed. I am sure that the systematists can do it themselves and that our recommendation to the Linnean Society and the Systematics Association will be taken up, but government sponsorship and encouragement will be needed. I would be interested to hear from the Minister which might be the lead department on that.

My plea is that we once and for all banish the spectre of open-ended taxonomy—people working in isolation through taxonomic programmes, trying to get to the end of the list. We have heard many times during the debate that after 200 years we have got to 1.7 million and we think there are 12 million. We can project that forward and say that we will go a bit faster, but that is clearly not a satisfactory programme of work. We need to understand which are the keystone species and which have the most economic or cultural importance so that we can prioritise.

In the context of Johannesburg, it is essential to digitise the collections and the data, expensive though it will be. The Convention on Biological Diversity requires us to repatriate the data to the people from whom it was extracted, because it is most relevant to them. That is central to the World Summit. If the summit recommends that all national and international organisations should understand their obligations to contribute to digitising the data and making it accessible to those who will most benefit from it, something concrete will have come out of Johannesburg.

2.43 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Advisory Committee for the Protection of the Sea. For some years I was chairman. I have now been succeeded by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton. I hope that he will be most successful.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and her team deserve the widest possible tributes. They have done an imaginative job and I hope that the Government will give the report proper regard. I share many of the concerns expressed by the sub-committee, particularly on marine issues.

The Advisory Committee for the Protection of the Sea—which I shall hereafter refer to as ACOPS to shorten my speech—works with other countries and the Global Environment Fund, the World Bank and other marine conservationists. It works particularly in Africa and Russia. It will participate in the important deliberations in Johannesburg.

Marine environments are hugely important worldwide, both to jobs and nutrition. We take for granted our seas and the fish that inhabit them; we pay insufficient attention to the threats posed by over-fishing, pollution and other menaces to the environment. For these reasons, we in ACOPS have long urged the United Kingdom to play a larger role in the sustainable development of the seas. That, in a nutshell, is why we are helping, particularly in Africa, to enable developing countries to manage their marine environments. I cannot say too much but what we are doing in that regard is especially important. I wish that the Government would take more notice and participate more actively in affairs affecting developing countries.

We should not minimise the widespread threats arising from pollution, habitat damage and overuse of resources. Too often there is deliberate dumping by ships. There are threats from farming where inadequate attention is paid to such matters, and from the atmosphere in the form of heavy metals. Too frequently, the threats are simply ignored, wholly or partly, or our reaction is insufficiently financed and insufficiently co-ordinated. Coral reefs and wetlands are affected. We should all be concerned—concerned about what we are doing or allowing to happen. We should be concerned about the international dimension on which, in my view, Britain does not concentrate sufficiently.

Although the remit of the United Kingdom is necessarily limited, some good things have occurred. The Marine Stewardship Report, published, I believe, a few weeks ago, is immensely helpful. It provides for a real international marine policy. But much more is needed.

The programme has to be properly resourced. Deadlines have to be introduced and, equally importantly, adhered to. The marine environment has to be sustainably managed. By 2006 the Government must deliver an integrated marine Act. Marine protected areas have to be established by representative networks. Such a development would set up an ecosystem-based approach to the management of our seas.

The United Kingdom Government have moved firmly in that direction but they need to be even more decisive and even more internationally orientated. They should support developing countries in making contributions. In that way we would provide a real lead in Europe and, indeed, globally.

2.50 p.m.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I heartily congratulate her on the sub-committee's report.

My noble friend Lord Haskel alluded to my "day job" which concerns crime and young offenders. There seem to be some similarities between that field and the one we are discussing in that we find it just as difficult to count crime and offenders as we do to count plants and classify them. I was drawn into the field of plant classification and conservation by my wife's work as chairperson of Botanic Gardens Conservation International which is housed at Kew Gardens. That has helped me better to understand Kew's world-class scientific work as well as its stewardship of beautiful gardens. However, I should say in this distinguished company of scientists that I make no claim to having any scientific distinction and speak as a layman. Indeed, a dense veil should be drawn over my undistinguished school scientific career.

However, what I have seen of the work of Kew leads me to the view—which is very much supported in the sub-committee's report—that there is a crisis of funding for that work. But before I turn to that issue and to the findings of the sub-committee. I should like to say a little more, in terms of the wider context, about some of the work of BGCI, having declared my interest.

BGCI is a UK registered charity founded 15 years ago with the primary aim of linking botanic gardens world-wide into an effective global network for plant conservation. It now has more than 500 member institutions in almost 100 countries, including many poor and developing ones, and an impressive track record in promoting plant conservation, sustainable development and environmental education. Over 25 per cent of the world's plants are grown in botanic gardens world-wide, which are visited by over 200 million people each year. BGCI works towards ensuring that people recognise plants as one of the world's greatest renewable natural resources and it initiates practical programmes to safeguard tens of thousands of threatened plant species.

Most recently, BGCI has played a crucial role in co-ordinating the development of a global strategy for plant conservation and securing its adoption by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity at their meeting in the Hague in April this year. That was a particularly significant achievement. Not only did the participating countries agree to the strategy, they accepted a series of well defined and time-bound targets.

The global strategy for plant conservation is important to safeguarding the future of plants on our planet and for the first time targets—a subject dear to the Government's heart—have been set to guide progress under the convention. There are 16 targets. Noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I shall not plough my way through all of them. However, I want to talk about the first two on which all the others depend and which are of particular relevance to the sub-committee's report.

Target 1 is to prepare and make available a working list of the names of all known plant species. Noble Lords have spoken much today of the extent to which our knowledge of species is far from complete. That is particularly true of the world's flora. New species are being discovered and described daily. When I looked into the subject I was surprised to find that, even disregarding recent discoveries new to science, there is no single comprehensive list of the world's plant species. There is no single publication, print or electronic, where one can look up the name of a plant and find out where in the world it occurs and what else is known about it. In fact, as a result of this lack of a comprehensive listing, botanists cannot even be sure, to within a few thousand, how many plant species there are. The latest estimates run to some 422,000 plant species, which is about 100,000 more than was estimated just a few years ago. So the first target of the global strategy for plant conservation is to make available a comprehensive listing of the world's plant species and where they occur, as a baseline for all other conservation action.

Some of that work is already under way. One of the most significant contributors to that is the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. As we know, Kew is a major international plant science research institute with particular strengths in systematics and conservation—subjects of the sub-committee's report. Because of its strengths in systematics, its unique library facilities and network of collaborators worldwide, Kew is ideally placed to do that work. But at present it can devote only one scientific officer to that task because of severe financial constraints. In the 10 years since 1992, when the UK signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, the demands on Kew's expertise in biodiversity have risen dramatically. Ironically, over the same period, government funding to Kew and the other major UK systematics institutes has fallen in real terms. Kew now receives 15 per cent less grant-in-aid funding than it did 10 years ago. A similar situation can be seen at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh: funding is down 15 per cent since 1992. The inadequate level of funding is now having a clear negative impact on the UK's ability to deliver on its biodiversity policy commitments, which a UK charity and the scientific community have championed so ably on the international stage.

A similar scenario is unfolding for target 2 of the global plant conservation strategy; that is, the preparation of a preliminary assessment of the conservation status of each of the world's known plant species. Those individual conservation ratings are scientific assessments of the likely threats to a species based on data such as its distribution pattern and the sorts of habitats in which it occurs. Scientific specialists with years of experience in particular groups of plants are best placed to provide and interpret the data. The literature shows that scientists at the major systematics institutes are the most significant contributors to the global effort to assess all known plant species in that way. But, once again, financial constraints have reduced the UK's ability to contribute in that area. At Kew, for instance, seven recently retired senior botanists, specialists in different groups of plants, could not be replaced upon retirement because of reductions in real terms funding from the Government. That loss represents 20 per cent of the total body of senior botanists employed at Kew and a severe depletion of the UK's expertise in plant systematics.

I have drawn attention to targets 1 and 2 of the global strategy for plant conservation because I believe that they illustrate one of the key points to be drawn from the sub-committee's report: that a sound scientific information base must underlie any rational and worthwhile activity in the area of conservation. We cannot continue to increase the pressure on our major systematics institutions to meet the demands of the Convention on Biological Diversity, while undermining their funding base at the same time. That only exacerbates a situation that is already unsustainable. Recommendation 1 of the sub-committee's report advocates a return to 1992 levels of funding for our major systematics institutions. The conservation and sustainable management of plants is an important part of our stewardship for future generations. In that context, I applaud that recommendation by the sub-committee as a move towards the sustainable development of the UK's policy on biodiversity. I believe that even such a modest increase in funding would give a positive signal not only to the institutions themselves but also to all those around the world who rely directly or indirectly on systematics data. These include the UK Government, other governments, especially those of biodiversity-rich nations, as well as charities such as BGCI and other non-governmental bodies around the world concerned with conservation and biodiversity issues.

This year the Government have chosen the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew as the UK's candidate for World Heritage status. As an experienced public sector manager, I know that you cannot will the ends without making available the means. I urge the Minister to respond positively to the recommendation in the sub-committee's report, particularly recommendation 1. I would find it helpful to know more from her about Kew's financial fate when DEFRA's spending review 2002 outcome is known in the near future.

As the Government reset their spending priorities for the next three years, with impeccable timing the sub-committee has produced its report and given them the opportunity to respond positively and generously to its well-argued recommendations and the persuasive advocacy of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

3.1 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate. I join the noble Lord, Lord Warner, as one whose scientific education is minimal. I studied little science at school and have studied none since then, so when I first saw on my desk a note from the Chief Whip to say that the debate came under DEFRA and therefore my hat, I was embarrassed. I shall endeavour not to embarrass your Lordships for the next 10 minutes.

I have been greatly helped by the sub-committee's report. When I initially read the first page I thought, "Gosh". When I reread it and got stuck into it as a lay person I found it very readable and enjoyed reading it. I also enjoyed listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, introduce today's debate. She went a little further in some areas than the report.

However, my interpretation—and, I believe, that of other noble Lords—of What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation is that it is alarming. This is a science that noble Lords—themselves scientists—have said over and again today is vital to our wellbeing in the world and to the maintenance of conservation and sustainable development. But it would appear that that science is on the way down and fewer people are taking part.

Great Britain has a long history of systematic biology; the discovery, description, naming and classifying of living things from Darwin himself to much more recently in 1992 when the Government signed the Convention on Biological Diversity which was ratified two years later. The purpose of the world summit is to adopt concrete steps and identify quantifiable targets for better implementing Agenda 21, which was adopted in 1992. Agenda 21 recommends action on issues such as protecting the atmosphere, oceans—which the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, mentioned—animal and plant life and promoting sustainable agriculture practices that will feed the world's ever-growing population; a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and my noble friend Lord Soulsby.

A pivotal part of both the convention and the summit is conservation and using the remainder of the world's resources in a sustainable manner. Systematic biologists are essential to that work. My noble friend Lord Soulsby asked how we have done since 1992, and answered his own question, "Not very well", with which I believe we would all agree. He asked whether taxonomy matters, and the tone of today's debate has clearly shown that it does.

Although systematic biology is not the most well known or glamorous field of science—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, who is now on the Woolsack—it underpins other scientific research which makes an impact on everyday living. One of its main uses is to provide an international language—as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Soulsby—for the scientific community so that research carried out in America and elsewhere can be used by scientists in other parts of the world.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, made the point that, again, self-interest tells us that we should take considerable note of what is happening in the ecology. He pointed out the dramatic increase in human numbers on Earth, which is driving many species to extinction, including, I suspect—as I believe we all suspect—many species that we did not even know existed. We certainly did not know the role that they were playing. As I understand from part of the report, we could lose species without knowing that that was happening. That could then lead to a total loss of a particular ecology.

Systematic biologists or taxonomists have been of use to the medical profession. As I have already said, they have also been of great use in agriculture. I give an example. They helped to solve a farming crisis created by the cassava mealy bug in the 1980s. That bug devastated the cassava crop in West Africa for years until research looked into the origin of the bug in South America and a local wasp was found to control it. Use of the wasp solved the problem within a couple of seasons and saved millions of pounds and many lives. However, it has become clear that, if such a situation were to occur today, there may not be sufficient scientists with the knowledge to solve the problem.

Perhaps I may digress for a moment. I believe that my noble friend Lord Soulsby mentioned the veterinary situation and the subject of bugs in animals. Not long ago, I heard that, as a result of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the number of veterinarians who have any experience in that country is minimal. The state of the veterinary profession in this country in relation to tropical animal diseases is also in a rather sorry state. Therefore, it is not only this particular science about which we need to worry.

The right reverend Prelate reminded us that we have a responsibility of care. My noble friend Lord Selborne, together with the right reverend Prelate, pointed out that one-sixth of the world's population is starving. That tells us that all that can be done must be done in order to help us to learn more about how nature works, if I may express it in layman's language.

Taxonomy in this country has been in decline for many years, with many universities stating that it may no longer be a sustainable discipline. The decline has been furthered by the fact that today there are fewer jobs in systematic biology. The Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are diverting funds to fund-raising ventures and thus losing valuable research posts. Many who were experts in the field have been lost to other research projects, and such expertise is in danger of being lost completely.

I suggest that never before has it been more important to understand the implications of the environment in which we live. We need to support the systematic biologist profession in order that it can sustain the rich resources that Britain already holds and undertake more research. That can only be of benefit to this and other countries.

We support the findings of the report and agree with its recommendations. We need urgently to reverse the decline of the profession and use our expertise to help developing countries. We also welcome the idea of collaborating with other scientists by setting up a world wide website and sharing vital information when it is discovered.

We ask the Government what is being done to uphold the promises made at the conference in 1992, how they plan to make Britain a leading country in educating developing countries on conservation and development, and how the Prime Minister will further this cause when he leads the British team to Johannesburg.

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest, along with a lack of professional or advance knowledge of the subject. This has been a fascinating, constructive and informative debate on two issues of importance: the forthcoming world summit and the report from Sub-Committee I of the Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships' House, entitled, What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation. As many noble Lords indicated, that committee was ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Its report was published on 16th May. It is clear from comments made by noble Lords that it will be the first but not the last of such reports and of such distinguished chairmanship.

I congratulate the committee on producing a succinct and useful report. Noble Lords will not be surprised if I am not able to respond formally today because the Government intend to do so in the autumn. We want to give careful thought to the proposals. We must give departments and agencies sufficient time to take account of the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review and to plan their priorities in the light of available resources. We must also allow for the world summit in Johannesburg and associated events later this summer. None the less, with those caveats, I hope I may offer some preliminary observations on the findings of the committee.

The noble Baroness and her colleagues investigated the current state of systematic biology in the UK; namely, the discovery, description, naming and classification of organisms and the investigation of evolutionary relationships between them. That involves a wide range of scientific skills, techniques and potential applications, of which biodiversity is one. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is one of many noble Lords who identified the potential developments which could occur in fields as wide as agriculture and medicine.

The committee considered the funding and development of the discipline and makes a number of proposals in the light of contributions made during evidence sessions and in documents. As many noble Lords said, it is important to recognise the contribution which systematic biology makes to our understanding and, as stated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, to our appreciation of the complexity of the world in which we live.

It is extremely important to recognise that the more recent recommendations of the committee identify the need for taxonomy and systematic biology to make their case. The committee recognised the importance of the community taking a lead to raise its own profile and to clarify its priorities. We agree that the scientific community needs to engage more effectively with the users and potential users of taxonomic collections. However, the Government and our agencies have a role to play. The committee made a recommendation to improve co-ordination across the systematic biology community and to ensure that it is focused on the key issues. We shall certainly give that careful consideration.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, raised the background of the issue and the result of developments following the 1992 inquiry. The forum largely set its own agenda. It evolved over time, generating useful data and analysis and some progress in identifying priorities. The funding of the government at the time was intended to be pump priming. My reading is that the then government's response rejected many of the committee's key recommendations in 1992 or made clear that the responsibility for deciding any action lay entirely with individual departments.

Having said that, the forum's spirit has not expired entirely. Strands of its work have been taken up by involvement in the global taxonomy initiative and the global biodiversity information facility. I am not aware of any great enthusiasm in the community to continue the systematics forum. I have no doubt that the noble Earl will correct me should I be wrong on that point.

The sub-committee carefully distinguishes the issues that support the taxonomic collections from matters relating to research, which might be carried out on them. That point was emphasised by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury in his evidence. The committee highlights the important issue of translating the collections into electronic images and records.

One issue raised in that context was referred to, among others, by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, my noble friend Lord Haskel, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior. It was the issue of funding. We shall consider carefully the committee's recommendations in the light of competing priorities following the strategic spending review.

In answer to points made about levels of funding, it is difficult to obtain figures for funding over time because systematic biology involves different activities and is often embedded in others. There have also been organisational and other changes over time.

The research council funding is increasing because of increased funding for beta-taxonomy, phylogenetics and e-science related activities. That is an encouraging sign. It is important to set in context the funding. I shall return to the issue, for example, of Kew Gardens in a moment. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport gave £6 million to repair the palaeontology building at the Natural History Museum. Therefore, it is important to set in context the different sources of funding.

It is important to recognise that systematics is just one of many important components necessary to conserve and enhance biodiversity. As such, Darwin has always ranged widely and funded many projects which do not necessarily have that component, but are still beneficial to biodiversity. For example, environmental education and capacity-building and sustainable use in the development of management plans.

In response to a query raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in terms of overall funding, £3 million per annum is only a small contribution relative to the scale of the global biodiversity crisis we face. But Darwin has a strong track record of securing positive impacts well beyond the funding we put in.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, among other noble Lords, raised the issue of funding for research. The funding councils will be undertaking a major review of the research assessment exercise. One option would be to consider the issue as part of that. But we shall discuss this matter further with them before responding later in the autumn.

The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, asked: why not create a new, ring-fenced pot of money? If we are talking of research that uses the collection, we would be extremely wary at this stage of a specially created pot held by a department agency or some particular body. There is a danger that that might isolate systematics still further and preserve it in a time warp, about which some commentators are already concerned. If we are talking about maintaining the collections, it is difficult to comment further because, in a sense, the major collections are already ring-fenced to a great degree.

In response to my noble friend Lord Rea, and the noble Lord, Lord Oxbrough, government and other bodies plainly recognise at a high level the importance of systematic biology. For example, substantial funding is given to the main and minor collections and the United Kingdom has signed international agreements recognising the contributions that taxonomy can make to diversity.

My noble friend Lord Haskel raised the issue of the education service. The science curriculum already covers taxonomy as part of a strand on living and the life processes of living things. However, I found his suggestion as to how to grab the attention of young people novel. Like the noble Lord, Lord Warner, I have had contact with young people who have become involved in a major way in studying the environment as part of rehabilitation and re-entering the mainstream—to respond to him in the hat that he was not wearing today.

The noble Lord, Lord Warner, also raised the issue of sharing of information on the Internet. We note the Committee's interest in that topic and will consider what more may be done—subject, of course, to funding restraints. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, following the last spending review, we gave the research councils an additional £118 million over three years to promote e-science—that is, global scientific collaboration using Internet technology.

The committee has also, rightly, drawn attention to the successes of the Darwin initiative in protecting and enhancing biodiversity. Like Darwin, we must not forget the importance of other aspects of biodiversity, such as education, capacity-building and the development of management plans. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis for pointing out that the issue is not only land-based. We recognise the importance of marine biodiversity study, protection and development and of those areas that may fall between the two, such as wetlands. We hope to develop a new phase of the Darwin initiative at the world summit, sharing the committee's hope that that will lead to access to greater funding.

The committee and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, draw attention to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the developing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development proposals for biological resource centres. Those are important international initiatives. We support UK involvement. UK systematic biology and taxonomy needs to be part of those global developments. We have major, world-class collections and truly expert scientific endeavour to offer.

I turn to the world summit. What is to be discussed? What is our approach? And what do we hope to achieve? The international community will gather in Johannesburg in a little more than a month's time. The summit represents a unique occasion, opportunity and challenge. The focus will be to obtain at the highest national and international level a renewed commitment to the outcomes of the UN Conference on Environment and Development—the Rio Earth Summit—and to give new impetus for the continued delivery of those outcomes, in particular Agenda 21 and the internationally agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration.

I was delighted to hear of the role that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford will play in the lead-up to the summit. I could not agree more with him and with the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. The interrelationship between the outcomes that a successful world summit would deliver—improving people's access to drinking water, reducing illegal logging, making progress towards renewable energy generation, safeguarding the marine environment and stopping the decline in fish stocks—all hinge on the critically important goal of making sure that globalisation works for sustainable development, especially for the poor. At the summit, the Department for International Development will launch the results of a study of the links between poverty and the environment and how mutually reinforcing actions can tackle both issues.

The summit itself will not unpick the carefully negotiated agreements achieved at Doha or at the "Financing for Development" conference in Monterrey. It will not attempt to renegotiate the progress that has been made since Rio on the international conventions agreed there, such as those on climate change and biodiversity. The risk of destroying the progress made through those parallel processes is too great. However, the world summit can build on what has been achieved so far.

The programme of implementation, the world summit document that has received most attention so far, includes strong text in support of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the results of the subsequent conferences of the parties to it. For instance, text in support of the global taxonomy initiative received international agreement at the recent preparatory meeting in Bali. The initiative will help to address the lack of sufficient taxonomic skills, resources and information at the global level.

In general, it is hard to see how a broad global process such as the world summit can address specific issues such as systematic biology. The conferences of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will continue to be a more appropriate context to take that forward—for example, through the global strategy for plant conservation, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Warner. The key for the world summit itself is to ensure that it does not cut across progress made to date but reinforces it where possible. Of course, debate and events surrounding the summit may cover systematic biology and other topics, and we shall do our best to participate and take account of those.

My noble friend Lord Haskel raised two issues. One was the Government's response. My noble friend knows that we must consider the report carefully. However, we agree that we need stronger links, through co-ordination across the systematic biology community and between that community and the users of the collections. We will consider the options seriously, but the world summit would not he the most appropriate occasion for the Prime Minister to announce his support for the report, as my noble friend suggested he should do. The summit will deal with international commitments and action, whereas the committee's report is primarily—though not totally, I accept—focused on domestic policy.

My noble friend Lord Warner raised the issue of funding for the Royal Botanic Gardens. We acknowledge that funding pressures on the former MAFF and DEFRA have made it difficult to maintain Kew's grant-in-aid in line with inflation. The department has had to re-prioritise rigorously because of competing claims. However, DEFRA continues to be a substantial funder of the institution, providing 60 per cent of its annual income, and we are aware that there is a need, even at this late stage, to continue asserting pressure to ensure that it is part of the case for additional funding. We value its work. It is a nationally and internationally important institution. That is one of the reasons that we nominated it as a UNESCO world heritage site. Those are substantial and important issues.

I conclude by expressing our appreciation of the committee's work and our willingness to engage seriously with its main findings on systematic biology, its role, funding and future. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. My presence today is an example of education being received, it having been delivered by so many knowledgeable experts.

3.31 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in today's interesting debate. I have found it particularly fascinating and have enjoyed it very much. I also thank the Minister for her response, which was a little like the curate's egg—encouraging in parts.

We look forward to the comprehensive spending review, although I fear the threatening words, "in the light of competing priorities". The Johannesburg conference may not be the most appropriate occasion for the Prime Minister to express his support for the committee's recommendations. However, I hope that he will find an opportunity later in the year to do so.

I also add my thanks to Andrew Makower, the Clerk to the Select Committee, who will shortly take over a new post. He is an outstanding servant of your Lordships' House. I hope that he enjoys arid is fulfilled by his new role.

The publication of the report and our debate today represent only the beginning. We look forward very much to hearing the Government's considered response later in the year and to watching with great interest the work of the study group set up by the Royal Society, the Linnean Society and other organisations that are presently responding to our work.

In conclusion, I thank all members of the committee for their enormous support and help during the work that we undertook. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.