Submission—Evaluation of the Australian Biological Resources Study and the Biodiversity Program of Environment Australia

On 17 December 1997, the Australian Academy of Science made the following submission to the program evaluation of the Australian Biological Resources Study and the Biodiversity Program of Environment Australia.


1. What is your involvement with or interest in the areas covered by either or both of these programs?

The Australian Academy of Science, since its foundation in 1954, has been involved in the application of science to a wide spectrum of environmental concerns, often before those concerns were acknowledged in the wider community.

The Academy has had a long standing interest in maintaining the integrity of the Australian biota and in protecting the health and prosperity of the country. The ABRS has been supported wholeheartedly by the Academy since its inception, and arose from recommendations by the Academy as early as 1969. The Study was given further public endorsement by Professor Sir Robert May at a public lecture at the Academy during his recent visit to Australia. He argued that the loss of biological diversity is one of the most pressing problems for modern society. On several occasions Sir Robert cited the ABRS as an excellent initiative, and an example for other biologically resource rich countries to emulate in order to understand, conserve, manage and utilise their biota.

The Academy in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Biology organised a meeting in 1991 titled, Australian biota and the national interest. The role of biological collections which highlighted the plight of taxonomy in Australia and in particular the rapidly diminishing expertise in taxonomy and systematics in the universities.

In 1994 the Academy published the first comprehensive textbook for senior students, devoted to the topic of the Australian environment, entitled Environmental Science. Its other science texts, Biological Science: The Web of Life and Biology: The Common Threads referred to the Australian biota and the environment.

More recently, the Academy's web site Nova: Science in the news has been developed to provide accurate, up-to-date information on a range of topical scientific issues, including biodiversity.

In 1996 the Academy prepared a substantial submission to the Review of Quarantine, chaired by Professor Nairn. In our submission, we showed many examples where taxonomic knowledge, or its absence, has affected our ability to manage Australia's environment. Australia's geographic isolation allowed a unique flora and fauna to evolve, protected from pathogens and competition from other countries. Today, with the great increase in the traffic of people and goods into Australia, the risks of inadvertent incursions of serious pest species has increased hugely and there is a growing appreciation of the complex nature of the effects of such incursions. Speedy identification can be crucial in arresting inadvertent incursions of serious pest species. Since so many of our species are unique to Australia, much of the stocktaking must be done here, by our own experts.

Our submission to that review also stressed that in the longer term there is a real danger that the corps of experts in taxonomy, will be too small to provide the essential expertise on which quarantine services depend.

2. Do the programs make a useful contribution to your area of responsibility or work?

These programs are essential.

The Academy believes that the ABRS makes an invaluable contribution to the general scientific community through its three major subprograms of research, training and provision of biodiversity data. The roles of the modern taxonomist are not only to identify museum specimens, a seemingly 'simple' task which belies the years of experience needed to provide accurate identifications. They also encompass accurate and reliable species identifications for a variety of purposes including screening of quarantine pests, ecological indicators, pathogens, vectors of diseases and parasites, and identifications used in detailed biogeographical studies. Without such accurate identifications provide by taxonomists, the validity and usefulness of the subsequent analyses are rendered virtually meaningless.

In addition, Australia's international commitments require urgent assessment and long-term management of our biological diversity which can not be accomplished without a profound knowledge of the species that comprise each community.

3. What is your view of the current resource levels provided to the programs?

The Academy believes that the ABRS is now critically under-resourced and can not fulfil its primary role to 'provide the underlying taxonomic knowledge necessary for the conservation and sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity'. Although it is widely acknowledged that the Australian continent contains a 'megadiverse' biota, there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the components of that fauna. Some estimates suggest that Australia is home to more than 600,000 species, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. This biota can only be described and classified by a workforce of properly funded taxonomists. During the past decade this workforce has been seriously eroded because fewer funds are being devoted to taxonomic work in state funded herbaria and museums or in universities. Also, many universities no longer teach taxonomy and fewer students are receiving funding for taxonomic research, so that recruitment of taxonomists also is in severe decline. Australia is reaching the stage where we will be

  • incapable of identifying species in a wide range of groups (that is there will be no one anywhere in Australia able to do the identifications)
  • there will be no one able to teach the special skills needed for each group to potential new workers, and
  • we will have lost our corporate memory of our biota, how to collect it and how to study it.

To redress these trends and restore the Australian taxonomic workforce the level of funding to ABRS needs to be greatly increased to carry out its charter. The Academy suggests that a reasonable success rate for applications to the research funding program would be 25%. This would allow excellent proposals of national interest to be funded. At the moment only one or two new proposals are funded each year. If this trend continues scientists will give up seeking support for taxonomic research. We also recommend that the targets set for the publications program be reestablished through additional support and enhancing the publications process. The Academy estimates that the annual funding level for both these activities will require an annual budget of about $5m.

The United States National Science Foundation (US NSF) has recently increased the funding allocated to taxonomic research through its Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) scheme. This scheme has changed dramatically the outlook on taxonomy by students, generating new postdoc positions and other opportunities.

The Facility Grant Scheme for Biological Collections and Specimen Databasing recommended by the Academy in its 1991 Symposium on Australian biota and the national interest is as important and underfunded now as it was then. This was originally proposed by a working group established by DEST and CSIRO. The purpose was to support the maintenance of biological collections on a needs bases and the concept was based on the highly successful US NSF Support for Systematics Collections Program. It was proposed that ABRS should administer this scheme.

4. Do the programs provide an appropriate mechanism for encouraging and stimulating the inventory of Australia's biological diversity and its conservation and sustainable use?

Yes, as currently constituted, the ABRS program is an appropriate mechanism for developing an inventory of Australia's biota through its three major subprograms of research, training and presentation of taxonomic studies. All it needs is adequate funding. As noted above, without accurate and reliable identifications provided either by experienced taxonomists or by biologists, using publications produced by experienced taxonomists, the usefulness of many scientific programs upon which these identifications are based are seriously hampered.

5. Have the programs been successful and effective in meeting their objectives and how are you determining success?

While some aspects of ABRS's programs have been very successful, the Academy believes that other areas have been less successful, mainly due to inadequate funding.

Successes include the Flora of Australia book series, which have produced numerous volumes devoted to the Australian vascular plants. The Zoological Catalogue of Australia and in particular the Fauna of Australia have fallen behind their schedules and may have lost the confidence of the wider taxonomic community.

Another major success has been the development and implementation of the computer database PLATYPUS, which was designed to aid production of the Zoological Catalogue of Australia. Further funds, either through Environment Australia or from other sources, are required to extend the program and to ensure it maintains its leading technology position which is to serve the development and maintenance of the Zoological Catalogue and be more useful to the wider taxonomic and ecological community.

As for the research and training areas, the Academy believes that despite relatively poor funding, the provision of funds to expedite or commence taxonomic research on the Australian biota has been extremely successful in two areas.

  • The funding of taxonomic research has resulted in the description of numerous components of Australia's biota. These results have been published in scientific journals and books, and have allowed users such as ecologists, behaviourists and other taxonomists to identify organisms of interest to them. The taxonomic knowledge base is fundamental to the understanding of the Australian biota.
  • The training of new researchers has enabled students and other scientists to obtain funding not available through any other government source to gain valuable experience in taxonomic research, and to develop careers in Australian taxonomy. The Academy welcomes the decision by ABRS to initiate a Scholarship Award Scheme.

However, the major difficulty is providing career paths for individuals who complete a PhD in taxonomy. There is no pool of post-doctoral level positions to allow the continued development of expertise or the transfer of expertise from older workers. Typically, a young worker would begin their post-PhD career in an institution where an older worker was nearing retirement and could take up the work. Unfortunately, the ABRS has no funds to support such positions in a way that would allow any sensible person to choose to do a PhD in taxonomy as the first step in a career.

6. What linkages are there between the programs and other domestic and international programs relevant to biodiversity conservation?

(a) National Programs

ABRS is closely linked to all stakeholders through its annual newsletter; ABRS staff participate in key meetings; respond effectively to telephone inquiries; and senior staff regularly visit institutions all around Australia. ABRS staff are also observers on a range of key Australian councils such as the Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria and the Council of Heads of Australian Fauna Collections. This allows a very high level of contact between ABRS and Australian institutions in terms of developing appropriate priorities in relation to biodiversity research and conservation.

(b) International Programs

ABRS is highly regarded overseas. It is widely recognized that Australia, through the facilitation and coordination by ABRS, has shown significant leadership and achieved remarkable progress in the preparation and publication of such national inventories as the Flora of Australia and Zoological Catalogue of Australia.

The Biodiversity Program is also responsible for Australia's international commitments, including the Convention on Biodiversity. The Australian delegations to the Subsidy Body for Science, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) and Conference of Parties (COP) are among the best prepared delegations to these meetings due to the excellent work of staff in the Biodiversity Program. They have less resources for these activities than their counterparts in some other countries where special Convention units have been developed.

The Academy is the Australian member of a number of international scientific organisations that collaborate in research about biological diversity by concentrating on problems of major global significance and by providing analytical tools to promote sound management and policy practice. A number of these organisations are partners in an international program called DIVERSITAS and many Australian scientists participate directly in these programs. Some information about the DIVERSITAS program is attached (Attachment 2). The Academy directs relevant journals and newsletters to the Biodiversity group within Environment Australia.

The Academy is also a member of the Federation of Asian Scientific Academies and Societies (FASAS) and recently organised A Master Class in New Technologies for the Measurement of Biodiversity in Malaysia (Attachment 3).

7. What are your views on the future of the programs including:

are there other mechanisms for delivering the program objectives which might be more efficient, and effective;

While there may be slightly different mechanisms for delivering the program objectives outlined above, the Academy believes that the fundamental tenet of ABRS "to provide the underlying taxonomic knowledge necessary for the conservation and sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity" remains unaltered. Without the provision of sufficient funds to sustain and train a variety of taxonomists in various institutions (e.g. museums, herbaria, universities), ABRS will not be able to deliver its core objective.

The information generated through ABRS activities can be delivered in print and electronic form. To date the information has primarily been delivered in print form, as books and monographs such as the Zoological Catalogue of Australia, the Fauna of Australia and Flora of Australia. We note that ABRS has developed new software, PLATYPUS, that allow the maintenance and delivery of the Zoological Catalogue on the Web and on CD-ROM with appropriate search tools. Several of the Flora and Fauna volumes in preparation will be accompanied by a CD-ROM, with a descriptive database that will allow interactive identification and information retrieval.

what performance indicators should be chosen to measure the success of the programs; and

The critical indicators are the rate of discovery, description and other records of Australia' biodiversity; rate of publications, number of students, postdocs and younger scientists concerned with biosystematics, uptake of the new information.

in what ways should future program performance be measured?

The impact of modern taxonomic research can not be measured easily, and standard academic measurements such as subsequent citation can be misleading as many end users of taxonomic publications rarely cite the source of their identification.

Conclusion

The arguments for the establishment of the ABRS in 1969 are as cogent today as they were then. The performance of ABRS has lived up to the expectations of that time and the short falls have all been due to insufficient and sustained funding.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

Top