3.1. The core sister-disciplines within systematic (comparative) biology are taxonomy and phylogenetics (see Figure).
Taxonomy concerns the delimitation, description, and identification of all species and other taxa, both extant and extinct. This has traditionally been pursued via global treatments of a relatively narrow range of species (monographs) or regional treatments of a much wider range of species (inventories leading to floras/ faunas), typically based primarily on reference collections of specimens. Taxonomy it is increasingly integrating information from various nucleic acid-based approaches such as population genetics and “DNA bar-coding”.
Phylogenetics explores the evolutionary relationships among the species and other taxa that have been generated by taxonomists, using various comparative approaches to explore both morphological and DNA-based information. Its ultimate aim is to reconstruct and interpret the “tree of life”.
Both taxonomy and phylogenetics are integrated into the naming of taxa and their organisation into hierarchical systems of classification.
3.2. It is commonly (and correctly) stated that taxonomy provides the essential framework for any biological study, by providing the formal classifications and names, and also the standardised terminology, to reference, describe and identify the organisms that constitute the Earth’s biota. It can justly be argued that any biological study, and certainly any comparative biological study, is rooted in taxonomy. Taxonomic activities can usefully be categorised in two subdisciplines (see Figure).
Descriptive taxonomy is comparatively creative and proactive, inevitably requiring specialist knowledge and involving the formal (indeed, highly prescriptive) description of new taxa, followed by their redescription as further relevant data are gathered.Applied taxonomy is generally more reactive, encompassing the subsequent use of those classifications to identify organisms, and the dissemination of the resulting data on species recognition and distribution. Recent attempts have been made to reduce the level of specialist knowledge needed to identify organisms.
Applied taxonomy generates information that is fed back into descriptive taxonomy in a positive feedback loop, either directly or through other more obviously charismatic disciplines encompassed by systematic biology, notably evolutionary comparison of species (phylogenetics) and populations (see Figure). This mutual support among systematic disciplines is critical to the success of systematic biology; positive or negative impacts on one discipline have corresponding effects on the remaining disciplines.
3.3. Taxonomy and phylogenetics are intellectual challenges sufficiently rigorous to be justifiable on their own merit. However, in recent years they have been justified primarily on the grounds that they feed directly into a wide range of other biological disciplines; they are essential to our understanding of evolution and speciation, biogeography, ecology (including sustainability and environmental issues), conservation, agriculture s.l. (including horticulture, forestry and fisheries), biomedicine and biotechnology (unfortunately, the inter-dependency of these disciplines is still not immediately obvious to non-systematists).
Systematics also underpins more general interests in natural history and social phenomena such as education and leisure. In addition to generating such data, much recent discussion has focused on improving methods of disseminating systematic information, notably via networked databases. It is widely accepted (not least by the 2002 House of Lords review) that it is taxonomy rather than phylogenetics that has suffered the most serious decline during the last two decades (phylogenetics was especially strongly promoted by the 1992 House of Lords review). However, it is important to recognise that any future prescription aiming to benefit taxonomy should also consider the likely downstream 3 impacts of such recommendations on phylogenetics, and on the many user groups exploiting taxonomic and phylogenetic information.
3.4. A joint Systematics Association/Linnean Society working group sought to identify the key priorities for these organisations, and in March 2005 recommended that we:
(1) Increase the resourcing and impact of systematic biology in its broadest sense.
(2) Achieve a better balance between, and better integration of, whole-organism and molecular science.
(3) Promote systematics as a discipline that is both scholarly and socially relevant, primarily through meetings and a diversity of publications.
(4) Improve access of actual and potential users to scientific information and publications.
(5) Restore routine teaching of organismal biology and the “informal apprenticeship” that ultimately generates professional systematists.
(6) Facilitate the substantial contributions to natural history of student, retired and amateur researchers.
(7) Translate accumulating scientific knowledge into high-level policy, notably via research and education strategies.
Further strategic planning is ongoing within the Association’s council.