Brief Proposal Suggestion
for Expression of Interest: Butterflies
from Jim Mallet, UCL

Friday 8 March 2002 (v. lightly updated 8 Apr 2002, 2 May 2002)

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Framework 6 Expression of Interest
Taxonomy and Molecular Phylogeny: ALL BUTTERFLIES
Integrated Project

Framework 6

The EU Framework 6 Programme is not yet fully ratified, but some details have been published. New proposals are for Integrated Projects, Networks of Excellence, as well as other more typical Framework 5-type multinational research funding.

Like Framework 5, Framework 6 will allow proposals according to certain thematic needs envisioned to integrate EU research. For our purposes, the relevant thematic/research areas would probably come under:

1.1 Genomics and biotechnology for health Comparative genomics and population genetics Bioinformatics
1.6 Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems
     1.6.3 Biodiversity and ecosystems
     1.6.3 Operational forecasting and modelling, including global climate change observation systems
As well as the establishment of new Integrated Projects (which have larger funding bases than most typical FP5-type projects, would be for 5 years and 3 countries at least, and may have budgets of 10 million Euros, say), accounting rules have been simplified, to make them more flexible and responsive. In addition, there is the establishment of "Expression of Interest" documents (short, 5 pages?? -- document received by our EU office today, and not yet distributed to us), which would give some feedback as to the Commission's interest in funding Integrated Projects and Networks of Excellence.

DEADLINE: the deadline for Expressions of Interest was announced on 20 March 2002 to be June 7 2002. We therefore need to act now, if we are to get a sensible Expression of Interest in!


Taxonomy is a basic need for all branches of biological science and biotechnology. In particular it is vital that taxonomy infrastructure is in place in order to carry out our commitments with respect to Convention on Biological Diversity agreements signed by EU governments. The existence of expert taxonomists, taxonomic databases, and databases of geographic distribution data are also being used effectively to understand and monitor and biological effects of global climate change. The taxonomic data and knowledge of will be essential for predicting future effects of climate change.

Yet funding for taxonomy normally falls by the wayside. In Britain, a House of Lords Report in 1992 led to some releases of new funds for systematics, but most of this money seems to have been diverted via NERC towards "The New Taxonomy", essentially population genetics and the development of novel molecular markers then coming on stream in the NERC remit area.

Little money, if any (?) was added to alpha-taxonomy, and today NERC, pressed for funds, has expressed intent to remove its commitment to basic taxonomy. My belief is that similar problems are endemic in most EU countries. For example in France in particular.

Meanwhile, over the last ten years the USA has increased funding for systematics, and also basic taxonomy, with NSF competitive funding ring-fenced for taxonomy, systematics and phylogeny, and also floristic and faunistic inventory work. Europe badly needs to catch up.

The majority of the world's expertise in taxonomy probably still resides in major European Museums, in particular in London, Paris, and Berlin (and a number of other German institutions). These key European collections themselves remain of inestimable value as taxonomic databases to Europe and also for the rest of the world. However, the funding problems for taxonomy means that taxonomic expertise is almost never being replaced by new training or new posts. Instead, Museums such as the Natural History Museum are developing expertise in the "New Taxonomy" areas, ecology, evolutionary biology, molecular systematics.

At the same time, DNA sequencing and the ability to obtain molecular phylogenies has become much easier, and very large throughput robotic sequencing, and new techniques for data analysis means that very large projects in DNA-based phylogeny estimation have never been easier.

DNA-based "natural history" (e.g. population structure, studies of gene flow and hybridisation, biogeography, molecular ecology) is an ideal partner for traditional taxonomy, and is engaged in increasingly mutualistic interactions with museum taxonomy. But the requirement of an infrastructure of morphological taxonomy remains essential for the furtherance of this work.

A very rough proposal outline

I propose that what is needed is to jump start a new and exciting era in taxonomy by blending modern techniques with traditional taxonomic expertise and collections data. An EU Integrated Project could provide a flagship for what can be done in taxonomy and fundamental biological informatics infrastructure.

I would argue that we need to establish taxonomy/molecular phylogeny centres in the three core countries containing most of the worlds' museum collections: France, Germany and UK. Other countries such as Spain, Italy, Finland and Sweden should undoubtedly be involved.

We cannot establish taxonomy on all organisms simultaneously. I propose that we concentrate on butterflies because (1) They are already among the best-understood organisms taxonomically, so we start from a firm basis on which to do a complete inventory of the worlds' species; (2) We can identify key taxonomists worldwide who would provide coverage for the entire diversity of the worlds' ?20,000 species. (3) The numbers of species within the monophyletic group are manageable for obtaining DNA information. (4) They are already important indicator organisms for many ecological, biodiversity and conservation projects - for instance, the British Charity Butterfly Conservation is the second largest only to birds (RSPB) in terms of membership in the UK. (5) Detailed distribution knowledge has been very important in documenting the effect of Global Warming over the last 10 years. (6) Many groups worldwide are already generating DNA data necessary to understand the complete phylogeny of butterflies; here again, an outline of which are useful DNA sequences required for doing the complete phylogeny work has already been established.

I would argue we need for at least half of all funds to go towards major systematic institutions in European countries. The other half, for molecular work (purchase of robotic sequencing and PCR equipment, as well as research salary costs, for instance) and phylogeny estimation, would be easier to find partners for, because many research groups in universities are now working on molecular phylogeny-related questions.

Particularly for the taxonomy we will need help and support from outside the EU. These would come in the form of key international figures like Gerardo Lamas (Lima) and Bob Robbins (Smithsonian). Together with other Europeans and non-European taxonomists, these scientists founded GloBIS, an ambitious program to generate a defnitive taxonomy of butterflies worldwide. In other words, the GloBIS program is what the Butterfly Taxome Project hopes to fund.  Geneticists like Dave Heckel (Melbourne) & and Jerry Regier (Maryland) are very important in the Lepidoptera genetics field, and would be interested in such a project. Non-Europeans working outside the EU cannot obtain salary money from the EU, but they could have support in the form of travel visits, and their students or postdocs can be employed in EU countries under the remit of this Integrated Project.

We need to present the results of this work using modern means of delivery of taxonomic and genomic data. I would envisage linking with web-based taxonomy and butterfly genomic organizations such as ALL-Species (USA), Tree of Life (USA), Species 2000 (UK), GloBIS (International) as well as via the usual genome databases, but also the International Lepidoptera Genome Project based in Italy.

After our successful project has been carried out, the butterflies will provide an example for what is needed for completion of the taxonomy and phylogeny of all species. Others will learn from our methods, as well as perhaps from the few mistakes we might make from time to time!

Parochial Concerns: Jim Mallet at UCL; why me?

NERC has been funding my own proposals "with less vigour" as they get more taxonomic. Yet NERC or charities like the Leverhulme Trust are the only means of funding what I regard as important: the biodiversity/taxonomy/ genetics/evolution interface.

I am now an honorary researcher at the Natural History Museum, and am planning closer integration in future.

A major move by several UCL Biology research groups out of Wolfson House to a refurbished couple of floors in the Darwin Building in Gower Street has led to the unusual situation (in London) of some office and lab space opening up in this building. However, the space is not popular with other members of UCL, who don't like to cross Euston Road. Therefore, for the near future, we have the room to expand; a nerve centre for a major project at Wolfson House would be popular with the UCL hierarchy, and good use of the space.

I have no less than 4 EU Marie Curie Fellows working with me or shortly coming here, doing work broadly related to the proposed Integrated Project. So EU clearly does fund my kind of research.

UCL is well-connected with the EU funding mechanisms, and is in the top 3 institutions in this country for successful funding by FP5.   The Natural History Museum, London, has close links with many associated projects on European taxonomy, and also has an excellent track record for EU funding.

The EU would fund proper office management for such an enormous project. This would make it doable, as far as I am concerned.

Wolfson House has a new Department of Mathematics/Biology/Biochemistry institute called COMPLEX, which has just moved into the building. Data analysis and the bioinformatics of such large volumes of both traditional taxonomic and also sequence data, and its analysis, would fit in well with their program of PhD projects and mathematics/biology theory interface.

I sincerely believe that coordinating this programme would be good use of my time and would provide genuine benefits to EU and indeed world science.

Immediate Needs

I am sending this to you because if I am to organise an Expression of Interest, I must have some immediate feedback from all of you. Here are my specific questions:

All: Are you interested in participating, or seeing this idea enacted? Send me any views, however hastily put together. The important thing to me now is a response from you! Any thoughts, ideas, or even insults would be welcome.

EU Office at UCL and NHM Finance People: Would this brief outline seem a possible Integrated Project? I don't think it would be worth it for me to put in for a smaller project, because of the (time commitment/return in terms of research output) ratio. The Integrated Project for such fundamental infrastructure research would seem to me to be the correct method of funding such a project.

Butterfly people: I need to rapidly accumulate contacts in Europe, particularly Paris and Berlin. This cannot wait till the Butterfly meeting in Leiden in late March, unfortunately, because of the 20th March deadline. PLEASE SEND ME NAMES and any details of institutions that should be incorporated URGENTLY!

Should we include skippers? Or would their taxonomic coverage be too sparse?

I am pretty good on the secondary countries I mentioned above, and also on molecular phylogeny practitioners in Europe. But send me these ideas anyway! I am less good on taxonomists in major European Institions.

We need to include as many key people (by which I mean people who would actually bring the project forward, as opposed to just people who work in the general area and are in a country which we feel we ought to include). In particular, I think this will be hardest for taxonomists.

Dave Heckel: Please send me information on the Lepidoptera Mapping Scheme in Italy you told me about!

All the best to you all,


This document circulated to:

8 March 2002:
Dick Vane-Wright, Keeper of Entomology and Taxonomist, Natural History Museum (also GloBIS founding member)
Dr Gerardo Lamas, Taxonomy world expert, Museo de Historia Natural, Lima, Peru (also GloBIS founding member)
Dr Bob Robbins, Chair, Dept Entomology, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (also GloBIS founding member)
Keith Willmott, Postdoctoral taxonomist, Natural History Museum
David Lees, Postdoctoral taxonomist, Natural History Museum
Niklas Wahlberg, Postdoctoral taxonomist, Stockholm University
Dave Heckel, Professor, Lepidoptera Genetics and Genomics
Muriel Reginster, UCL European Office
Vanessa Pike, NHM Grants and Contracts Guru

11 March 2002:
Dr Malcolm Scoble, Natural History Museum, London
Dr Christoph Haüser, Stuttgart. Experienced butterfly taxonomist, President of GBIF steering council (GloBIS founding member)
Dr Rienk de Jong, Leiden. Experienced butterfly taxonomist (GloBIS founding member).

8 April 2002:
A discussion was held with key people at the Butterfly Conference in Leiden, March 2002. Future documents will update this one.

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