GTI and the RBINS Capacity Building Project

Background and context

The Belgian Focal Point to the GTI

Calls for proposals

Background and context

"It's not a hyperbole for us to say that all of biology is footnote to Aristotle. He defined the field, outlined the major problems, and accumulated data to provide answers - he set the course."

J.A. Moore, 1993: p. 33
(Science as a way of knowing: the foundations of modern biology. Harvard University Press)

Taxonomy - What's in a name?

Taxonomy is the scientific discipline that identifies, describes and classifies the diversity of life. It is well-known that this science has - at least in western societies - its founding roots in the thinking of the Greek philosopher and naturalist Aristotle (384-322 BC). The discipline has through the centuries evolved into a mature and stimulating science that not only allows storage and retrieval of information, but also hypothesis-driven reasoning on biodiversity issues such as neo-extinctions, conservation, alien invasive species and biosafety (see also the BioNET-International website "Why taxonomy matters").

Taxonomy can roughly be divided in three complementary specialities.

  • Alpha-taxonomy is concerned with identifying and describing the basic units of Earth's diversity (the species) and in grouping these into preliminary classifications (genera).
  • Beta-taxonomy on the other hand is not primarily interested in the discrimination of discrete taxonomic variation, but attempts to construct hierarchical classifications that incorporate evolutionary relationships.
  • Gamma-taxonomy seeks to understand the processes that drive taxon formation and evolution in general.

Clearly, these three branches are intimately inter-connected as understanding how biodiversity naturally arises, evolves and disappears is needed to recognise inter-and intra-specific variation, identify and name its units and build meaningful (i.e. reflecting common descent) classifications for them.

Enigmatically however, taxonomy - as the mother of all biological sciences - has during the last century lost quite a bit of the cutting edge splendour it previously lodged (especially in the eight-and nineteenth century when protagonists such as Linnaeus, Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace and Haeckel were active). The cause of this calamitous state is not easy to trace, but can (at least partially) be attributed to a fund-and brain drain to other more experimental, less-comparative, disciplines (e.g. cytology, genetics, biochemistry, physiology and ecology) in the first half of the twentieth century. However, with the current realisation that large scale-habitat destruction and overexploitation of natural resources result in unprecedented rates of species-extinctions and co-occurring alterations in functioning and redundancy of ecosystems, the need for sound taxonomic research is acknowledged by virtually all conservationists. Yet, in the 21st century the so-called taxonomic impediment, i.e. the lack of taxonomic (inclusive of genetic) information, taxonomic and curatorial expertise and infrastructure in many parts of the world, has become the Damocles Sword above the heads of conservationists and policy makers. This taxonomic impediment roughly plays at two levels:

  • practising taxonomists and curators in developed countries, where historically the bulk of taxonomic collections, infrastructure and know-how have accumulated, currently suffer to a lesser or greater extent from a lack of prestige and funds.
  • practising taxonomists and curators in developing countries, where more often than not the bulk of biodiversity is located, are crippled by a lack of human, infrastructural and financial resources.

The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Establishment of the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI)

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro gave birth the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The three goals of this convention - conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources - have become prime points on the political agenda of most of the world's governments.
Given the fact that the CBD agreed to adopt an ecosystem approach rather than the tactic to conserve only charismatic species or vegetation types, taxonomic expertise and competence have become needed across all taxonomic levels. However, already at the Second Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD it was realized that taxonomic (inclusive of genetic) information, taxonomic and curatorial expertise and infrastructure are insufficient in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. Hence, such lack was anticipated to be one of the key obstacles (political impotence of biologists and scientific impotence of policy makers being other impediments) in the implementation of the Convention, in particular of Article 7 on identification and monitoring

In order to overcome this taxonomic impediment, subsequent COP's endorsed consecutive SBSTTA recommendations and established the Global Taxonomy Initiative. During COP-6 an operational programme of work for the GTI has been endorsed (COP decision VI/8, paragraph 5). This programme of work not only sets operative objectives, but also provides the rationale for the choice of the operational targets. It was concluded that fast and successful implementing of this programme of work will to a large extent depend on: (i) coordinating it with existing national, regional and global initiatives, partnerships and institutions such as, inter alia, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and BioNET-INTERNATIONAL and (ii) taxonomic capacity building at the national and regional levels.

The programme of work of the GTI consists of five operational objectives:

Operational objective 1:
Assess taxonomic needs and capacities at national, regional and global levels for the implementation of the Convention.

Operational objective 2:
Provide focus to help build and maintain the human resources, systems and infrastructure needed to obtain, collate and curate the biological specimens that are the basis for taxonomic knowledge.

Operational objective 3:
Facilitate an improved and effective infrastructure/system for access to taxonomic information; with priority on ensuring that countries of origin gain access to information concerning elements of their biodiversity.

Operational objective 4:
Within the major thematic work programmes of the Convention include key taxonomic objectives to generate information needed for decision-making in conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its components.

Operational objective 5:
Within the work on cross-cutting issues of the Convention, include key taxonomic objectives to generate information needed for decision-making in conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its components.

Concisely: The GTI aims to make taxonomic information, at all levels of biodiversity (genetic, species and ecosystem) and for all organisms, available in order to implement the three goals of the CBD.

The Belgian Focal Point to the Global Taxonomy Initiative


As requested in COP decision V/9, paragraph 4, Belgium has designated its Focal Point for the GTI: the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, (RBINS) in Brussels. This museum and research institute harbours zoological collections (roughly 37 million specimens) and a library of global importance, well-equipped research facilities and well-trained scientific and curatorial staff. It is the largest of Belgium's high quality taxonomic research institutes. It collaborates with other Belgian museums and institutes such as the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren) and the National Botanic Garden (Meise), as well as with universities and other research institutes (see also for complete list of Belgian actors in biodiversity research).

Objectives and Themes

"Rapid access to bad data is unacceptable; the challenge is not merely to speed data access but to expedite taxonomic research."

Wheeler, Raven & Wilson, Science 303: p. 285

The contribution of the Belgian Development Cooperation (DGDC), through the Belgian Focal Point to the GTI includes:

  • Training in taxonomy and collection management. This tuition, provided in collaboration with the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium), cuts across all levels and aims at professional taxonomists, postgraduate, graduate and undergraduate students, technicians and parataxonomists. Training for the individual includes traditional and molecular approaches to taxon identification and classification while institutional support includes reference centre and website development.
  • Support for taxonomy based research projects.
  • Valorisation of archives and collections relating to partner countries.
  • Creating public awareness and education.
  • Provide scientific support to biodiversity related policy of Belgian Development Cooperation.

To give impetus to some of these objectives the Belgian Focal Point for the GTI launches two calls for proposals:

  1. Call for taxonomy-based individual and institutional capacity building projects (external call, open to developing countries)
  2. Call for taxonomy-based research projects (internal call, open only to research with RBINS promotor)

Contact of  the Belgian Focal Point to the GTI

Our address:
Belgian Focal Point to the Global Taxonomy Initiative
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
Rue Vautier 29
1000 Brussels
Tel: +32 2 627 43 41
Fax: +32 2 627 41 41

How to get there? See our access maps.

Our team:

Dr. J. Van Goethem - Project promotor
Dr. A. Franklin - Project coordinator
Dr. Y. Samyn - GTI Tutor
Mr. A. Réveillon - Assistant tutor

Call for Proposals

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Last updated  07-12-2004

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