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Peter Bridgewater
Chief Science Adviser, Environment Australia

The World Conference on Science next summer will be about many things. But above all it will be about access to science, and how science can play a crucial role in defining our future

People need science to help them live sustainably. To be sustainable, we must know how biodiversity has developed and is maintained. Importantly, we must recognise that biodiversity reflects culture, and that culture shapes biodiversity. This two-way exchange is as old as human occupation of the globe, and is fundamental to our understanding of the scientific and cultural context of biodiversity.

The Convention on Biological Diversity tells us to manage, sustainably use and share equitably the benefits of biodiversity. But we cannot achieve these goals unless we understand better how human cultural activity has shaped the biodiversity of today.

Our management of nature is the expression of our many human cultures. A detailed understanding of biodiversity is necessary to comprehend how, in turn, the environment reshapes human culture through feedback. Throughout the world - and Australia is no exception - most landscapes are biocultural landscapes, that is blends of human activity with the expression of biodiversity.

With that in mind, the key to managing, conserving, using and sharing biodiversity is our ability to understand it, and that involves increasing our efforts in taxonomy. Taxonomy is the science of discovering, describing and naming the individual species of plants and animals (including microscopic forms) that make up the biota, and that reflect the history of life on earth.

Taxonomy provides this reference system for all known life, as well as the skills and tools to identify them. Although we have the scientific framework, we are still a long way from knowing all the elements. As a result, those governments that recognise the Convention on Biological Diversity have acknowledged the existence of a taxonomic impediment to sound management and conservation of biodiversity.

The highest level meetings under that convention over the last two years have developed an innovative plan, the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI), to promote capacity building in taxonomy, and thus remove the impediment. Truly global in scope, the GTI will draw into partnership the world's largest and oldest natural history institutions with the developing world. Solutions to resolve the taxonomic impediment will require the necessary funding to maintain existing collections as well as to provide capacity building in developing countries, where national collections are absent, poor in quality and lack necessary maintenance standards.

Blending traditional and modern science is another theme that the World Science Conference will explore. In the area of biodiversity, indigenous people have extensive biodiversity knowledge of their local areas, based on millennia of living on and with the land. Indigenous people use language to encode the lore needed to conserve and manage biodiversity - and maintenance of that language base means continuing access to knowledge about the land and its biodiversity.

Continued access to that specialized knowledge is an eloquent reason to preserve indigenous language and culture. Here we see the borderland between science and culture, the blending of the natural and social sciences. The Asia-Pacific preparatory meeting for the World Science Conference identified, as a priority through the Sydney Communique, the need for practitioners of all science and knowledge systems to understand and respect each other. Working towards these goals will be a major outcome for the Budapest conference.

Ultimately, how we regard the welfare of each other and the biodiversity of our planet upon which we depend, will be a measure of how well we are doing in attaining the goal of living sustainably. And, while science may be the key to attaining the goal, it is the successful interaction between science and society that will be critical for our survival.

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