Thursday, July 22, 2010

Flowers? Heck, where have all the BOTANISTS gone?

Professional botanists and ecologist throughout the United States were sent a questionnaire last year regarding the state of botanical study and practice at the academic and applied levels. Having all but forgotten the survey, I was surprised to find a synopsis of the report in the most recent issue of the Missouri Natural Areas Newsletter. The article directs readers to the full report at the following web address:

I thought this might be an interesting forum (via comments) to discuss the results. So, what do you think? And, more importantly, what does it all mean?


Scott Namestnik said...

Thanks for posting this, Justin. I am happy to get the dialogue started.

My opinion is that most of the funding today is going towards the hot topics of sustainability, "greener" energy, and global issues, leaving specialist sciences like botany in the past. Without funding for true botanical projects, there is no use for a botanist. Until there is a way to fund good botanical work, the number of botanists and college programs in botany will continue to decrease.

I also think that this shortage of botanists stems from the fact that everybody thinks that they "know their plants" these days, leading to the botanist becoming a specialist in a field where work by generalists is, sadly, accepted as the status quo. Management is often out of touch with what it really takes to be a good botanist, and is content to send less than qualified help into the field to do work that should be conducted by a botanist. Managers don't realize that a species list consisting of 50 species on a site with 300 species isn't good enough. I've seen this happen in both the private and public sector. There also seems to be no accountability for poorly done work.

The Phytophactor said...

This is a broad generalization, but in the USA the human-biomedical tail wags the biology dog. There is so little funding available for organismal botany that there's no wonder we're an endangered species. The consolidation of botany into biology programs genrally has damaged the enrollment and integrity of botany. A dodo of a chairman once told me "You won't be happy until half this department are botanists!" I said, "Right." And he said, "Well, what the hell would they all teach?" And I said, "They'd teach genetics, evolution, ecology, physiology, all the bloody areas you seem to think only exist in zoology." But you win the argument and lose the war. Hate to think what will happen when I retire.

Justin Thomas said...

It is nice to see a near consensus from botany folks that there are big problems in the way we, as a community, perceive, study and manage plants and the communities they inhabit. The summary in the Missouri Natural Areas Newsletter mentions that 80% of respondents working for the federal government said that a "lack of perceived need" was the major obstacle to botanical competence in their agency. That is probably well aligned with the degree of incompetence of most government employees, botanists or not. Much of this has driven me into the private sector where I pickup freelance botany work and provide training without having to deal with the undesirable aspects of government work. Someday that may change.

Evidently, things are even worse in the western US. How the heck can there be 20 wildlife biologists for every botanist? That is a cultural artifact and is very far removed from anything resembling sound, socially meaningful, science or even conservation.

I think that most biologists, at least in the applied realm, have grown accustomed to a low standard of quality. Very few programs charged with managing private land conduct monitoring that follows the rigors of science. That being so, they cannot provide any legitimate justification for their management decisions. Those that do monitor usually lack the skills needed to identify sterile plants, grasses and sedges; such data are useless.

This being said, when was it ever any different? I hear talk of the glory days of botany but see little evidence. In Missouri, it seems there has always been a single primary botanist, be it Bush, Palmer, Steyermark or Yatskievych, and a handful of professional and advanced amateurs working closely with them.

In the academic realm it seems that organismal biology has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Or maybe radio is a better analogy. It is still useful and important, but it is lackluster, antiquated and boring compared to the shiny new whistling world of hyper-technology. Thus the grant-getting fields of genetics, molecular taxonomy and ecological modeling (labor-intensive math-based guessing) get the advertising.

I have spent the past several weeks working 10-12 hours in the field with chiggers, red-neck squirrel hunters, gnats, venomous snakes and heat indices in excess of 105 degrees. Quadrat after quadrat, I collect data on my hands and knees, dodging seed ticks and poison ivy when I can; dealing with the consequences when I cannot. Over the years, this practice has allowed me to really get to know the flora. Though I cuss when blackberry prickles draw blood and though I occasionally fall and land on sharp shards of chert, my heart is singing as I work. If for no other reason than the solace that I am doing something few dare attempt and even fewer appreciate.

DenPro said...

I agree with all the above posts, and probably can't add much, so I'll just rant for awhile. I have heard of ivy league schools closing their natural history museums, big ten schools closing their herbariums. The U.S. Forest Service has replaced 80% of their foresters with general ecologists. While this "might" be a good thing, I'll still take a tree person over a book-trained biologist any day. Our Natural Areas & Preserves division of DNR has completely folded. No money! As long as big business continues to go overseas this will happen in every state.

Poor quality field work? Is it any wonder when academics center around theory and mathematical modeling instead of hands on field work. My associate degree students know more local flora than most grad students they work with. In fairness, all the dollars go to genetics today, resource management be damned. Don't even get me started on what they're doing to taxonomy.

As all Ohio schools switch to semesters, even most majors in our department have eliminated the plant ecology class, sad. Without trying to repeat what Justin said, his last two paragraphs really hit home with me. Nice to know there is still some old school thought out there. At the most I have 6 years left, and I'm already counting the days.