On the decline of botany

There was an article out a couple of weeks ago about the decline of the study of botany.  But the reason for today’s post is actually this beautiful response from one of my academic crushes, Peter Bernhardt (it went out on the pollinator listserve…sometimes I just have to share these well thought out email replies):

“A colleague sent me the same link the other day.  It’s very good to see the research of Dr. Skogen receive public attention.  As for the remainder of the article, it was badly researched and written.  At worst, it is deceptive.

If the pool of research botanists is dropping why do administrative members at the Botanical Society of America insist to me that their membership has never been higher (and that includes subscription to the American Journal of Botany)?  If we aren’t training enough new botanists why is audience at the annual symposium at the Missouri Botanical Garden about half graduate students over the past five to ten years?
People have been predicting the death of research Botany since the mid-70’s due to the closing of botany departments at universities.  In reality, what we now see are more and more scientists who work on plants exclusively but don’t call themselves botanists.  They call themselves ecologists, evolutionary biologists, pathologists, cell biologists, etc.  What about all those people working entirely on genetic expression of physical and chemical characters of little old Arabidopsis thaliana?  They don’t call themselves botanists either but does that mean they are ashamed or “trying to “pass for white?”   No, what they have in common is that they are all members of Biology departments that do not stress specialization on Kingdoms anymore.  The emphasis is now on protocols to study natural processes.  At the last symposium at the garden we were immersed in the bioinformatics of the ecology and phylogeny of plants (no animals allowed this year) and it was intimidating.  None of the speakers referred to themselves as botanists either.
There is definitely a problem offering certain types of plant courses in Biology departments these days,  Many institutions won’t teach good old plant taxonomy anymore (even with a strong collection of ecology professors).  We are educating a new generation of scientists who, as the article suggests, have to learn to identify plants by themselves and on the go but I’ll bet that graduate students working on fungi, insects, mollusks, fish etc. may have the same gaps in their own undergraduate backgrounds.  It is a shock to learn that most undergraduates in my department still don’t know the technical names of physical structures used to identify plants, animals and fungi and won’t ever learn how to use a dichotomous key, or learn the rudiments of binomial nomenclature, unless they take my course in Ethnobotany or a colleague’s course in ichthyology (which he calls The Biology of Fishes).  That’s another thing.  We seem embarrassed by the vocabulary of our own specialties.  Why?
Solutions offered in this article have been in operation for decades, you know.  Institutions like The Missouri Botanical Garden and New York Botanical Garden have been taking in graduate students for most of the last century and they always do so in association with local universities they regard as sister institutions.  It’s fresh and new at the Chicago Botanic Garden but only because the Chicago Garden is one of the youngest botanical gardens in America.
Yes, training new botanists could use a financial and intellectual boost in the arm but training students in almost any discipline emphasizing the classification of almost every multicellular organism needs a boost in the arm.  Imposing disaster scenarios on any branch of science to pick up more state or federal money for education seems unethical to me.

Peter “still a botanist” Bernhardt


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