Appealing Botany

As a follow up to the news about the end of the Botany degree in the UK and the discussion on Facebook, I’ve been trying to pull together some thoughts on how to rebuild Botany’s appeal. A book I frequently dip into when writing anything about science is Cornelius Holtorf’s Archaeology is a Brand. In it he discusses what is about archaeology that the public find so appealing. Briefly he puts out four Themes common in popular culture.

A) The Archaeologist as adventurer:
The archaeologists travel to distant lands to uncover things hidden from human eyes for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They’re professionals who do this on a regular basis, and the narrative makes them heroes.
D) The Archaeologist as detective:
Archaeologists are specialised with a distinctive skill set and an eye for detail. They can spot something that can be hidden in plain sight for everyone else.
R) The Archaeologist as making profound revelations.
Archaeologists regularly re-write the history books with implications that change our view of the past. He points out overplay of this in press releases makes it ripe for parody. Like the Onion story Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race Of Skeleton People “These skeletons may, in fact, be ancestors of us all. Any of us could be part skeleton.”
C) The Archaeologist as conservator:
Archaeologists care for and protect ancient artefacts that are part of the inheritance of all humanity. When the link is bungled then it can get very odd.

Botany Bay, Australia
Botany Bay, the start of an 18th century adventure across a continent. Photo by Richard Taylor.

Great for archaeologists, because this kind of portrayal gives them a lot of positive press. The only other scientists who could compete are astronomers. Yet when you look at the themes, it’s clear that this should play straight into Botany’s hands. Botanists do go out into the field in exotic locales. I’m currently not able to talk to someone because he’s in remote northwest Australia. The Amazon produces a huge number of papers. There’s a discovery of a badnavirus on a subantarctic island off New Zealand recently led to more work published in AoB Plants on badnaviruses in New Zealand, which is as close as you can get to Middle Earth. We have detective work on a scale where we can look inside cells. We have conservation, not just of plants, but also animals that live off them and off indigenous societies that cultivate them. As for profound revelations, what could be more profound than reading the book of life itself?

When I write a press release for AoB I try to hit these themes, but with limited success. There’s various reasons. One is I need more practice, but there are also other expectations. So with an eye on recent discussion about the end of Botany degrees in the UK I thought I might also try to list some misconceptions that need to be overcome if we want to show how attractive Botany is.

Zoology is more advanced than Botany
At school you start with plants, because there’s only so much pain you can hamfistedly inflict on a plant. When you’re older they let you loose with animals in Biology. So narratively Botany comes before Zoology and Botany as a degree might feel like a step backwards.

I don’t know quite how you fight this. We can’t really do anything about schools, so it’s a problem you tackle at university-level. The difficulty is that you specialise early. If you push Botany to the front you’re reinforcing the narrative that Zoology follows when you move on from Botany and if you don’t you miss out on reintroducing the subject before they choose options.

Plants are simple
Animals frolic, forage and fly, not to mention verbs starting with other letters of the alphabet. Plants just sit there. It’s as if plants are wallpaper or scenery where the important bits of Biology happen rather than important in themselves.

Mimosa Pudica, and Venus Fly Traps, grab attention because in an un-plantlike way they don’t just sit there. Nor do other plants if you look them closely. If you’re stuck in just one spot for a lifetime you have to be very adaptive to cope with whatever’s thrown at you. Plants are complex, but there’s a huge inbuilt cultural assumption of exactly the opposite in the west, as Matthew Hall said recently.

Plants are the past, not the future
A common view is that Botany is an old-fashioned word. It’s hard not to think of a Botanist without thinking about Victorian-era dress. This is unfair as Banks 18th century, but that’s not going to help with a modern image. Plant Science is the popular term. This is the most demonstrably wrong misconception, but demonstrating it’s wrong isn’t going to help in this case. Yes we urgently need to tackle the food crisis, but the people doing so are associated with Monsanto, who have a huge PR problem and the splash is hitting all Botanists working on GMOs. It’s tempting to say instead of an Indiana Jones we need a charismatic super-villain, but in reality that’s not a good line to take.

It’s difficult to do much with one press release. For each release the authors and their research are the stars, and that’s the primary objective. At the same time it helps to avoid retreading clichés when writing. Something I’ve been missing is the adventure aspect. The science is important, but the release is not the science, it’s the hook to pull people to the science. Perhaps I need to bait it more with the human effort of getting the results as well as the results.

Photo: Botany Bay (La Perouse) 2 by Richard Taylor. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

  • At the start of my economic botany class three words are written on the board “miserable”, “naked”, and “hungry”. My point is that without plants we’d be all three. The majority of the students find such botany interesting, but for many it’s too late in their undergrad careers to shift gears into a botany focused curriculum.