Is the science of botany in critical decline? That’s the provocative question being posed by Jorge Crisci and colleagues in a new op-ed published in Trends in Plant Science. Pointing to global declines in such areas as student numbers, faculty, courses, herbaria, and university botany departments, coupled with “highly educated biologists not being able to tell apart even the most common plants,” they make a strong case for the science being in jeopardy. The authors lay out four factors they claim have brought us to this critical juncture.
First, the problem of scientific reductionism – of prioritizing a lower level of biological organisation – namely molecular – over all others, and specifically over whole organisms. “Through the spectacular advances of molecular biology, a methodological reductionism currently is prevalent,” write the authors. “This prevalence has an unintended side effect of devaluing botany, because a level of biological organization (molecules) exceeds in perceived scientific relevance (in an ambit of limited resources) a comprehensive multilevel discipline, such as botany.”
(As someone trained in legume systematics and morphology, and therefore admittedly biased, I would also add that I think there’s been a parallel and related trend to train students in highly transferable skills such as molecular techniques, which can be deployed on any organism, rather than valuable but less transferable/marketable skills such as taxonomic expertise in a given family.)
Second, the loss and decline of herbaria worldwide. Natural history collections the world over face closure due to budget shortfalls and a perceived lack of modernity or utility around preserved collections. Because many types of biological research rely on the use of collections, this undercuts the science as a whole. All biological research, of course, depends on the correct identification of the study organism, which often begins with the use of collected specimens.
Third, the trend of market logic being applied to science. That is, citation rates, impact factor, and other simplistic metrics being used to determine the worth of scientific research. Though clearly problematic and much-criticized, little progress has been made in dislodging this system. Since botanical journals, and especially those specializing in taxonomic research, tend to rank lower in these metrics than molecular and ecologically-focussed journals, a botanical focus can negatively impact one’s career on a highly competitive playing field, disincentivizing this area of research.
And finally, the abandonment of the actual word botany. The term ‘botany’, the authors argue, has “been subject to a process of pervasive denigration.” They point out that at the most recent International Botanical Congress, which was held in 2017 and attended by over 7000 scientists, the Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Science was made public, establishing strategic priorities for the advancement of the science. Nowhere in the document could one find the word ‘botany’. The term had been entirely supplanted by the words ‘plant sciences’, further marginalising the traditional term, which some take to sound old-fashioned.
This problem, in part, stems from a misunderstanding of some of botany’s key subdisciplines. “[T]he view that taxonomy is a purely descriptive branch of knowledge that consists only of observations is a clear example of these misconceptions. In fact, taxonomy is a scientific discipline that requires description, but also theoretical, empirical, and epistemological rigor, a hypothesis-driven approach, and field and lab expertise,” they write.
So what’s to be done about it all? The authors make many suggestions, broken into actions by individuals and actions by the scientific establishment at large. Briefly, and to name just a few, individuals must use the word botany in a positive light and reject reductionist thinking, pursuing research in “out of fashion but underexplored” areas of organismal biology. Governments and institutions must support botany, changing how such research is evaluated by funders and universities, and creating job opportunities for organismal work. Funders must value collections and recognize their utility, rather than merely looking at them as ongoing costs. And universities must encourage the teaching of botany so the next generation can see it as a viable career path.
The authors admit they’ve chosen a somewhat controversial and ambiguous title, but opt to look on the issue in a positive light. “We choose optimism, and advocate for the critical importance of botany now, and in our future.”