Last year we took a look at plant blindness — a phrase used to describe the observation that people are largely unaware of the plants in their surroundings. Botanical illiteracy is more than a topic botanists discuss over dinner. It is a subject with broad-reaching consequences. Dr. Gordon E. Uno of the University of Oklahoma outlines the consequences and offers solutions to this problem in Botanical literacy: What and how should students learn about plants? published in the American Journal of Botany. One of the issues Uno identifies is the fact that the plant sciences are taught less often in school. This contributes to a chain of events involving reductions in research, reductions in funding, fewer students majoring in botany, and fewer students pursuing graduate studies in the plant sciences (Uno, 2009). This paints a very bleak picture for the future. What could the future possibly look like in light of all of this?
Botanical Capacity Assessment Project
In 2009, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the U.S. office of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and several partners launched a one-year project to assess the strengths and weaknesses of plant science education, research, and habitat management in the United States. A literature review was conducted and data collected from “non-profit organizations, university personnel, graduate students, and government employees involved in plant science research, education and/or natural resource management in the United States.” The findings published by this group are disturbing. Before we take a look at them, I need to explain the phrase “botanical capacity”.
What does “botanical capacity” mean? This phrase refers to all factors contributing to the support and advancement of plant science education, research, and management. Botanical capacity is necessary to enhance our understanding of the many roles plants play in our lives. Think beyond native plants and butterflies for a moment. Think food security, climate change, biodiversity, biofuel production, and sustainability. Without the botanical capacity to address these issues, we won’t be able to manage them.
What does a world without botanical capacity look like?
The way it looks right now. Here are some gaps in botanical capacity identified in the report:
- Fewer botanical degree programs at colleges and universities.
- A dramatic reduction in botany courses at colleges and universities.
- A shortage of botanists at government agencies.
- Applicants unable to apply for jobs as federal botanists because they cannot satisfy the requirement for 24 credit hours in botany.
- The retirement of almost half of the U.S. workforce with botanical expertise within the next ten years.
For quick insight into this project and its findings, watch the short video of Marsh Sundberg’s poster presentation at Botany 2010. The Botany conference is the joint annual meeting of the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, the American Fern Society, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, and the Botanical Society of America.
Another presentation from Botany 2010 that may be of interest to you is Dr. Judy Skog’s presidential address about botany education in the 21st-century.
Kramer, Andrea and Kayri Havens. 2010. Assessing Botanical Capacity to Address Grand Challenges in the United States. A report by the Botanical Capacity Assessment Project. Website http://www.bgci.org/usa/bcap [accessed 26 January 2011].
Uno, Gordon E. 2009. Botanical literacy: What and how should students learn about plants? American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1753-1759. Website http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/content/full/96/10/1753 [accessed 26 January 2011].