The last student to enroll into a degree program in botany enrolled at the University of Bristol in 2010. In the current directory of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) (the organization that manages student applications to college courses in the UK), the listing for “Botany Degree” has disappeared. This prompted biologist, Dr. Sinéad Drea of the University of Leicester to write the essay, The End of the Botany Degree in the UK.
Dr. Drea explains that in recent years, the University of Reading and the University of Bristol were the only universities offering a degree in botany. The University of Reading, however, dropped their degree program three years ago and the last group of botany students graduated from the University of Reading this summer (Drea, 2011).
Why is this happening?
Dr. Drea reports that enrollment in plant science courses has decreased. She shares 2009 UCAS data showing that, out of a pool of 37,000 students, only 19 enrolled in botany courses, compared to the 15,000 who enrolled in psychology courses and the 1,400 who enrolled in zoology courses. Research suggests that course titles containing the words agriculture and plant may be part of the problem as they appear to have negative effects on enrollment (Stagg, et al. (2009), as cited in Drea, 2011). It has come to the point where Dr. Drea has contemplated baiting students using the words “genes”, “mutants” and “developmental mechanisms” in course titles instead of using “the ‘p’ word” (Drea, 2011). Low enrollment figures leads to fewer students taking Ph.D. positions in botany (Drea, 2011).
Another contributing factor may be the way botanists are labeled. Dr. Drea makes the excellent point that the label “taxonomist” does not provide any indication of the many disciplines to which botanists can contribute. Botanists do more than study ecology and conserve species, even though their job description usually makes reference only to these two fields (Stagg, et al. (2009), as cited in Drea, 2011).
Vocation or lucrative career? It could be that careers in conservation are seen more as vocations than money-making careers (Drea, 2011). The preoccupation college students have with employability may cause students to assume that a “botany degree is more risky” (Drea, 2011). Becoming a medical doctor has more appeal than becoming a doctor of plants and this line of thinking has data to support it. Drea (2011) cites the ROSE study (Jenkins and Pell, 2006), a science education study completed in the UK. ROSE researchers inquired about popular biology topics and found that 15 year-old girls rated curing cancer as a top topic, while placing plant-related subjects in their list of the Top 3 Least Popular Topics (Jenkins and Pell (2006) as cited in Drea, 2011). Boys placed plant-related subjects in their Top 10 list of least popular topics (Jenkins and Pell (2006) as cited in Drea, 2011).
Then, of course, there is the issue that people do not seem to be interested in plants. More can be read about this issue in previous articles about plant blindness and the long-term impacts of this condition.
To address the growing issue surrounding the decline of courses in plant science, Drea (2011) cites the need to incorporate plants as often as possible in units about general biology, to use more plant examples in class, and to emphasize the impact plants have on human survival.
Dr. Drea’s paper is available online for free. Click on the link below.
- Drea, Sinéad. 2011. The end of the botany degree in the UK. Bioscience Education. Volume 17 (June 2011). Web. http://www.bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/journal/vol17/beej-17-2.pdf. [accessed 15 July 2011]
- Stagg, P., M. Wahlberg, A. Laczik and P. Huddleston. 2009. The Uptake of Plant Sciences in the UK> A Research Project for the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. The Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick.
- Jenkins, E.W. and R.G. Pell. 2006. The Relevance of Science Education Project (ROSE) in England: A Summary of Key Findings. Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education, University of Leeds.
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Why People Need Plants by Carlton Wood and Nicolette Habgood (2010). See this title and more at ArtPlantae Books.