Despite frequently expressed assumptions to the contrary, science – whether it’s botany or some lesser intellectual pursuit – isn’t always about having an idea and undertaking an experiment to test it. Anyway, that type of investigation can be hard work. Fortunately, there is an alternative approach that basically studies ‘what’s there’ and muses on why that might be (or not…), so-called blue skies research. Sadly, the latter type of science – which I think is much more fun and interesting – is less likely to get financed than the ‘there’s a definite question that we aim to answer’ type of study, and is generally much less common. Nice then to see that, in conversation with Sarah Williams in the Howard Hughes’ Medical Institute’s Fall 2013 issue of the HHMI Bulletin, Dr Richard Flavell (Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine) promotes the view that observation-driven studies have a place in science. He goes further in saying that, ‘there’s nothing wrong with a lab team doing observational study after observational study. They are still helping advance the science, and likely providing fodder for hypothesis-driven studies to come…’. Now that is my kind of science. I do hope those who fund research are listening to – and heeding – this!
Unfortunately, I suspect the more usual reaction to requests to finance such work from the grant-awarding bodies would be similar to that which prompted this acknowledgement in a scientific paper: ‘I thank the National Science Foundation for regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms (cf. Szent-Gyorgyi, 1972)…’ (from Leigh Van Valen’s* paper, ‘A new Evolutionary Law’). But occasionally studies along the lines of ‘let’s just see what turns up’ do appear. Take, for example, Michael Proctor and Margaret Bradshaw’s first in a planned series of papers on scanning electron microscopy (SEM) examination of leaves of British sedges in New Journal of Botany**. Acknowledging that the ability to identify sedges in the field is important to many vegetation studies but recognising that inflorescences are available for only a short period each year, the pair have concentrated on SEM studies of leaf surfaces to assist those identification endeavours. Whilst the duo don’t advocate taking a SEM into the field, they do believe that such SEM studies will be ‘useful in putting leaf characters on a firmer footing, and drawing attention to characters which could be useful for identification with a hand-lens or low power microscope’ (which can be taken into the field…). The images need to be seen to be properly appreciated, but the imaging of epicuticular waxes in, for example, Figure 1f attests to their high quality. Bring on Part 2![For those expecting to read about ‘botanist’ Richard Flavell PhD, FRS, CBE, former Director of the John Innes Centre, etc, I’m sorry to ‘disappoint’ – Ed.]
* Leigh van Valen is an American evolutionary biologist probably best known for the Red Queen Hypothesis.
** this is the official organ of the BSBI, the leading society in Britain and Ireland for the study of plant distribution and taxonomy. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland was formerly called the Botanical Society of the British Isles, and represents a name change every bit as slick as that of the WWF (which changed from World Wildlife Fund to World Wide Fund for Nature in 1986), and which also allows it to keep its abbreviation of BSBI (which is an initialism not an acronym) the same. The New Journal of Botany is itself the successor to the BSBI’s Watsonia journal, named in honour of Hewett Cottrell Watson (one of the “most colourful figures in the annals of British botany”) who developed the vice-county system in 1852 that currently divides up the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland into 152 geographical units for vegetation recording purposes.]
Nice post. Your argument extends throughout the life sciences and is especially important for nature conservation. Someone must monitor species’ distribution and numbers for preservation to succeed. If some plants could be drained to run cars, we would know their precise locations.