Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Cause for optimism (maybe not…)

There’s an insufficiency of people to grow the new crops that aren’t being identified because of the dearth of plant taxonomists. Where will it all end..?

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As an ‘old-fashioned’ botanist my heart was gladdened to see that Number 1 in the ‘Top 10 most viewed Plant Science research articles in 2013’ from Frontiers in Plant Science was one that dealt with fundamental botany of the taxonomic kind. The paper in question was entitled ‘Angiosperm-like pollen and Afropollis from the Middle Triassic (Anisian) of the Germanic Basin (Northern Switzerland)’ and was written by Peter Hochuli and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt. Whilst that recognition may engender a feel-good view that plant taxonomy is doing rather well, Quentin Wheeler’s timely New Phytologist Commentary, ‘Are reports of the death of taxonomy an exaggeration?’, offers a more cautious interpretation. Commenting upon an article by Daniel Bebber et al., he concludes that plant taxonomy (though one suspects taxonomy of all biota fares as badly) is still in desperate need of greater attention – in terms of people to undertake the work and appropriate funding – as befits its importance to a true appreciation of the planet’s biodiversity and the inter-relationships between living things. Sadly, this state of affairs is unlikely to be helped by news that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London, UK) – one of the world’s premier centres of plant taxonomic endeavour – is in the midst of a funding crisis. Indeed, the situation is apparently so bad that ‘about 125 jobs could be cut as… Kew… faces a £5m shortfall in revenue in the coming financial year’. This must be particularly concerning since it comes shortly after news that visitor numbers to Kew increased by 29% last year compared to 2012. And this bad news on the plant taxonomy front is echoed in the USA where ‘too few scientists are being trained in agriculture areas of science’. So, there’s an insufficiency of people to grow the new crops that aren’t being identified because of the dearth of plant taxonomists. Where will it all end..?

[If you’re not put off by the precarious state of life as a taxonomist and want a little bit more of a career insight, then you could do much worse that read Elisabeth Pain’s ‘Science Careers’ article.  And for a welcome boost to publicising the plight of the endangered species known as Taxonomus non-vulgaris var. biologicus, see Tim Entwisle’s news article in The Guardian – Ed.]

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

1 comment

  • Just keeping botanical positions botanical is a difficult proposition in a biological sciences department here in the USA where a heavy human-biomedical bias affects biology mostly driven by funding (where it is and where it isn’t). Students keep responding, sometimes several years after graduating, that my plant taxonomy and identification course was the most useful course they had. However with my retirement at hand, it’s clear that my colleagues do not think that type of botany is important enough to replace. Most of the organismal botanists are ecological and they have a surprisingly naïve and hostile attitude toward systematic botany. Used to think that museums and botanical gardens would be the bastions of taxonomic biology, but such institutions seem to be facing funding problems and when push comes to shove, science gets chopped. So, not a very optimistic view from here.

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