Is science destroying itself?

Despite increasingly technological success
science may be undergoing a slow shooting
of itself in the foot…



This article is likely to be of interest to scientists but less so others. Nonetheless, the issue is important to everyone, such is our reliance of science to underpin the technology that drives our global economy and society.

We have just successfully come out of a global pandemic with (as of the start of 2022) a median estimate of just 18 million dead but many, many times that saved due to vaccines' success.  Every year smartphones keep getting smarter (shhh., don't mention the machines are taking over the world).  China has rover on the Moon and the US have teamed up with ESA to put one on the bed of an ancient Martian lake, and both rovers are collecting samples that, it is hoped, will be eventually returned to Earth.  Science's progress is unrelenting… Or is it?

This may come as news to some SF² Concatenation regulars who are not scientists but science is being slowly but significantly hampered!


Background and science landscape
Now, one of my former incarnations for may years was as Head of Science Policy and Books for the Institute of Biology (the Institute of Biology, or IoB, being the professional body for UK biologists/bioscientists that was rebranded nearly a couple of decades ago as the Royal Society of Biology – don't ask). At the IoB, I was aware that we (biologists) had a number of problems. I was aware of this from nearly the start of my tenure there, when I was the Institute's Publications Manager, in talking with journal paper contributors, potential textbook authors and the like. Having said that, it was only in my later Science Policy years which involved regularly working with counterparts in chemistry (Royal Society of Chemistry), physics (Institute of Physics), Save British Science (now the Campaign for Science and Engineering) that I understood that a substantive part of the problem was also manifest in other core science disciplines. I mention all this not to re-visit part of my career but to emphasise that what comes next is no figment of the imagination, nor is it trivial.

What has prompted my bringing up this matter now was my recently reading ecologist David J. Gibson's popular science book Planting Clues as he alludes to an aspect of this problem, though I don't think even he realises quite how far it goes.

David Gibson is a British ecologist and a professor based in the US at the University of Carbondale. He is also a senior editor of the Journal of Ecology. This is a journal produced by the British Ecological Society (BES). In turn, the BES being a learned scientific society as opposed to scientific professional body; the former facilitate their specialist science while the latter may do that in a broader way, they have a responsibility, charged by Royal Charter, to represent their science practitioners and determine professional standards. I explain all this so you get a sense of the science landscape (at least as far as UK bioscience is concerned) as we will return to this later.


The problem
In Planting Clues David Gibson refers to plant blindness, that is many biologists' inability to identify plant species. This may come as a surprise to you but it is a real problem. Biologists work with species be they: in forests to crop them, woodland to preserve them, on farms, collecting biochemicals of pharmaceutical importance, etc., etc. Yet many biologists do not know many of the species outside of those with which they commonly work. You can take an agricultural biologist for a walk through a wood and they would likely be unable to name many of the even more common species there let alone the rarer ones. And this applies to other specialist biologists visiting ecosystems they don't actually work with on a day-to-day basis.

Now, you may understandably ask, does this matter? To take a reductio ad absurdum argument, after all, you would not expect, say, a zoologist to have a working knowledge of plants. And you would be right, at one level it does not matter. I myself have worked in science communication (publishing and policy representation) with a personal academic interest in energy and environment concerns since my student days. This has morphed over the years into studying the Earth system's evolution over deep time. So it is not really important for me to know the difference between a flat worm and a round worm, or even how these relate to earthworms. Actually, that is a bad example as I do, but take me on a walk and ask me the names of species we encounter and I would have great difficulty. OK, when it comes to animals I'd probably be quite good identifying an animal species' phylum, class and order but woefully poor identifying its family and genus. As for plants, well as David Gibson would say, I am plant blind!

Shameful, huh? Well, yes. Though perhaps my doing zoology A-level (pre-university qualification) and not biology or botany might explain part of that, and that reverberated down my college studies and by the time of being a post-graduate I had largely become too specialised. I may suffer from plant blindness but other bioscientists (such as botanists) are animal blind. In fact, David Gibson's problem really is part of species blindness.

But here's the thing, even if I had not lent towards animals than plants at school, even with my knowledge of animal species, it is fairly broad-brush knowledge. As said, phylum, class and order largely fine but forget family and genus. And this is hardly a proud boast for any bioscientist but many, if not most, are like me with huge gaps in being able to identify huge swathes of the web of life. This despite biodiversity loss being a major issue of our time

So far so good (or so bad) the problem is bigger than this: it affects other scientists such as chemists and geologists too. But before I come to this bigger, related concern, let's dig a little deeper into this species blindness thing.

The diversification and silo-ing of science
Part of the problem is the success of science: science in the 20th century has boomed. Indeed, it is said that there are more qualified scientists alive today, than the total sum of previous scientists no longer with us. Now, while this may be an urban myth (I have not fact-checked it identifying an academically peer-reviewed source) but the gist is certainly one that could well be largely true: there are many scientists working today, more so than did in the 20th century. The trouble is that in getting here, to a world abound with technology based on ever-advancing science, science has become increasingly compartmentalised into silos, within which experts communicate freely, but between which much less so. Indeed, go to any academic library and pick up say a biological journal and also a physics one, then give them both to a physicist and a biologist, and while each could understand the one relating to their own discipline, they would find the other virtually incomprehensible: physicists and biologists speak (quite literally) different languages.

Importantly, this silo-ing of science into semi-isolated compartments actually occurs within the core disciplines. So in biology, a molecular biologist (for example) does not need the tool-kit of a whole-organism biologist: the latter most likely should be able to identify species, the former hardly ever so. And even within whole-organism biology, a parasitologist (say) does not need to be able to identify a vast range of species other than parasites (obviously) and their vectors. Similarly, why should a biomedical scientist need to be able to identify woodland species? They don't.

Of course, it would be good if at the school level (at the potential scientist level), biologists had a solid grounding in species identification. Alas, here, over the years matters have deteriorated for two reasons.


The biological boom
First, back in the early 20th century biology was a lot simpler and focussed on species identification, which dominated biology in earlier Victorian times. But as the 20th century progressed, biology developed markedly in other areas.  In the biomedical sciences especially, there was an explosion driven by advances in molecular biology. This means that biology school pupils today have much more to learn, other than species identification, the time for which has been dramatically squeezed.


The second reason is time and cost. If you are to get to grips with species identification you actually need to see the species which you wish to identify. This will, in no small part, mean going into the field and looking at life first hand.

For some schools, going into the field at a basic level is no problem: that is it is no problem if they have large school grounds with a copse of trees as well as hedges and so forth, and if they have a pond or a stream then there is much life for them to identify. However, many schools do not have large grounds (and in the 1990s in Britain many schools even sold off some of their playing fields).  Also, many schools are today in towns: the 21st century is more urban than before in the mid-20th. So school pupils do not have the access to living biology they used to.  This in turn means that they have to travel to somewhere to see species and travelling takes time. What, in other school subjects where the ground (class) would be covered in an hour here takes an hour plus travel time: this could add up to half a day. And if all this was not bad enough, today, with health and safety, teachers have to fill out risk assessment forms and have colleagues to share supervision. This takes time and more staff. All in all, it means that today there are hardly any field trips for school pupils studying biology than there used to be.

Move on to university, and the same is true: field-trips draw heavily on staff time and numbers, not to mention student time. Bioscience students have less time studying biology in the natural environment.

So how big a problem does the UK biological science community believe it to be? Well, at the end of the 1990s I spent a couple of years working with well over a score of the more active of the Institute of Biology's 79 specialist biological learned societies in the Affiliated Societies Forum, as well as the Institute's science policy committees (covering agricultural, biomedical and environmental sectors) to identify the biological communities top concerns. This ended up in the report Science Priorities 2001.

This report identified six priorities included in which was it called 'the post-genome challenge'. The end of the 20th century had seen tremendous strides in biomolecular science and genetics: 2001 itself saw the first draft of the human genome. However, this success had not been matched by a similar growth in whole-organism biology. The UK had (and is) very good at punching above its weight in terms of fundamental science (basic and blue skies) research but much less success in commercially applying this research: in short, in R&D terms Britain was good at 'R' but bad at 'D'. The learned biological societies argued in Priorities 2001 that in order to apply the molecular biological success we need to do so to whole-organisms (and natural and applied assemblages thereof). However, this could not happen without whole-organism training which at its most basic level meant being able to identify species (taxonomy) as well as how species relate to each other in the evolutionary sense (this last is known as 'systematics').

For example, the report said (page 7):

This specialist area of life science underpins research into, for example, the conservation of biodiversity…, or crop cultivars as used in agriculture. It also has a role to relate the molecular genome of species with that species’ characteristics. Yet systematics is under real threat. Given declining Departmental budgets and the additional pressures placed upon the better funded Research Councils (whose priorities have, rightly, a blue skies focus), systematics ventures in their purest form have not been properly supported.

Without going into chapter and verse, Science Priorities 2001 successfully raised up virtually all its half-dozen priorities up the political agenda. With regards to systematics and whole-organism biology, one of these was to encourage the House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee to re-examine some of the issues which it did in its inquiry What on Earth: The threat to the science underpinning conservation (2002) that concluded that the taxonomy (in essence naming species) and systematics (how one species relates to another in an evolutionary way) has declined. Further, that this is an internaitonal problem and there needs to be a single, internationally recognised authority in these areas of science that is accessible via the internet.

Since then little has been done, and David Gibson's concerns, in his recent Planting Clues, as to plant blindness remain. If anything, the problem has become more acute. For example, over the decade from the end of the 2000s to 2017 the number of undergraduates embarking on biological subjects has increased from some 48,000 to over 56,000 making it the science sector of greatest demand, yet the balance between molecular and whole-organism biology, species identification skills and systematics has not improved and so if anything is even worse today, even though there are more students studying expensive biology courses and fewer taking cheaper arts course such as creative arts and design.

Numbers taking UK undergraduate courses in key sectors.

If this problem is to be addressed then the UK biological sciences community together with the Heads of University Biological Sciences (HUBS) need a coherent plan to do two things 1) to assess the problem afresh to identify key solutions and then 2) lobby for them including pressing for Select Committee examinations (the Lords for the broad overview and the Commons to hold governments to account).

Indeed the problem of field work also impacts other science disciplines including the geosciences.


Lab work
Nearly as big a problem facing a tract of science is that of lab work. Like fieldwork, student lab work is expensive. Those subjects (such as the various humanities) that only require a lecture and a lecture hall do not cost nearly as much as those that require fieldwork and laboratories: laboratories need equipping, maintenance and running staff as well as supplied with consumables (reagents and so forth).

In an environment of reduced state funding and an increased reliance on student fees to cover costs (let alone the economic environment with things like the financial crash of 2007/8 and Russia's war with Ukraine driving global inflation in 2022/3) attracting students to expensive courses becomes harder. The financial burden being placed on students through fees attending UK courses, has increased markedly over the past decade (see the figure below). There is therefore a powerful commercial pressure not to increase university costs even further through more expensive lab work and field trips.

Source of UK university course funding.

This issue affects not just bioscience, but all science (including physics, chemistry and applications such as engineering which all depend on lab work).

Again, the potential solutions need to be identified by scientific community itself and then policy-makers need to be lobbied. Fortunately, there is an overarching body that represents the various UK science communities and that is the Science Council. (The Science Council inlcudes the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, Geological Society, British Ecological Society among others.) Alas, historically, the Science Council is top heavy as its meetings consist of its constituent bodies' General Secretaries and Chief Executives: what is needed are for its science and policy officers to work together. Sadly, the Science Council does not directly facilitate these coming together.


If we are to see such problems addressed it is no use scientists simply bewailing (as justifiable as that is) but their concerns need to be expressed and solutions identified and lobbied for by the respective professional and learned scientific bodies and they need to come together, speaking with one voice, to carry weight: this should be the Science Council's time. This, if only because we (British scientists) cannot expect anyone else to look at these issues if we do not speak up ourselves. It really is that simple.

Jonathan Cowie


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