Is science destroying itself?
Despite increasingly technological success
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.
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.