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The Academic Decline: How to Train the Next Generation of Botanists

Krissa Skogen is a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where she spends her days researching a family of plants known as the evening primrose.

She and her colleagues study different features of more than 100 species of the sunny yellow flowers: How big are their petals? How much nectar do they produce? What combination of compounds in their fragrance attracts the most pollinators?

While it might seem like a particularly nuanced job for only a certain niche, Skogen says understanding the relationship between plants and their pollinators can have a large effect on other sectors.

But more and more, colleges and universities are getting rid of their botany programs, either by consolidating them with zoology and biology departments, or eliminating them altogether because of a lack of faculty, funds or sometimes interest. And at the same time, many trained botanists in federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, are nearing retirement age, and those agencies are clamoring for new talent.

Gregory Mueller, Negaunee Foundation vice president for science at the Chicago Botanic Garden, says in the next 10 years, nearly 50 percent of those professionals will have retired.

This decreased capacity to train botanists, and an increased need to fill positions could threaten other fields with a common root in botany, stemming from forestry and land conservation to biofuel production, alternative medicine and food science, Mueller says.

There is a gradual decline in the number of college programs dedicated to botany. According to Mueller, the attrition began as early as the 1950s, when universities began dissolving botany and zoology departments, often recreating them as a general biology or ecology and evolution department.

Although it's hardly a new phenomenon, Mueller says the rate of decline has increased in the last two decades. A quick Google search shows there are only a handful of higher education institutions left in the United States – such as Oklahoma State University and the University of Wyoming – that have their botany departments still intact.

And in a 2010 survey assessing the state of botanical education and employment prospects, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Botanic Gardens Conservation International found that in 1988, nearly three-quarters of the nation's top 50 most funded universities offered advanced degree programs in botany. But by 2009, more than half of those universities eliminated their botany programs.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013