Botanists bemoan loss of university plant-degree programs

Higher Education
by Sarah Schweinsberg
Posted 5/30/15, 09:00 am

College students across the country are increasingly shying away from studying botany. Since 1988, the National Science Foundation reports the number of research universities offering botany degrees has decreased by half.

In 2012, fewer than than 400 people graduated with either an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degree in botany. Educators say students are choosing majors in technology-related majors as more and more jobs become available in that sector. With many state governments decreasing the amount of money budgeted to state universities, schools such as the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska closed or consolidated their botany departments because of the cost of maintaining herbariums.

Scientists use herbariums, collections of plant species, for research reference or genetic materials. Herbarium collections require temperature and moisture control and plenty of space to store bulky specimens that are mounted, dried, dated, and tagged with important information.

Current botanists fear the consequences of fewer students graduating with botany degrees.

“If we are able to name a plant, then we understand its biology,” said Joe Miller, a program officer at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology. “If we understand its biology, then we can use the comparative method to understand and predict how it could be used.”

On May 18, the University of Missouri announced it would donate more than 200,000 plant specimens to the Missouri Botanical Garden. The facility in St. Louis houses more than 6.6 million plant specimens from North, Central, and South America.

By donating its collection, the university saved itself the cost of updating the herbarium facility. Robin Kennedy, herbarium curator, said it made sense to combine the college’s collection with the Missouri Botanical Garden so more researchers could have access to it.

Fewer botanists graduating from American universities could harm the conservation efforts of organizations like Botanic Gardens Conservation International; the research of organizations like the Energy Biosciences Institute, which seeks to use plants as alternative fuel; and pharmaceutical companies researching plants’ medicinal qualities.

Miller believes the work botanists do is irreplaceable in a world where only about 20 percent of plant and animal species have been identified.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sarah Schweinsberg

Sarah is a reporter for WORLD Radio.

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