Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Why is Botany a failing subject?

Did you know that it is now not possible to do a degree in Botany? It just does not exist. The last botany-specific degree, at Bristol Uni, closed in April 2011. The subject is now lumped in under something woolly like "Plant Sciences" which seems to cover a lot of eco and ethno, but not a lot of actual Botany.

Mind you, when there are hardly any paying jobs as a Botanist, what can you expect? I do strongly believe that universities have a duty to provide education in fields where there might be jobs at the end of the course, and not to waste our/my tax-payers' money on frivolous degrees or devalued subjects such as the infamous "Media studies".

Of course, this problem does not apply to Botany alone - why, just recently there has been a case in the main BBC news about a Geology graduate who complained that having to spend a fortnight stacking shelves in her local supermarket (in order to keep her job-seeker's allowance, or "dole" as it used to be) did not result in a job for her, and took her away from her voluntary work.

What does this say, apart from the obvious conclusions that a) a degree in Geology is four years wasted if you can't get a job, and b) geology graduates clearly feel that they are somehow above shelf-stacking?

Sarcasm aside - I have no sympathy for someone who has taken four years of expensive education, most of which is funded by me, the tax-payer, and has failed to find themselves any sort of job at the end of it - her main complaint was that two weeks of shelf-stacking took her away from her voluntary job.

No-one asked her what that voluntary job was, but I rather suspect (or shall we say I damn well hope) that it was in her chosen field, and that she had found that doing unpaid work was the only way to get experience that was in any way relative to her degree.

Now, on this subject, I recently had a short article printed, titled "Volunteers: the enemy within" in which I expressed my opinion that garden volunteers were a huge part of the problem for Horticultural workers: why would any employer pay a living wage, when they know they can get workers for free? This particularly applies to large gardens which are open to the public - many of them openly admit that they would not be able to open if they had to pay all the gardeners. The National Trust are one of the worst offenders: I was prompted to write the article by the Waddesdon House website, which was appealing for volunteer gardeners, "no experience required".

What does this say about gardeners?

It says that as long as you give them a five-minute chat and point them in the right direction, anyone can be a "gardener". No experience required. Certainly no qualifications. Not worth paying for, then.

And yet gardening - proper, professional gardening - is actually highly technical, requiring skill, patience, practice, and a sustained regime of pruning, shaping, cutting, and nurturing. It's not even just remembering all the plant names - it's knowing what soil and water conditions each of them need to thrive, how they need to be seasonally assisted or restrained: what pest control help they will need, and when to apply it: how to cope with changing climate and soil conditions, how to make the best of what you have, how to successfully propagate the huge variety of plants: coping with accidental damage or animal destruction: well, I could go on for quite some time, but you get the picture.

And Botanists are a step beyond Gardeners.  And I can say that, as I am both.

So why do we need Botanists, then, as opposed to Gardeners?

In a nutshell, I guess you could say that Botanists are specialists and scientists, whereas Gardeners are generalists and get-on-with-its.

Recently there has been a  lot of publicity for the Ash dieback disease, which looks as though it is going to change the look of the countryside in much the same way that Dutch Elm disease has done.

And people have suddenly realised that there are no young people in this country studying Plant Pathology, which is basically Why Plants Die.


Plant Pathology used to be part of the Botany degree, but now I see that you are lucky to get one lecture on the subject in your woolly Plant Sciences degree, even though the title "sciences" should, I would have thought, included more of the scientific side of things. Analysis, soil composition, DNA, GM, cultural experiments, that sort of thing. Apparently not.

So in a decade or two,  we will find out current crop of Botanists retiring (not that that seems to stop Botanists, ha ha!) with none to replace them, so we will have to buy in all our research from overseas: from Plant Pathologists who don't live here, don't work in our climate, and possibly might not be the best people to analyse problems.


It almost  looks as though Botany is going back to it's roots - whoops, pun unintentional! - and the only people who will be able to study it will be those who are privately funded.

Rather like the old days when "gels" and "Young Ladies" were sent off to college to learn embroidery, botany, and playing the pianoforte....

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