Friday, 18 November 2016

BSBI: why are people not joining?

A few days ago I asked this question:

Here's a question for all fellow botanists out there: why are you not members of the BSBI?

I don't mean that in a tub-thumping "Why the hell aren't you a member!!" sort of way, I mean it in an "I know why I personally have chosen not to be a member anymore, but I'd be interested to know what other botanists, both beginners and improvers, think about it" sort of way.

Why do I ask?

Like many organisations, the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) is failing to engage younger people, and failing to increase membership. They are trying to address this by updating their website to be more whizzy and modern looking, and by promoting themselves as follows:

"We support all botanists - beginner or expert, amateur or professional - as they identify, record and map what grows where"

So they are clearly interested in getting new and younger members, but they don't seem to have a clue about their own shortcomings.

Having asked this question, I received quite a few responses, including some slightly huffy ones from the BSBI themselves, so I do apologise to them if they thought I was being a bit rude about them!

There were several general themes which arose repeatedly.

One was the cost - well, everything costs, these days, and I don't think £30 a year is unreasonable, especially as they have a concession for students up to age 25 (25!! Still studying at 25!! ) which reduces it to just £12.

"They don't let you sign up online" was one objection, but that's no longer a problem, you can now sign up direct from the BSBI website, using Paypal or a credit card.

Then we had a whole raft of "The publications are too academic/dull". Well, fair point, but they do make it plain that the Journal (which is so intensely academic as to be of very limited interest to a more "general" botanist) is specifically an academic publication. The "lighter" publication was, when I was a member, called BSBI News:  it came out three times a year and contained what they called "notes", which appeared to be contributions that were not sufficiently academic for the proper journal. These were mostly, in my opinion, only of interest if they happened to be about a plant in which you were already interested, or which was your specialist subject. There were few that related to botany in general, very little that were of any "use" to beginners, and virtually nothing with a sense of humour.

When I first joined the BSBI I wrote suggesting that they should have a section specifically for beginners/improvers, with light-hearted, short, pieces:  they eventually replied that they considered the News to be perfectly appropriate for such people. I think they are wrong, and that if they really want to engage new and/or younger people, they need to create some sort of induction route, involving a section specifically for new people, and maybe a list of useful terms - which led on to the next point.

Several people commented that "the jargon is inpenetrable for beginners."  Well, I have to agree with this one, when I first joined, I simply could not work out what a monad was, or a tetrad (four monads?) or a quadrat or quadrant: it didn't seemed to be written down anywhere.  It's as though the BSBI expect us, having joined, to spring, fully formed, into being: au fait with their jargon, and ready to submit records! That could do with a bit of work.

"They're all old fuddy-duddies"  was, I'm afraid, quite a common response.  There is indeed a common perception that botanists are all silver-tops, but I have to say that the BSBI do seem to be trying to present themselves in a more modern way these days, and they are certainly plugging their Twitter/Facebook links.  I suppose the only real solution to this perception problem is to get nature rambles back on the school curriculum, and I think it would take more than the BSBI to do that.

One interesting comment was "What does BSBI offer members that they don't offer non-members?"  Well, if you check their website, they give a whole long list of benefits of joining, including the already-maligned Journal - yawn - and the  "News" magazine, which is now available online to save costs. Then there is access to an "expert" in the form of the VCR who can make a ruling if you are uncertain about a plant identification (well, good luck with that, hope you have more success in getting a response from yours than I did from mine), opportunities to submit records (which rather assumes that you already know how to do it), and they do offer training courses, and grants; the one overwhelmingly positive response I received was from a young chap who had just been given a grant. But most of their benefits relate to recording.

Other comments include the perceived emphasis on recording squares, rather than anything more ecological: a suggestion that they are selfishly restricting access to their scientific literature, which could all now be put on line: being orientated on field botany rather than other academic activities (? not sure what that person meant - perhaps they thought the BSBI should do research? GM? ), and a comment that "They'd be more useful if there was a convenient means of taking a floral formula and finding a list of taxa possessing that formula".

All of which is very interesting.

One final point to be made is that we keep hearing about this ageing membership, and that "all the experts are elderly".  Well, expertise is something you accumulate over your lifetime, so of course the experts are elderly. It would be more worrying if the experts were all teenagers, as one person so perceptively said.

It is true to say that there is not going to be a shortage of older people in British society in the foreseeable future, and it is true that for many, it's not until they retire that they have the time to devote to botany. So it is entirely possible that the membership of the BSBI, along with the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), the RSPB (whatever that stands for, Royal Society for the Protection? Preservation? I checked seven pages of their website without finding it - but it's definitely Birds), and other nature-oriented groups, will continue to rise in line with the ageing population.

Going back to the recording issue, a couple of people - although not anyone from the BSBI, interestingly - bothered to ask me why I was no longer a member. The answer is threefold: 1) the BSBI seems to me to be entirely geared around recording; 2) it is only interested in wildflowers, and 3) I found it quite inaccessible for beginners.  Now, firstly, I am just not that interested in recording, so the main thrust of the BSBI does not engage me. Secondly, professionally, my botanical consultancy work involves having to identify plants (including trees, not just pretty flowers!) all year round, not for the brief period in which they are flowering: so the BSBI obsession with flowers does not fit into that aspect of my job.  And thirdly, I am passionately dedicated to helping botany "improvers" to move forward in their IDing,  and I could hardly bear to deal with a group who seemed, to me, to be utterly uninterested in people with only this level of knowledge.  So the BSBI really doesn't offer much to me: I realised that I was barely skimming through the News, and tossing the boring Journal in the recyling bin without even opening it, and it all seemed rather a waste, so I now donate that money to charity instead.

So there you have it: I didn't get a simple answer to the question, but I got some viewpoints, and some new questions, foremost of which has to be  "is it really that bad a thing, if your membership is weighted towards older persons, of whom there are an increasing number?"


  1. I think someone who enjoys our flora and wants to preserve it is going to be joining Plantlife or their local Wildlife Trust. The BSBI’s target audience is probably going to be the more serious student, be they professional or amateur, of our flora. I personally suspect the culture of the serious naturalist is fading somewhat, so any group in this area (eg BTO, BBS, BLS etc) is going to struggle to keep its numbers up. As for attracting young people, as secretary of a county botany group, I can say that’s very near impossible! Our younger members all tend to be professional, and the BSBI working in that area, trying to attract ecologists, wildlife NGO employees etc is, I think, a good strategy. The FISC is a good example of this, but why so few locations to take it. I’d love to give it a go, but a round trip of 500 miles for any of the three site is just too much!

    1. Tim, that's very interesting: I agree with you that the general "feel" of the BSBI is for serious, academic types. Personally I like to have fun with my botany!

      I also think you are spot on with your comment about the culture of the serious naturalist fading: kids don't even go on nature rambles any more, so how are they expected to find out about flora and fauna?

      Having said that, in the context of organisations, "younger" really means 20s and 30s, possibly even 40s, and that age group are often too busy working to find time for botany as a hobby.

      I know what you mean about the FISC (Field Identification Skills Certificate, issued by the BSBI at their three centres in Leicester, Maidstone and Shrewsbury), it's a long way to go, to get a certificate that is not recognised by any professional body!

  2. I've had an anonymous comment, simply saying "The cost."


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