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

The number of undergraduate degrees earned in botany has decreased by 50 percent since the late 1980s.

Becky Tonietto, a Ph.D. student in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University, studies the decline of native bee species, such as bumble bees.
By + More

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.

"Only through having that information can you then make predictions about what might happen if we lose some of the pollinators or some of the plants, what the consequences might be," Skogen says.

Put another way, how would food crops that rely on bee pollination – such as pumpkins, peaches, apples tomatoes and avocados – be affected by losing a species of bees?

That's one application of studying botany in college.

[READ: 7 Horticulture Scholarships to Make Your Education Bloom]

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.

About one-third of the land in the United States, Mueller says, is owned by the different federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the military. But they don't have enough botanists to manage the land, with about one botanist for every 20 million acres of land.

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.

"We have this disconnect between the people that could be producing the needed expertise and the users that need the expertise," Mueller says.

That's because of 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.

More recently, the University Senate at Miami University in Ohio approved a resolution to merge its botany and zoology departments in September 2012. The two departments reopened as a new biology department this fall.

Additionally, the survey found that the number of undergraduate degrees earned in botany has decreased by 50 percent and the number of graduate degrees has decreased by 41 percent. Meanwhile, undergraduate and graduate degrees earned in general biology have increased by 17 percent and 11 percent, respectively. For some perspective, more than 50,000 students received undergraduate degrees in general biology in 2008, while only 196 received botany degrees.