Despite the essential ubiquity of plants and plant products in our daily lives and the contributions of plants to science, plants and botany have had a low public profile. There is no Nobel category for botany. The prize-winning work on plants has been divided between chemistry and physiology or medicine. The general public's interest in the natural world dwells on animals; within biology the predominating focus is biomedicine, a function in both cases of our human interest in ourselves.
In our zoocentric world, it falls to botanists to extend the influence of botany in science and society. The Botanical Society survey elicited two main ways individual botanists can address this need:
Yet plants are the most common form of life on land, comprising 90 percent or more of the biomass by some estimates. They consistently receive a disproportionately small amount of attention in biology. In the six best-selling U.S. high-school biology texts, 37 percent of the material is devoted to general biological principles, 42 percent to humans and other animals, 14 percent to plants, and 7 percent to other organisms. Surveys aimed at assessing public attitudes about nature or knowledge of science similarly tend to overlook plants.
Such mistakes and omissions not only contribute to a general scientific illiteracy, they distort biological reality and may play a part in the ecological mismanagement we commonly experience. Responses to the Botanical Society survey were virtually unanimous in emphasizing improved general plant education. A sampling:
Most botanists attribute their original interest in plants to another botanist or teacher able to convey the beauty and intellectual excitement of plant studies. The continuity of the profession depends on this important area of outreach. An emphasis on the thicket of botanical terms surrounding the concepts of interest is not the approach to take when introducing students or the public to botanical work.
Attention to education and communication as pointed out by the survey is also essential to repair some of the persistent misconceptions about plants. Many students and others mistakenly believe that plants take in their food from the soil. If instructional materials do convey that plants manufacture their own food, they often fail to make clear that plants also respire-that is, they consume the carbohydrate food they manufacture using oxygen, as do animals and other aerobic organisms. The distinction is not that "plants photosynthesize" and "animals respire" as reads a caption in one undergraduate biology textbook (a guide for biology educators perpetuates the same distinction), but that plants carry out an extraordinary and important energy-capturing process on top of the basic energy-releasing metabolism of all aerobic organisms.
Perhaps even more harmful are the mistakes of omission. A 1994 Scientific American article entitled "The Evolution of Life on the Earth" doesn't even mention plants, except as metaphor (the tree of life).
It is critical that botany be taught at the earlier levels in education. If children get misconceptions of botany early, it is more difficult to reteach and unteach during later years.
In so many cases, the bottom line in universities is grantsmanship, and too little emphasis is placed on teaching. I encourage societies to he more supportive of teaching as a primary profession.
In many cases, respondents described an erosion of plant biology research and teaching as some institutions have reorganized their botany departments:
I am the only botanist [in our biology department]... The greenhouse was taken down four years ago and will not be reconstructed. We have no requirement of botany for our [biology] majors, and students are discouraged from taking botany courses.
Survey respondents highlighted the need to strengthen and broaden the education of botanists in training as well:
In synthesizing the results and responses from the survey, the Botanical Society has set several goals (see Table) to improve the botanical enterprise. Meeting them will require actions at several organizational levels-funding agencies; professional societies especially the Botanical Society; academic departments; and individual botanists.
The common call for more effective teaching is one that every botanist can and must answer. Teaching students about plant biology is as critical to the future of the field as is research and must take its proper place as an equally laudatory endeavor for botanists. Equally vital are activities that communicate the excitement of plant biology to students and teachers involved in K-12 education and to the general public. Public education means outreach to government agencies, as well as to garden and conservation groups.
Botanists must not wait to be asked, but must make their expertise about plants known to policymakers involved in agriculture, conservation, and the environment. Sustainable production of food, fiber, feed, fuel, and pharmaceuticals from a threatened natural resource base will depend directly on the results of botanical work and will in turn affect the public's support of botany. The botanical scientist must become outward looking and involved in the public domain. The Botanical Society of America, as the oldest and most diverse representation of botanists, must organize and incorporate these goals and actions into its mission as affirmation of botany's importance for the next millennium and beyond.