Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Natural History – as valuable as Biomedicine

Occasionally, one comes across something that touches a nerve. That happened to me when reading a section of the paper entitled Natural History's Place in Science and Society by Joshua J. Tewksbury and his 16 co-authors [1]. They wrote:

The stature of natural history within many academic institutions will depend on its capacity to generate revenue and contribute to academic currencies used to measure the success of individuals and programs. In research-oriented universities, these currencies are typically large grants, publications in high-impact-factor journals, and public recognition for the institution. Disciplines that cannot compete in these currencies will typically be given little attention in critical decisions surrounding hiring, promotion, course offerings, degree programs, buildings and infrastructure, and institutional direction. Even in institutions at which the focus on teaching is more prevalent, disciplines such as natural history can be marginalized because of the relatively high per-student cost of field- and collection-based courses and because of these courses' low enrollments relative to those in higher profile disciplines.

As a proud Emeritus Professor of Biology in a World-leading University, I concur fully with this statement. In research-led universities, there is often a disjunction between academic research and teaching and, as the authors point out, it is the former that is used in hiring and reward. Courses in Biology necessarily include basic studies but, instead of introducing students to Natural History, Behaviour and Diversity, the majority are in Cellular and Molecular Biology, reflecting the dramatic change that has come in the subject over the last forty years. We now have a mechanistic approach, like that of physics or chemistry, believing that understanding how genes work will result in our understanding how organisms work. Unfortunately, it is much more complex than that, but there is the possibility of making some great discoveries along the way. One organism dominates above all others as a subject for study and that is Homo sapiens. Even organisms like fruit flies, or nematode worms, are used as proxies for humans when investigating the effect of gene expression: the wide diversity of plants and animals is considered of much lower importance.

I was so happy to teach in areas of Biology in which I had an interest, but no research experience, and where I was able to be a Natural Historian without being frowned upon by colleagues. I taught courses in Animal Form and Function to second-year students and contributed lectures on the interactions between predators and prey to a first-year class. Both were optional, but all students had to study Cellular and Molecular Biology and all had to study Chemistry. To look at the interactions of predators and prey, we began with predictive models and then branched out into the "arms race", with adaptations of predators to increase their catching efficiency and adaptations of prey to avoid attack. I organised examples into different categories and we then let rip. While the models were interesting, there was no question that talking about the various modifications shown by animals (and by plants, as I took a liberal approach to the term "prey") was what we all really enjoyed. I took a similar approach in Animal Form and Function, beginning with fluid dynamics and then showing the ways that animals move in water, on land and in the air. I also described different categories of feeding mechanism and we again looked at examples in various categories. Both sections were taught in an evolutionary context, so we began with the more primitive examples and moved through a spectrum leading to the more advanced. These courses were great to plan, and to teach, and we were able to make interesting observations during practical classes; predator-prey interactions being observed on a field course taught by some of my colleagues. On that course, students were also able to study plants and animals in their natural environment.

Tewksbury et al. [1] state:

Urbanization and a lack of exposure to nature, changes in affluence, a reduction of unstructured time for children, and increased television and computer use have all been implicated in the reduced public awareness of nature.

If any of that applied to my students, our course material certainly opened their eyes and I hope that they remembered enough to be able to pass on the information and to keep up their interest by making their own observations. I think that Natural History is an important part of a university degree in Biology, but others may argue that there are no jobs in this area, or very few anyway, and that we should be training students solely for careers. Informed professors in US universities have told me that  Biology students include a large cohort who are very interested in the subject, but wish to go on to study Medicine. That's back to the concentration on H. sapiens, and Biomedicine is now a dominating part of Biology teaching, as so many academics work in this area and it is perceived that there are many job opportunities in the field. Some small number of students, do go on to have careers in Natural History, or in Ecology, but what of all those who take Biology degrees and then have careers in quite different areas. Is there then a benefit in learning about Natural History?

No-one questions the importance of studying History, Philosophy or Literature and there are a host of subjects that provide intellectual rewards for those that pursue them. Graduates with degrees in these subjects benefit from their studies, but they are hardly vocational in being a direct training for a job. To be sure, there are professional historians, philosophers, reviewers, writers, etc., and there are teachers and professors of these subjects, but the majority of graduates will be working in quite different fields, while using all sorts of approaches they have learned; often retaining their interest for relaxation and for enhancing their world view. As the great liberal scientific discipline, Natural History deserves to be highlighted alongside these subjects and to form a central part of Biology degree programmes, even for those whose main interest is in Medicine and its related subjects. After all, it has been shown that walking in Nature is good for human health [2] and it can be argued that prevention of illness, and palliative care, are as important as drugs and surgery. How much better if these solitary walks, or those in company, also provide a chance to explore the Romance of Natural History [3].

Given the public lack of interest in the environment, and the organisms it contains, one hopes that students of Natural History will remember enough of their enthusiasms to make informed decisions when Nature is threatened. Unquestionably, they will also have something to pass on to their children and to those around them who are interested in such things. Can the same be said for those following Modern Biology and Biomedicine? Probably, the answer is "yes", but there is now a lack of balance and almost a belief that Biology applied to Medicine is going to provide answers to all ills. It is not, and much biomedical research is likely to be of little significance in finding cures for illnesses and for allowing healthy ageing. All the resources thrown in that direction show an uncritical approach and it is surprising that this extends to university administrators, academics and politicians throughout the World. Of course, money cannot be made from Natural History in the way that it can be from Biomedicine and the Pharmaceutical Industry, but isn't it time for a fresh approach? Are University Heads and senior academics wearing something analogous to the Emperor's New Clothes?

On a positive note, Tewksbury et al. [1] suggest a mechanism to help University administrators find a better path:

The vitality of natural history will depend on the willingness of professionals in the natural sciences to self-identify as natural historians, to teach natural history, and to articulate the importance of their expertise across a wide range of disciplines, through lectures, conferences, professional societies, and public talks. Those professionals who embrace the revitalization of natural history within and beyond their institutions will lead and define the field for the twenty-first century. This is not an easy path for early-career academics, but it is an essential shift for established academics because they can use their tenure to validate and promote the importance of natural history within and beyond their programs.

To facilitate the resurgence of Natural History, I suggest three mechanisms that may help in Biology Departments (and elsewhere):

1. Income obtained from student fees, or supplied by governments for student education, must be spent on teaching and on facilities for students (it is recognised that a small percentage is also necessary for support services and for administration, other than that related to teaching).

2. Research grants should only be given to those less than, say, 40 years-old. This will encourage new thinking to become widespread; it will reduce the impact of senior researchers on the development of ideas; and it will empower younger researchers in developing their careers. Preferably, there should be more grants and they should be smaller. Large capital schemes could be co-operative, or sponsored by Industry, Government Departments or by endowments. Senior aademics have an invaluable role to play here in supporting pools of younger researchers and ensuring that experience counts for something....

3. Senior and Tenured Academics should be encouraged to teach areas outside their discipline and the freshness that they bring from their preparation for teaching, will make for an enthusiastic approach.

Of all the sub-disciplines of Biology, Natural History is likely to benefit most from these changes and students will be provided with something that they will keep for life. It will provide a better perspective on the position of humans as organisms that are part of a wonderfully diverse World.

[1] Joshua J. Tewksbury and 16 co-authors (2014) Natural History's Place in Science and Society. BioScience 64: 300-310.

1 comment:

  1. Coming at it from my new viewpoint as a mum, rather than a student, subjects such as Natural History are incredibly important and it would be tragic if they were allowed to simply drop away.

    Wandering around in the woods, at the zoo, in museums and looking at the form and function of plants, animals, the environment, the planet is what my 3 year old loves best, it's what engages them in the sciences and in learning in the first place. I'm not sure how far I'd be able to interest him in the world around if everything were reduced to mathematical and chemical formulae.

    Personally, when I studied Biology at UCL, I reached out for the subjects such as Animal Form and Function, Palaeoanthropology, Primate Behaviour and History of Medicine, precisely because they are removed from (and yet intricately linked with) the Chemistry, Biochemistry, Microbiology and Statistics that form the compulsory core of the course.

    If we are to only offer courses that have explicitly linked career paths then we may as well give up being universities, which I always understood to be a place where you could learn for the sake for learning...about a subject that you find interesting. Why not go straight into vocational training? If universities aren't careful, they will end up planning and bringing about their own gradual demise.