Natural history and in general, all natural sciences, are falling out of favor in school curriculums, elbowed out by the newer and more attractive computer-focused studies. Biology textbooks are often times giving only short mentions of natural history, and even universities are dropping this type of courses – and that’s a problem.
Back in the day, the word “scientist” was almost synonymous with “naturalist.” People weren’t only biologists or chemists, they didn’t just focus on one of the sciences – they branched out, attempting to understand many facets of nature. In recent times, the trend has reversed. People study smaller and more niched facets of science, trying to understand them better and in more depth. In this context, natural history falls in a strange spot.
Natural history is the research and study of organisms, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study. Nowadays, more and more scientists spend their time in labs as opposed to on the field so they give less respect to classic natural history, even though most of them think natural history is still highly useful. According to a new study published in BioScience, scientists (in California) working in all fields, from plant biology to geophysics, prize hands-on natural history.
93.45% of early-career scientists and 97.3% of seasoned professionals agreed natural history was “relevant to science today” and 96.75% and 92.95%, respectively, said it was “essential” or “desirable” to their research. Meanwhile, young scientists feel like they don’t have nearly enough training. Of the participants, 80.2% said their research could benefit from more training in natural history and that said training is becoming more and more scarce. The study reads:
“The relevance of natural history is challenged and marginalized today more than ever. [..] 70% believed it “essential” for conducting field-based research; however, 54% felt inadequately trained to teach a natural-history course and would benefit from additional training in natural history (more than 80%). Of the 185 professionals surveyed, all felt that natural history is relevant to science and “essential” or “desirable” in their vocation (93%). Our results indicate a disconnection between the value and relevance of natural history in twenty-first-century ecological science and opportunities for gaining those skills and knowledge through education and training.”
This raises a few subtle, but highly poignant problems. Without proper natural understanding, what insight can we actually have? How valuable is research in a niched molecular area for example, if we don’t understand its environmental significance?
The authors also emphasize how undervalued this extremely useful skill is when trying to land a job or tenure.
“When can any of us recall a job posting for an academic, tenure-track faculty position that mentioned a transdisciplinary background in natural history as a selection criterion? That omission may exclude those self-identified naturalists and in doing so may be affecting our field in ways we have yet to fully understand.”
Journal Reference: At a Crossroads: The Nature of Natural History in the Twenty-First Century