There are few things on Earth that I would willingly be the President of. A couple of months ago I assumed the Big Chair of one of them — The Natural History Network, a fine organization dedicated to the rebirth, respect and relevance of natural history. Now that I’m ostensibly the leader of this excellent initiative, I’ve spent a lot of time this fall thinking about where we are, and where we’re going, as naturalists, especially in the world of academic science. I’ve come to some interesting realizations about the place and perceptions and standing of natural history in academia.
When I give seminars at other universities I generally get drawn into (or initiate, if I get impatient) conversations about the place of natural history in science. Multiple themes run through these conversations, mostly centered around how we actually define natural history and how it’s perceived within academia. One common thread that comes up a lot is that if you’re going to do “natural history” research in academia, you’re not going to get much credit for it. I realize that’s often true, but I also think it’s sad and wrong.
Realization 1: we sometimes do things for different reasons than we tell people.
I’ve had lunch and discussions recently with several grad students and post-docs at a few different universities. I asked them why they got into the field they were in and just about every single one who volunteered an answer said essentially the same thing: they were really fascinated and passionate about their study organisms. But then we talked about grant applications and job applications and justifying their papers and they admitted that in those situations, they focus on the conceptual and theoretical framework of their research question, with those organisms they are so passionate about relegated to “convenient model systems”. I confess that I do the same thing. Why? Because I want a committee to fund my grant applications. This is the game we must play in 21st Century biology. Our love of natural history and passion for biodiversity that made us biologists in the first place has to, from time to time, become a skeleton in the closet. It’s a shame.
The reward systems and metrics of academia are calibrated to this as well. It’s quick and easy to rank people on easily calculated numbers such as Impact Factor or H-index or citations, and so some administrators do that. The problem is that natural history runs afoul of The Numbers Game. Big journals are fond of theory, and Big Journal Papers get cited, and a brief natural history paper in a regional journal with an Impact Factor less than 0.5 will not likely get cited much and will likely raise eyebrows if you list it as one of your significant contributions. I’ve been on grants committees and search committees where some people have laughed at such papers. Narrow-minded people, mind you, but people who are part of The System nonetheless.
Realization 2: natural history is one of the most misunderstood terms in science
There are many ways to define natural history, which is both a blessing and a curse. I read a refereed paper last year in which the author claimed that Natural History is not science because it does not test theory. He did acknowledge that Natural History does contribute to science, which I thought was sort of decent of him. But I still think his definition of “science” is pretty narrow.
There persists the annoying misconception that natural history is archaic, arcane and amateurish. And that we already know all we need to know about the basic biology and ecology and taxonomy of enough organisms. That’s completely wrong. Spectacularly wrong. If it wasn’t, my students and I wouldn’t be discovering so many new things just in the world of insects. And there are lots of people out there, both professional and amateur, discovering lots of new things about lots of groups of organisms. Every. Single. Day.
We don’t know the names of most species on the planet. We don’t know what most of the named species do for a living. We don’t know how most species fit into food webs. We know a lot about, say mammals and birds, but to extrapolate to all nature based on the fact that we know a lot about mammals and birds is like extrapolating to all of music based on your knowledge of Frank Sinatra or Claude Debussy. Simply put, we cannot begin to make truly educated recommendations about conservation planning, biodiversity assessment, climate change impacts, invasive species impacts, or other Big Questions in science until we understand the little pieces. And Natural History is, in part, the SCIENCE of understanding the little pieces. And we’re not there yet.
Realization 3: our audience is broader than just our colleagues in academia
It’s no coincidence that almost all the biology stories that go viral in the media (both mainstream and social) are natural history stories. Basic discoveries. Cool facts. Stories about fascinating new discoveries resonate with non-scientists, with school kids, with regular people.
Imagine what a drier place the science feeds on Twitter and Facebook and blogs would be without a daily stream of cool natural history to rely on. I don’t think for a second that it’s not critically important to advance theory, or test hypotheses, or do applied research that builds on a solid foundation, but while that’s going on, think about how many future scientists, or supporters of science, are getting drawn into our world because of that hydrothermal vent video, or that jumping spider dance, or that ant photo, or that new snake, or those cave critters, or . . .
We, as scientists, have a responsibility (yes, a responsibility, not an opportunity or option) to inform the broader public about what we do and why we do it. And the broader public likes, and values, natural history stories.
So what can we do to address the paradox of natural history in academia?
1) Be proud of your passion! Natural history matters. Natural history is relevant. Natural history is current. Natural history is the foundation for so much of biology. Why shouldn’t we be doing it as scientists? It won’t derail your career. Really.
2) Don’t be afraid to publish your natural history work in journals with a lower impact factor. Sure, aim for PNAS or Ecology Letters or Evolution with the big stuff. That’s what I would do. But don’t relegate a potential paper to the filing cabinet or the recycling bin just because it would fit best in, say, Canadian Field-Naturalist, or Pan-Pacific Entomologist, or Northeastern Naturalist. They’re good journals with good papers and great staying power. Why not publish your work there so people can read it? It won’t derail your career. Really.
3) Supervisors and departments — cut the students some slack! Encourage them to take some extra time to work up that smaller paper, that descriptive paper, that exploratory paper. It won’t derail their career. Really.
4) Grant and hiring committees – please stop discounting (or worse, deriding) natural history papers! Where do you think that theory and those model organisms came from in the first place? The structure of science is built from big bricks AND little bricks. From theory AND observation. From hypothesis testing AND observation. A person who does natural history research is not derailing their own career. Really.