Why we do science: the paradox of natural history

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.

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Why we do science: the paradox of natural history

  1. Cosmin says:

    Dear Terrry,

    Thanks a lot for this article. Now I feel better… few days ago a friend told me that me only with taxonomic/faunistic papers I’m at the bottom of the bottom of “science”… and that guy teach other students (and he is just few years older than me).

    All my best,

  2. Thanks Cosmin. Taxonomy may be at the “bottom” of science, but only because it is part of the foundation that all of biology rests on. Without taxonomy, natural history and other empirical research, people who work in other branches of biology would be lost.

  3. Well said, Terry. And too often researchers justify theoretical research by it’s application, but they fail to understand fundamental aspects of the application, because they are ignorant of basic natural history. I’ve met my fair share of plant ecologists, for example, that can’t identify more than a handful of the plants where they do their research, but the identity of many of plants affects the interpretation of said research.

    • Exactly! The pieces of a community are more than just points or parameters. And the basic fact that species respond and interact idiosyncratically means that it’s fairly important to know who’s who in those plots.

  4. john farnsworth says:

    That’s cogent advice not to be worried about publishing in journals with lower impact factors. Last November I co-published in the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, and I think the paper was actually better read than when I’ve published in journals with a higher zoot factor. In JNHEE I had a feeling that I was being read by like-minded colleagues engaged by similar passions, members of my own herd. Sometimes the community factor is more important than the impact factor.

    • John – your last sentence makes a critically important point that many of us should think about more often. It would be fantastic, for example, to see more papers in JNHEE about the interface between the many different facets of natural history – science and art, teaching and research, field and lab, etc.

  5. Oh, Thank You for posting this! Because you know what I am interested in? Learning about the communities of insects that visit California native plants. I work at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (all native plants), where I am able to pursue my natural history interests. Will publishable research emerge from this work with no experimental manipulations? Probably not (or at least, only in ‘lower tier’ journals). Will the work be useful? Will it be exciting? Will it satisfy me as a scientist? Assuredly!

  6. Hi Frederique. Thanks for your comment. I agree completely with the answer to your final three questions. And those are frequently the most important questions to ask ourselves. But beyond that, I think the work you plan to do may well be publishable, depending on how you frame the observations. It’s valuable baseline data that will help to build a foundation for more directed ecological studies in this ecosystem. And a surprising number of those studies are observational, along particular gradients, rather than manipulative. One quick literature search for ecological studies of insects in selected native plant communities should show how valuable, and necessary, baseline empirical, descriptive research can be. One of my own more frequently cited Diptera papers was a list of species reared from wetland plants. Pure, old-school, low-cost, natural history. We published it in a regional entomology journal. I say – go for it!

  7. Andrew Durso says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and I was very inspired by your article. Thanks so much for writing this piece.

  8. Thank you for that lovely note. I am a young Naturalist – in between taking camps for school children and doing “my” research on forest eagles here in India. I have tried the conventional ways of getting funding, but I did realize that I was getting nowhere… my passion for the natural world (which btw I was born with) was being pushed aside for something else… something that did not hold any value above or equal to what I want to do! Most of the time… the scientific community sucks big time!
    But thanks for the idea of publishing it in ” lower impact” – but good readable journals. whatever my findings… they will go into a paper and place where everyone can read it and acknowledge it.
    You have definitely inspired me.. and I will make sure I do the same to other youngsters who want to get into this field.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think that one of the most important contributions we can make as naturalists is to instill, or reinforce, a passion for nature in the next generation of naturalists. Today’s 5-year old child chasing caterpillars or worms or snakes may be tomorrow’s biology professor (or tomorrow’s politician with an understanding of science!)

  9. Ambika Kamath says:

    Reblogged this on Ambika Kamath and commented:
    I’ve been meaning to write about this issue, and couldn’t have put it better, though I’m going to think more and then post about the intersection of natural history with exploratory statistics, tropical biology, and place-based conservation. I especially like the advice section at the end.

    • Ambika, thanks for the repost. It would be fantastic to see more written about the connections between natural history and these other subjects in biology. They are critically important links to make!

  10. CommNatural says:

    This is fantastic! My passion and my work is collaborating with researchers and nonprofits to build communication skills in researchers, and to get the word out about why scientific research of all kinds matters. I’m a naturalist at heart and by training, so I really appreciate that you took the time to articulate how fundamental (in the most essential way) natural history is to all other ecological research.

    Incidentally, I’m married to a wildlife research ecologist. The further my husband’s career progresses, the less cool it gets to describe his study species and sites, and the more pressing it becomes to use novel statistical analyses that don’t mention the study species until page 10 of the final manuscript. We occasionally collaborate on more descriptive manuscripts or popular articles, and it is amazing how much his communication style changes when he has the opportunity to communicate with more passion. It is also fascinating how leery he is of appearing to be too personal, too candid, due his perceived risk of undermining his professional objectivity.

    Bethann G. Merkle

    • Thanks Bethann. I can relate very well to that internal conflict in writing papers/articles for different audiences. It’s interesting how we (consciously or subconsciously) switch up our vocabulary and perspective depending on where the final product is headed. Given that science is such a human undertaking (with all the pros and cons that entails) it’s a weird exercise to purge some of that human-ness from our own writing about the things that make our jobs so much fun.

      • CommNatural says:

        Yes, exactly. That “do I exist or did the science happen magically by itself?” conundrum is really interesting, professionally and existentially. I think it also does a lot of damage in terms of distancing the human side of the story from the results, which in turn creates an ever-wider chasm between the people that do science and the public/policymakers who need to be informed by those results. In my experience, the “science magically happens” myth is most effectively overcome by providing opportunities for the public to personally interact with scientists, scientific research questions, and/or meaningfully engage with the results. Or, at a minimum, by a well-written popular article or video companion piece for an academic publication.

  11. Juan Molina says:

    Great read, couldn’t agree more. Regretfully science has become a business, we scientist like it or not. In Argentina, a scientist is measured by the number and impact factor of his publications. This determines what grants you get, if you get in the system or not, and what money to do research you get. And if it is hard for Canadians to publish natural history papers, imagine for us! Most low tier journals won’t even take our papers claiming its too regional.
    Sadly, we are constrained by a system that works on variables far more economical than scientific.

    • Thanks for your comment, Juan. This is the problem – the current reward system is based on easy metrics. I think we will have a difficult time changing the system in a significant way any time soon, but if we, as a community, can make little changes around the edges, that will at least be some progress. I think that, for the time being, the key is to do the things we must do to succeed in The Game, and hopefully we will have enough energy and time and enthusiasm left to do the other things that we are passionate about.

  12. Sean McCann says:

    Thanks for the article! I agree wholeheartedly that the discipline of natural history has been unfairly disparaged. Some of the coolest theoretical papers would be nothing without the work of natural historians to bring natural interactions to light.
    Much of my work is natural history based, and I am proud of it. If I can provide a toolbox and a starting point for future theory to be tested, so much the better, but i am proud of what I have accomplished because I have discovered and communicated things about our world that no one knew before, which is what I think science is all about.

    • Hi Sean. You’ve nailed it – it’s that joy of discovery that keeps so many of us practicing natural history in modern science. The fact that those of us doing natural history work are building an essential foundation for theory is a happy side-effect (rain-soaked, muddy, contented naturalists say “you’re welcome, biology”)

    • Dean jacobson says:

      Nothing comes close to that thrill, discovering a new wrinkle of nature (for me it was feeding behavior among the care heterotrophic dinoflagellates)

  13. D. Huber says:

    This is great, in so many ways. As editor of one of those little, but vital, journals (J. Entomol. Soc. BC), I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for writing this.

    • Thanks, Dezene. And it’s great to see some of these “little, but vital, journals”, like JESBC, starting to have a more visible and accessible on-line presence. I think that will be one of the keys to their continued survival, success, and relevance.

  14. Natural history is the Queen of the Sciences, and as the hardest of the sciences, she is constantly beset attempts to overthrow her inscrutable fascination and intellectual fertility by patriarchal advocates of the easy or indoor sciences. See Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ or Graves’ ‘The White Goddess’ for an historical preview of this situation

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  16. Absolutely wonderful, and I enthusiastically agree with everything. In addition, there is one VERY important thing about Natural History that the people who can count but not read need to hear: natural history is the ultimate source of new ideas and concepts, so without it, or ignoring it, will result in people who ignore it just doing the same old things, testing the same old hypotheses with no new scientific progress. This is the reason the “main” subjects in biology have boom and busts–they stagnate until there is input from Natural History. But then pretend it doesn’t exist.
    By the way, I used to stupefy some of my molecular biologist colleagues who said I was just doing natural history (in their pejorative sense of mindless data collection), and I replied that that is exactly what they are doing–mindless collection of molecular data. We, on the other hand are doing real natural history, which is not mindless collection. Try that out next time you get criticised!
    Best, wishes, John A. Endler (Fellow, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the Australian Academy of Sciences, if that helps you!)

  17. PMB says:

    It is lovely when they, having actually accomplished nothing and been so damn arrogant in their nothingness, actually do see, but never can acknowledge, the sorrow of their wasted wishes, and all their little pretences. While we just continue… that is why we are still here, and they are gone.

  18. Erin says:

    An undergrad perspective: Being exposed to natural history through social media and educational programs is what gets many people intrigued in science in the first place. I think it’s important to keep emphasizing its relevance, especially at the undergraduate level. Picking an undergraduate degree is arguably the first step in a scientist’s career path. Programs that are purely theoretical or lab-based may deter students who might have otherwise gone on to produce great work that is relevant in a variety of fields, but are discouraged that they won’t get to participate in the type of science that got them interested in the discipline in the first place.

  19. Keith says:

    Thanks for the article. As a grad student, I’ve been screaming about this for years. I have nearly a decade of observational field notes, with lots of novel observations, but very few outlets to publish them. I’ve had several scathing reviews from “low tier” journals that blast the lack of hypothesis testing and lack of data in my notes. I have openly asked in lab meeting where are we supposed to publish this stuff. There have actually been open debates in our department about the waste of time natural history becoming, which I find very sad. Your article gives me hope that there are still scientist out there that value the little bits of information and the effect that they can have years to come when they can be combined to give a bigger and better picture of how our world works.

    • Thanks Keith. There are certainly a lot of scientists out there who value natural history. The challenge is getting the System to recognize and reward this vitally important work. If enough people keep making the arguments in favour of the importance of natural history, we’ll eventually get the point across. Watch for a couple of upcoming papers in support of natural history coming out in BioScience in the next few months.

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  25. Dean jacobson says:

    While I was giving a seminar on my coral research, I asked the 30 students if anyone had read E O Wilson. No hands…I was shocked.

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