Today, research universities scrutinize prospective environmental science faculty candidates, weighing in particular their potential to produce impactful publications and secure large external grants. 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. If natural history has lost relevance and has been relegated to the dusty shelves of museums and the weekend pursuits of amateur enthusiasts, then this academic hiring trajectory is justified. However, if it is relevant and arguably constitutes the building blocks for fostering the development of the next Robert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, or Ruth Patrick, then we should reconsider the path we are on.
A new survey of early-career scientists and environmental-science professionals found that only 11 percent felt their academic training alone provided the needed exposure to natural history, which can be defined as the observation of organisms in their natural environment. The survey coincides with a shift in ecology away from teaching and research rooted in natural history and toward modeling, laboratory and theoretical research, which tend to attract more grant funding and publications in higher-impact academic journals. This shift is occurring despite the cross-disciplinary connections natural history research creates among species, habitats and ecosystems.
For the survey project, researchers questioned 185 professionals, assessing the attitudes and perceptions related to natural history by early-career scientists and environmental-science professionals across 31 universities in California.
Among the findings:
- Of the scientists surveyed, 93 percent agreed that natural history is relevant to science.
- About 70 percent believed it is essential to conduct field-based research.
- Only 54 percent felt inadequately trained to teach a natural-history course.
- More than 80 percent said they would benefit from additional training in natural history.
- Nearly 82 percent of respondents indicated that writing grants, research reports and manuscripts for publication was a daily to monthly component of their job.
- Just more than half indicated that conducting field research was a regular aspect of their employment.
- Only 24 percent had been given the opportunity to participate in a citizen science-type field campaign, which is defined as the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically in collaboration with professional scientists.
Building on previous experience with citizen science research, the researchers argue that citizen science may be the key to keeping natural history relevant in the 21st century and keeping pace with the direction of modern ecology.
Modern natural historians are in a unique position to act as a bridge between science and nonscientists and should capitalize on the inclusion of the public in ways that will empower them to make societal changes to combat looming environmental and conservation issues.