New in BioScience - Importance of natural history in science and society

Pollen-bearing stamens.  Photo Credit Jon Sullivan

In developed countries there has been a steep decline for the support of natural history however, the importance of the essential knowledge gained through studying the fundamental nature of organisms has not waned. Josh Tewksbury, NCEAS sabbatical fellow from the University of Washington, convened a group of 17 researchers including former NCEAS deputy director, Stephanie Hampton, which resulted in an important new manuscript in the April issue of BioScience highlighting numerous examples of the essential knowledge natural history has provided for fields as varied as human health, food security, conservation, land management, and recreation.

Evidence of the decline in natural history includes the fact that most American schools no longer have natural history requirements for a biology degree, a trend that has coincided with the rise of molecular, experimental and other forms of biology, which may be less expensive or can attract large grants and public recognition. Although biological modeling has become more sophisticated, models must be built on field observations to usefully represent the real world. According to the research team, the important influence of microbes on human health and plants is a key new frontier in natural history research. They see hope for the discipline with the rise of Internet- and smartphone-based technologies that allow the growth of broad partnerships, including citizen-science initiatives.

“Such linkages are starting to develop, but require established professionals to self-identify as natural historians to provide the leadership needed for natural history to reclaim its necessary role,” Hampton said. “Our hope is that our paper becomes a starting point for the next set of collaborations, initiatives and actions, and that ideas can spread to inform, energize and integrate different audiences passionate about the future of natural history.” 

Natural History’s Place in Science and Society
Joshua J. Tewksbury, John G. T. Anderson, Jonathan D. Bakker, Timothy J. Billo, Peter W. Dinwiddie, Martha J. Groom, Stephanie E. Hampton, Steven G. Herman, Doublas J. Levey, Noelle J. Machnicki, Carlos Martinez Del Rio, Mary E. Power, Kirsten Rowell, Anne K. Salomon, Liam Stacey, Stephen C. Trombulak, and Terry A. Wheeler
BioScience, Vol. 64, No. 4, April 2014

Following is a sample of the media coverage of this study

NATURE: Natural decline: Few biology degrees still feature natural history. Is the naturalist a species in crisis?

UCSB Press Release

More information about this Josh Tewksbury's research fellowship at NCEAS

The manuscript was initiated as a part of the Natural History Initiative

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, Prescott college, The Doug and Maggie Walker Chair in National History, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).


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Posted on March 26, 2014