Save field biology skills from extinction risk

John Warren and colleagues warn of the serious decline in graduates with sound identification skills

February 26, 2015

Source: Michael Parkin

It is widely accepted that the decline in field biology skills in the UK has reached crisis point. But so what? The ability to identify bugs, flowers and birdsong may be viewed as all rather quaint. Some may consider it little different from the loss of other “traditional country skills” such as basket weaving or morris dancing. However, the lack of field biologists is keeping many people awake at night.

Without recorders who can reliably identify bumblebees, how would we know that our pollinators are at risk and thus our future fruit crops in peril? Without records of first flowering dates, how would we know of the biological reality of climate change? Without identification skills, how would we recognise pest species threatening the economic future of our islands? The legal protection of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest is dependent on these sites containing unusual species; without the ability to confirm the presence of these species, much of our conservation policy has no foundations. Yet it is estimated that each year there are fewer than 10 UK graduates who are proficient enough in field identification skills to be employable. Of these, about half are arts graduates who are recreational (amateur) field naturalists. In contrast, a lack of basket weavers leaves us with a regrettable lack of willow baskets, but is hardly a cause for the national conservation agencies to call crisis meetings.

There are probably a number of reasons that have contributed to the decline in field biology. These include the rise of molecular biology, the loss of staff competent and comfortable in the field, and the general decline in children getting outdoor experience. However, a key factor has to be that the skills involved have been distinctly unappreciated. In fact, we would argue that, in educational circles, this lack of appreciation goes much deeper. Educationalists have been guilty of formalising a gross undervaluing of the complexities involved in field biology. This has occurred through a naive adherence to an incredibly damaging dogma that has influenced so much of modern educational practice. Ironically, the dogma that has been so detrimental to field taxonomy is known as Bloom’s taxonomy.

In 1956, a committee of educationalists chaired by Benjamin Bloom proposed a classification system for learning outcomes. The objective of the group was to clarify the language used in the design of curricula and exams. They produced a theoretical framework that subsequently has been widely used to classify educational goals. There are now literally hundreds of textbooks, web pages and training courses that provide guidance on writing exam questions based around Bloom’s taxonomy. These documents frequently include lists of approved verbs that are deemed appropriate when writing questions for different levels or years of study. Bloom’s creed tells us that the lowest levels of cognitive skills involve recognising, identifying, naming and memorising. These abilities are considered inferior to the higher levels such as critically analysing, evaluating, criticising and reviewing. This sort of simplistic analysis resulted in field biology skills being excluded from university degrees time and time again as being too “simplistic”. However, ask those responsible for dropping these courses to distinguish Galium saxatile from Galium sterneri and they might just start to appreciate that identification skills are not so simple after all.

The Galium example illustrates just why those who blindly follow Bloom’s taxonomy need to learn a little more about biological taxonomy. It is not a trivial skill to be able to differentiate between closely related plants. It is not a simple memory test. Rather, it requires critical analysis and many other higher skills. It demands logical thought processes and the review of a host of information. The final answer is usually arrived at on a balance of probability based on evaluating the likely underlying geology of the site where the plants were found. A field biologist who has read a landscape, reviewed the other co-occurring species and concluded that the specimen was probably G. saxatile, may wish to corroborate this by using a hand lens to determine in which direction tiny hooks along the leaves point. To the naked eye, these two plants look virtually identical. This level of complexity is why taxonomists generally take years to hone their skills, supporting our argument that identification is not a low-level cognitive skill.

Real taxonomists know that there are always cases when things are not black and white. Some things cannot be condemned to belong to one species or another by rote. Bloom’s taxonomists still need to learn this lesson. Sometimes, what appear to be low-level cognitive skills are actually highly complex multifactorial tasks.

We have already lost a generation of field biologists. Moreover, the lack of attention to identification skills has permeated down to primary schools: it seems that the nature table is not something to be taken seriously in this technological age. So university students have had this dismissive message reinforced right through their schooling. If the skill set is not totally to be lost, we need to act now to overcome this inertia and identify identification as a worthy and noble set of complex skills.

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Reader's comments (5)

You make an excellent point. As someone who had a long career for a nature conservation agency, I have been appalled by the declining standards in field skills among colleagues, and even in organisations like RSPB. You can almost get away with it in the typical roles because the emphasis is on analytical skills among scientists, and fieldwork and data collection is often contracted-out. But how can you analyse and interpret data if you can't recognise if the data collected for you is of poor quality? Or even if you don't appreciate that this might be important. It doesn't help that policy people in nature conservation try to keep scientists at arms length either. I would like to see all universities teach the importance of good field skills, and how poor field skills can introduce severe bias to biological data collection.
In my nearly 50-year career as an academic soil biologist I have seen the proportion of a typical undergraduate curriculum in the biological sciences devoted to systematic botany, zoology and microbiology diminish from around 70% to just one first year module, about 5% of the overall degree. No wonder then that amateur enthusiasts are often better in the field than so-called professional biologists, a trend which is likely to continue as UK universities increasingly direct their staffs towards “fundable” and “high impact” research in biomedical science, molecular genetics and bioinformatics, with corresponding shifts in teaching programmes and the truncation of domestic field courses to save money. Worse than this, one hears alarming stories of severe retrenchment in public sector research related to biodiversity, for example at Kew, and even the Natural Environment Research Council has been obliged to adopt “research excellence” and “impact” agendas which often promote modelling and metadata studies over primary fieldwork. Yet much of the world’s biodiversity has yet to be fully defined. This is especially the case for soils and marine sediments, crucial elements of the biosphere for food security, future resource exploitation and climate change. So where are tomorrow’s competent field biologists to come from? One answer may be from the developing economies of Asia and South America, where I notice that awareness of their native biological capitals has an increasingly higher priority in public policy making and, correspondingly, in the teaching and research of their expanding university systems and government-sponsored institutes. For almost two hundred years places like Malaysia and Brazil have grown used to the sight of European scientists scouring their rainforests, savannas and coral reefs, an activity which the more sceptical critics in these countries have sometimes called “data piracy”. Would a future UK see teams of Malaysians and Brazilians descending on such icons of British natural history as Wytham Woods or the Tamar Estuary, to complete the work we have left unfinished? An unlikely scenario? Don’t bet on it.
I run the National Earthworm Recording Scheme as a volunteer on behalf of the also volunteer-run Earthworm Society of Britain. Our work is focused on teaching earthworm identification (certainly not what I would consider a low level skill) and promoting the recording of these ecologically pivotal organisms. Due to our work over the past 7 years there are now more individuals in the UK trained in earthworm identification than ever before. There is hope, as there are many other recording-based volunteer organisations that continue to facilitate biological recording and field biology in the UK. The key, in my eyes, is not for universities or conservation NGO's to try to replicate this work. After all, I speak from experience when I say that teaching someone to identify a group does not make them record (and build up the necessary experience to become an expert). Universities should look at how they can work with the recording schemes and societies and utilise the wealth of knowledge and unwavering enthusiasm that their experts can provide and pass on to their students. In return, the societies have access to a funding stream to help with running costs and access to new generations of recorders. Well I can dream....
First check out Reading University's MSc in Species Identification and Survey Skills. This recognises that graduates with field skills are essential to the UK economy and is doing something about it. Unfortunately they do claim to be unique. That said, the general problem is that the biological sciences encompass a wider intellectual reach than any other science. I expect graduates to know the physics of the early events in photosynthesis, the detailed workings of ion channels, the use of Bayesian statistics in phylogenetics, and the role of bacteria and the archaea in the evolution of mammals. I would also like them to have fully digested Oliver Rackham's work on woodlands, but I actually think that requires a depth of knowledge that undergraduates do not have. Coming back to the main post, I do not recognise that 'It is widely accepted that the decline in field biology skills in the UK has reached crisis point'. I have recently returned to active field biology and I am really impressed by the hive of activity in the UK. 50 years ago there was nowhere that I could have learnt to identify earthworms, and in Darwin's work on the subject he never seems to worry about different species. Nowadays we even have a mapping scheme. I am sure this activity is 95% self-taught amateurs, but apart from being a resource in themselves they also provide an environment in which professionals can teach and publish.
I agree totally. This is a vital area missing in the education system, particularly in Universities. This is why I set up the Darwin Centre in Pembrokeshire (see www.darwincentre.com), which has been huge success. We are also launching a young Linnean initiative through the Linnean Society, with a 300 year legacy for Natural History and Evolution. We are also running a BeachTeach initiative for schools in Penarth. Come and join us. Its all about developing curiosity, and seeing where this leads. For example, my work on a luminous jelly fish created a billion dollar market! Tony Campbell

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