When a biologist cannot describe the differences between a snake and an earthworm, we know we're in trouble, warns Ken Bowler
There is an old joke among zoologists that today's universities produce graduates who cannot describe the defining differences between snakes and earthworms. Sadly, that joke is becoming reality for many students; worse still, it is increasingly true for staff.
The culprit for this parlous state in biological sciences is the research assessment exercise. Of course, it has long been fashionable to blame the RAE for the decline in all university teaching. But its impact on zoology has been particularly severe.
To do well in the RAE, departments of biological sciences have had to focus on the high-impact publications and research income of big hitters. This has distorted staff recruitment and retention towards molecular biology and biomedical science, fields that bring the prospect of significant grant funding that can help support entire departments. Zoological research funding is meagre by comparison.
This downward trend began with the first RAE in 1986. The impact of the gradual loss of staff with zoological research and therefore teaching experience can be witnessed in the origin of papers published in two British zoology publications, the Journal of Experimental Biology and the Journal of Zoology . In 1975, before the RAE, more than 50 per cent of papers in both journals originated in the UK. This percentage has fallen progressively since, dropping to 10 per cent in 2005.
The proportion of papers from North America, continental Europe and Australasia has grown over this time - zoology is seen as relevant and has been fostered elsewhere in the world. Inevitably, this will lead to a waning UK presence on the editorial boards of many zoology and experimental biology journals, further weakening the impact of British biology worldwide. When was the last time a professor of zoology was appointed in the UK?
With the mismatch between research and teaching needs already skewed by the RAE, the impact on students is disproportionately serious. Many schools of biological sciences lack the breadth of staff experience to deliver a degree programme in zoology in anything near its entirety. And as teaching at university level should be about more than the transference of knowledge, this impacts on the development of expertise. Furthermore, the failure to make senior appointments able to inform curriculum design suitable for a modern degree in zoology is another worry.
This decline matters as undergraduate recruitment in zoology and biology (which includes zoological units modules) has remained buoyant. Indeed, in some schools of biological sciences zoology degrees have the largest cohorts. But these students will be increasingly short-changed.
In addition, modules in zoology are essential for modern curricula in biology. For example, integrative animal physiology and biochemistry provides a functional explanation of the adaptive strategies available to animals and, as such, it links molecular biology with ecology. Such information is essential if the impact of global warming is to be understood.J Finally, and potentially most seriously, biology graduates will emerge with limited understanding of the subject. They may be well versed in cellular and molecular biology, but if this is not framed by systematic and evolutionary biology, phenotypic and adaptive functional biology and genetics students will know little of how cells work together to make organs, or how the functions of organs and tissues are integrated to make a functioning organism. Still less, I suspect, will they understand how organisms are adapted to live, reproduce and evolve in particular environments. These graduates will then take that narrow experience into the classroom. Thus, zoology is likely to be presented at school at a trivial level at best and at worst at an uninformed and incorrect level.
This will clearly impact on the scientific literacy of pupils while allowing such misconceptions as "intelligent design" to spread among our children. When they enter universities, students will be ill-prepared to read any aspect of a programme in biological sciences.
It is vital for biologists to engage in the debate on the design and introduction of modern zoology programmes at undergraduate level. If this does not happen, the thoughtless negligence in curriculum design that the teaching quality assessment was supposed to address will allow zoology, as a serious subject in its own right and as an integral part of a biology degree, effectively to disappear. Zoology is seriously threatened with extinction.
Ken Bowler is professor emeritus of zoology at Durham University.