Field Botanists Are Hard to Find in Academic Jungle

BECAUSE the destruction of the rain forests is accelerating at such a rapid pace, field botanists like the ones at the Missouri Botanical Garden are greatly needed to help find, inventory, and conserve plants. But the training and education required for these jobs begins at the university level, and some botanists and botany professors say these careers have become more difficult and less desirable to pursue.

Over the past decade, universities have steered toward teaching molecular biology - the science that analyzes part of an organism. This type of biology focuses on laboratory research and attracts large federal and private grants for such work as DNA analysis and gene transposition.

Organismic biology, which studies the whole organism and its relation to the environment, involves field-oriented study. It does not bring in the money to schools and administrators, however, and has been edged out of many curricula.

``Before molecular biology came along what you had was a lot of institutions that ... would tend to hire anyone who wanted to work down in the tropics and do their little thing,'' says B. L. Turner, a botany professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

But he says the shifting emphasis away from organismic biology as well as the lack of financial support has made it harder for students to get jobs in the field or even as teachers in academic institutions.

``I think one of the biggest problems of getting kids to go into the area is what are they going to do when they get through? They'll be down there starving in Latin America. And it is a real problem. You can train these people, but you have to see that they have a decent future afterwards, and most of them don't. ...They have to cut trees on the side for a living. They can't find jobs at the institutions because they want molecular biologists,'' Dr. Turner says.

Michael Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, says the dissolution of tropical biology at universities is a ``tragedy.''

``What has happened is that botanical gardens, museums like the Chicago Field Museum, have picked up a lot of the responsibility for inventorying, studying, evaluating the botanical world of the tropics, and this is a responsibility that universities have abdicated,'' Dr. Balick says.

``As the planet self-destructs, we need more `whole' biologists to advise policymakers on the environment,'' he adds.

Alwyn Gentry, a curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden agrees. ``A lot of people are going into that other kind of study rather than the field-oriented study which is what I see as being critical.''

Balick says the emphasis on molecular biology is starting to change. He sees the creation of environmental education departments and positions in conservation biology at universities, along with the Bush administration's taking on a ``green'' cast, as positive steps.

But, he says, ``The massive forces that are building up will be so great by 2000 ... there will be no path left but environmental degradation. We do have this 10-year period to advocate some sort of change and put it into place. I see botanical gardens and biology departments at universities as critical to producing the kinds of people who have this environmental ethic - both in the temperate regions and in the tropics - who can help in this movement.''

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