Natural history in the 21st century: A survey to assess relevancy in environmental science
Natural history has long been the foundation for ecological research, from the development of hypotheses derived from patterns observed in the field, to capturing the interest and passion of students bound for careers in ecology. Today research universities select candidates with a high potential for generation of large grants or patents. Rarely do job descriptions explicitly identify strengths in natural history as a selection criteria. That typically excludes the broad, multidisciplinary natural historians and favors more narrow specialists. Given this, is natural history still relevant, still providing the observations and that foundational basis upon which theories capable of changing the course of ecological research have been spawned? Are the recent and current university hiring objectives handicapping a generation (or more) of young scientists?
We developed an online survey for graduate students enrolled in, or recently graduated from, environmental science programs at academic institutions in California. Our objectives were first, to determine the extent to which graduate students are still being exposed to basic environmental science courses, second, to determine whether these courses are still desirable to students, and third, to determine how students value natural history. Our final objective was to see how potential employers in several different employment sectors perceive and value a foundation in natural history.
Of the 212 environmental science graduate students surveyed, 93.3% agreed that natural history was relevant to science, and nearly 70% felt an understanding of natural history was “essential” when conducting field based research. Despite the overwhelmingly positive response regarding the relevancy of natural history, students were far less certain whether they were adequately trained to teach a course in natural history: only 54.2% felt they were, or probably were and over 80% of students felt their research would be benefitted by additional training in natural history. Of the 185 environmental science career professionals surveyed, all felt that natural history was relevant to science, and 93% felt that an understanding of natural history was either “essential” or “desirable” in their current line of work. Approximately 56% of professionals felt that employment candidates they had interviewed possessed about only about half the “important” or “somewhat important” natural history-related skills necessary to perform the job they were applying for. While this is an important on-going dialogue, our results suggest a disconnect between the relevancy of natural history in the 21st century and the opportunities for gaining those desirable skills and knowledge from available curriculum.