In the April 2023 issue of the New Phytologist there is a letter entitled: “One hundred important questions for plant science—reflecting on a decade of plant research” (Larson et al., 2023). It looks at the 2011 publication of a list that had been painstakingly assembled from hundreds of questions submitted by various constituencies of the botanical community (Grierson et al., 2011) and then goes on to introduce an updated list, also in the April New Phytologist (Armstrong et al., 2023). I think examining this group of articles makes a good first post in this series on what botany as a discipline looks like today and how it might develop, and thrive, in the future.
I have to admit at the start that I was somewhat perplexed to find that the terms “herbaria” and “plant collections” aren’t used at all in the original set of questions, nor in the letter introducing the updated list. They both do pop up—once each—in question 25 of the revised list: “How can we harness the power of plant collections (Arboreta, Botanic Gardens and Herbaria) for research, education and public engagement?” (p. 473). Despite this, I found the lists and the discussions accompanying them fascinating. In both iterations, there were three main goals. The first two were similar in both: to stimulate discussion among different areas of plant science and to encourage plant scientists to think beyond their own research areas. The third goal in the original list was “to illustrate the importance and potential of plant science to the broader public” (Grierson et al., 2011, p. 6). For the updated list the goal became to “include historically excluded voices and elicit both region-specific and globally relevant questions” (Armstrong, 2023, p. 470).
Questions were invited through a variety of media and from a variety of plant-focused institutions worldwide. For the first set, 350 questions were received, while that number jumped to 616 on the second go-round. For the first list, a panel met both virtually and in person to categorize and then whittle down the questions. The second time, the goal of more inclusion was taken seriously with four regional panels formed representing Europe, North and South America, Asia and Oceania, and Africa. They shaved the original list down, with another panel creating the final list.
Reading the three publications: the first list, the introductory letter for the second compilation, and then that list itself, was fascinating. All three are reminders of how broad the field of plant science is, how many aspects it entails, how complex their interactions are, and thus how difficult it is to answer any one question without getting answers for many others. Reading these articles is a great exercise in expanding awareness, and what the authors of the second set call horizon scanning: trying to see future trends. They note that this term has become more common in the past ten years, as has awareness of the effects of past colonization practices on many aspects of plant studies and agriculture. Climate change too has become a more urgent topic and all these factors are reflected in the questions.
In this brief post, I can’t go into specifics but I will list the 11 issues that are considered most critical today: climate change, science in the community, food security, biodiversity, sustainability, plant-plant interactions, plant disease, plant-microbiome interactions, plant adaptation, plant stress responses, and ecosystem services. It’s obvious how these are interrelated. I find the second the most intriguing so I’ll quote it in full: “Science in the community: how can we insure that the varied goals and needs of our diverse societies are understood and fulfilled by plant scientists? (Armstrong et al., 2023, p. 472)” Talk about huge and interrelated with many other issues, yet I think it lacks something: a sense of give-and-take among plant scientists and “our diverse societies” and among those societies themselves. Plant scientists have to understand people’s needs, but they also have to communicate to communities about the limits of scientific knowledge and of resource development.
I may be pushing things here because of my own prejudice in favor of plant collections, but herbaria have recently shown a great willingness to communicate with many communities about their work and about how these communities can participate that work in many ways. I can also make a case for the importance of plant collections to every one of the 11 areas listed above. I think failure to mention plant collections and herbaria in particular is not so much a reflection of a lack of importance, but rather results from their being so interwoven into the fabric of plant science that they are taken for granted. While this is understandable, it is not desirable. This is one of the reasons collections continue to be underfunded even though their significance is more appreciated today than it was during much of the latter half of the 20th century. I would like to argue that another way of looking at the great issues for the future of plant science is to do so from the viewpoint of herbaria, and that will be the subject of my next post.
Armstrong, E. M., Larson, E. R., Harper, H., Webb, C. R., Dohleman, F., Araya, Y., Meade, C., Feng, X., Mukoye, B., Levin, M. J., Lacombe, B., Bakirbas, A., Cardoso, A. A., Fleury, D., Gessler, A., Jaiswal, D., Onkokesung, N., Pathare, V. S., Phartyal, S. S., … Grierson, C. S. (2023). One hundred important questions facing plant science: An international perspective. New Phytologist, 238(2), 470–481. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.18771
Grierson, C. S., Barnes, S. R., Chase, M. W., Clarke, M., Grierson, D., Edwards, K. J., Jellis, G. J., Jones, J. D., Knapp, S., Oldroyd, G., Poppy, G., Temple, P., Williams, R., & Bastow, R. (2011). One hundred important questions facing plant science research. New Phytologist, 192(1), 6–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03859.x
Larson, E. R., Armstrong, E. M., Harper, H., Knapp, S., Edwards, K. J., Grierson, D., Poppy, G., Chase, M. W., Jones, J. D. G., Bastow, R., Jellis, G., Barnes, S., Temple, P., Clarke, M., Oldroyd, G., & Grierson, C. S. (2023). One hundred important questions for plant science – reflecting on a decade of plant research. New Phytologist, 238(2), 464–469. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.18663