Why we teach what we teach

David Hershey dh321 at excite.com
Sun Jul 18 17:30:40 EST 1999

I still think Liberty Hyde Bailey was correct that making an artificial
distinction between basic (pure) and applied science is not beneficial,
especially in a natural science like botany. It polarizes and divides
botanists and leads to attacks on both types. Perhaps there is pure
mathematics but I'm not even sure there really is "pure botany." You can
do basic research even in applied areas like grafting or sugar maple sap
flow. Discoveries in many so-called "basic" areas of plant research,
such as plant hormones, genetics, tissue culture and photoperiodism,
have provided major economic gains. Do you classify Mendel's research as
applied because he studied cultivated plants and his laws of genetics
have had tremendous economic value? The goal of all research is the
same, to discover new knowledge. 

Even a botanist who studies a wildflower species with apparently no
economic value may eventually find their work has applied value if
people start to cultivate the plant as an ornamental or to save it from
extinction, discover that it contains valuable chemicals, or the plant
gets on the endangered species list and stops a major construction
project. Arabidopsis was once a species with little or no economic
importance but now is a valuable model plant for genetic research. 

It seems the best approach for botanists is to accept that new botanical
knowledge often turns out to have applied value although it was not
immediately obvious. A good example is the discovery of dawn redwood. It
was a celebrated botanical discovery but also turned out to be an
excellent landscape tree. Even research with applied goals, such as the
search for tropical rainforest plants with medicinal value, will also
extend our knowledge of rainforest flora.  

Nonscientists are often fascinated by studies of unusual plants such as
Rafflesia, the world's largest flower, and carnivorous plants, or
germination of thousand year old lotus seeds. The value of those studies
is not diminished because people make money by writing about them in
popular books or producing PBS shows about them. Rather botany gets some
much needed publicity.  

Perhaps a way to look at it is that plant science research is
stockpiling knowledge on a wide range of topics, some of obvious applied
value, others that may be of applied value in the future. It is all
valuable because it is knowledge. Scientific advances can change things
very suddenly. With the gains in genetic engineering, the world's
herbaria are potentially a rich source of germplasm, yet no one
envisioned that decades or centuries ago when many of them were started. 

David Hershey
dh321 at excite.com

> In a message dated 7/18/99 1:10:20 AM, David Hershey writes:
> >Botanists need to ask themselves if what they teach is influenced by
> >this old liberal bias against the applied. In 1919, Liberty Hyde Bailey
> >said,
> >
> >"We yet speak habitually of "pure science" and "applied science" as if
> >they were realities. Science knows no impurity. Until we outgrow this
> >old partiality, we are not scientists."
> I agree with David (and Liberty) that applied science should not be
> denigrated but, alas, it is often the pure science that is disparaged in
> modern society.
> If for no other purpose than that of recognizing and validating pure science,
> the distinction is useful.
> Dave Williams
> Valencia Community College
> 701 N. Econlockhatchee Trail
> Orlando, FL 32825
> 407-299-5000 x2443
> profdhw at aol.com

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