04 February 2010

Scientists (not) talking to gardeners

This gorgeous display of phalaenopsis is part of a study by a professor I know who researches (among other things) orchids.

How cool is that – right? Don't you wish he had an orchid blog to pass on all sorts of tips on how to get the darn things to rebloom after you buy them?
Well – not really. He actually doesn't know much more about growing orchids at home than anyone else. In fact, I've been to his house: He had one orchid, which was dying, just like the one on your windowsill. He knows and studies commercial orchid production – how to rapidly and efficiently grow baby orchids into the lovely plants in full bloom you can pick up at virtually any grocery store these days. In other words: He's NOT “one of the few scientists interested in talking to gardeners.”
I put that last line in quotes because it is a phrase I've seen often on Garden Rant to describe people like Jeff Gillman – as in “his is one of the few scientists interested in talking to gardeners."
Sadly, this is true: Very few scientists do research that directly relates to home gardeners. I'm a grad student in a horticulture department, and I know faculty who study everything from vegetables to flowers to conifers to turf grass to weeds -- but none of them study these topics in terms of the home gardener. They study breeding, watering and fertilizer at the nursery, light levels in commercial greenhouses, even marketing --  in short, they study everything required to get a plant in your hands walking up to the check-out counter at a garden center – and nothing after that point. This isn't just a quirk of one particular university. The same is true of the school where I got my bachelors degree, and of 99.99% of the research I see presented at academic conferences.
But why? Why are so few scientists interested in talking to home gardeners? The truth is, I think lots of them are interested – they just can't afford it.
As usual, it comes down to money. Before I landed (more or less accidentally) in grad school, I assumed academic research programs were funded by the university. Not true: Professors are more like small business owners than regular employees. When a new professor is hired they get an office, a telephone, and part of a salary (Increasingly faculty are only paid by the university for 9 months of the year). The money for laboratory equipment, staff, salary and fees for graduate students like myself, fees to use university resources like greenhouse space or plots at research farms, and yes, one fourth of their salary, they have to find themselves. To get the money to pay for all this professors spend a huge amount of their time applying for grants from industry groups and governmental organization like the USDA. In other words: They have to come up with research ideas that will convince someone to fork over the money to actually get it done -- and home gardeners don't tend to give out grants. A book for gardeners could bring in some money, but not enough to run a whole research program – certainly nothing compared to the 14 million (yes, million) dollar grant a professor in my department recently landed.
Want more scientists to talk to gardeners? Well, you're going to have to pay for it. Oh wait – you already do. That 14 million dollar grant I mentioned? Your tax dollars by way of the USDA. I'm not  running down government funding for basic research – those 14 million are going towards spectacular research. But wouldn't it be nice if a little of that money went to research we could use?  Maybe it is time we gardeners spoke up and convinced our government to make research on healthy, environmentally sound home gardening more of a priority – or rather, a priority at all -- so the scientists who are interested in talking to us are able to.

3 comments:

Tina said...

And why would government want to do that? If everyone could actually keep all those plants growing in their homes, it would cut into the business side of things - we wouldn't buy more from the businesses and they wouldn't get the taxes from those purchases. It's a big old circle due to the almighty green - pun intended. As more and more go out the door to replace those that die, the happier businesses and government are.
I certainly don't agree with the way it works, but there it is anyway.

NotSoAngryRedHead said...

You neglected the bit about the university taking half of the money that professors bring in, so professors have to ask for double what they actually need. Or at least that's how it is at UTAustin. Yay.

Research tends to be "low level" (i.e., closer to the carbons in the laboratory than the soil in my backyard) and difficult for the general public to relate to regardless of field. Just look at psychology research (social, developmental, clinical, etc.), and you'll quickly see how unusable it would be for the general public even though it's psychology! There are only a few researchers who make their research usable, which is a bit like selling out.

Maybe scientists should listen to gardeners. ;)

Greensparrow said...

Good points, Redhead! There is a strong bias towards "fundamental" research -- that is what gets the big grants, while applying that fundamental research to the real world is seen as far less important -- and gets FAR less funding.

Tina, I see your point, though I'm not sure I agree: I'd be willing to bet that people who know how to keep plants alive buy LOTS more of them than people who can't. And regardless, we do get to do this cool thing called voting. Businesses can try and bombard us with ads, and lobby, and all -- but we do still get to vote. We (clumsily, inexpertly) control the government, not the other way around.