Name calling in science is serious sustainability stuff

Is a botanist by any other name more poised to save the world? The names of scientific disciplines aren’t your forebears’ academia, and those changes signal necessary shifts in how research is done.

Recently, environmental scientist Malcolm McCallum publicly mused on an online ecology discussion site about academia’s shift from old-school names for fields of study – botany, zoology – to names that painted broad strokes.

“Is there a reason that people have stopped using the term zoology/botany and in its stead began using animal science/plant science? It seems like an inappropriate muddying of the academic waters to me,” McCallum posted in part, setting off a spirited discussion on ECOLOG, the listserv list used by members of the Ecological Society of America and other ecology-minded folks.

Angelo Capparella at Illinois State University smelled “branding” in the air, and wondered about trends afoot: “I’ve seen Integrative Biology taking over from some classical terms. Whether all of this improves our science or just canalizes it into a new direction that purges natural history and taxonomy will be interesting to track,” he posted.

Integration is the key trend here – an academic march toward scientific disciplines more accurately reflecting the real world. Nature doesn’t build silos, and each of yesterday’s specialties is more realistically part of integrated systems.

Jack Liu at Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (see – we are pretty big on this systems thing) and his colleagues have found that focusing just on pandas lead China’s conservation efforts into a world of unintended consequences. Integrating those pandas with a deep understanding of their surroundings, and that of the humans who live amongst them, enabled real advances in sustainability. Embracing a systems approach has led not only to progress in the nature reserve, but ultimately to significant global connections through the new approach of telecoupling (socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances.)

Disciplinary approaches to crises like air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, food insecurity, and energy and water shortages, are not only ineffective, but also make many of these crises worse because of counterproductive interactions and unintended consequences.

A paper “Systems integration for global sustainability” in Science February 2015 outlines how science needs to change to become less segregated and more holistic to properly tackle some of today’s most pressing problems. The paper’s authors, with experience spanning agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, ecology, economics, energy, environment, food security, trade, water, and more, paint a new paradigm of research that crosses boundaries among natural and social science disciplines, as well as engineering and medical sciences.

It’s not that deep understanding is going out of fashion. Rather, it’s a call to science and scientists to make meaningful and timely advances in sustainability. Those new names back up that intent.

What term(s) do you use to label your research, department, or professional community?
Have you updated your preferred terms at any point in your career? Why?

Sue Nichols Sue Nichols is assistant director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration & Sustainability.

1 thought on “Name calling in science is serious sustainability stuff”

  1. My question had been posted to Ecolog for an un-named student who did not want to post it for fear of attacks from people who feel the forum should not be used for questions. But that is an entirely different subject. The entire concept is not very deep. It is shallow. At major universities, the differences are clear because fields are so much more fragmented due to larger faculty bases. At smaller institutions of higher education, it appears these changes are more about marketing to attract students and appear fresh and sexy. If you are an integrative biology program, say so. if you aren’t, don’t misrepresent yourself. If the program is graduating successful graduates though, it won’t matter what you call yourself, the reputation will attract students, and that is how we should be attacting students… via a reputation for a solid education by well-intentioned, well-respected faculty. The smoke and mirrors approaches should be left in the bathroom.

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