Decline of the Biology Nerds?

Where will the next generation of biology nerds come from? Practically every biologist I know started out as a kid who looked at creatures they found in gardens and rock pools, in parks and dark corners.
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Nature Deficit Disorder is a phrase coined by Richard Louv in 2005, referring to the situation where increasing numbers of people, especially children, are isolated from the natural world. It's not a recognised medical condition, and I've no interest in debating if it should be included in diagnostic guides. But I do believe it refers to a very real problem. I'm convinced that most people, and particularly children, benefit enormously by being outside in as natural an environment as possible on a regular basis.

There are all sorts of reasons why kids are missing this interaction with the green and muddy outside world. Recently I went to the park in London which was nearest the house in which I grew up. Thirty-five years ago, it was a mayhem of unaccompanied children. Last week there wasn't a child to be seen anywhere. Logically, there is no reason for this to be the case. Random attacks by strangers are no more likely now than they were when I was a kid. And it's a park you can reach through lots of routes that don't involve crossing roads, so fear of traffic shouldn't apply as a disincentive either. Yet as a society we keep our children inside, or constantly watched over by adults.

The great naturalist and wildlife presenter David Attenborough is frequently asked "When did you become interested in animals?" His response is always "When did you stop being interested?" Every small child I've ever met is intrigued by invertebrates, but somehow this gets lost as they get older. It may be because of a lack of encouragement, or a dearth of opportunity. In a world in which it's possible to buy poisons to get rid of garden creatures as innocuous as woodlice and earwigs, it's hardly surprising if children learn to think of the natural world as something alien.

Many commentators have discussed the negative impact of Nature Deficit Disorder on physical and mental health. Some have also talked about its consequences for the environment. If a generation grows up with no sense of connection to the natural world, they are unlikely to put much effort or emotional commitment into protecting it. But I am starting to wonder if there could be another knock-on effect that we haven't really considered.

I'm a member of an advisory group for one of the UK government's large research funding bodies. Every quarter we all get together, experts in fields as diverse as pharmaceuticals and biofuels, weed control and supermarket food chains, and we hold our meetings in research institutes. There's always a tour of the facilities, and we listen very attentively and nod politely as we are shown the latest equipment. Which is always a large black and silver box, with a couple of lights on it, capable of doing whatever it does hundreds of times faster and a thousand times deeper than the machine that came before it.

And that's very important and impressive. But say something to us like "Would anyone like to see the bee hive?" or "Who wants to look at this ant down a microscope?" and it's every geek for themselves as we dash to the relevant lab. It seems that however grown-up and sensible we might look in our business suits, in each of us there is a small child who once collected snails, and tried to make cages for beetles.

Where will the next generation of biology nerds come from? Practically every biologist I know started out as a kid who looked at creatures they found in gardens and rock pools, in parks and dark corners. As a child everything you find out about those animals is fascinating, and the realisation that there is more to learn is what sparks the interest of young scientists. Many of us forget that for a while as we work our way through the education system, but it's only buried in the top layer of leaf litter in our brains. All it needs is five minutes alone with a caterpillar and we remember what thrilled us about biology in the first place.

Is formal teaching a substitute for this? Can it really grab a child's imagination in the same way? I'm not convinced it can. If the initial teaching is at all mediocre, and that is all the biology a kid is exposed to, we could find that we start to lose some of the next generation of biologists. And the planet has arguably never needed well-trained enthused biologists so much.

I'd love to claim it's my desire to encourage kids to become scientists that makes me take them out on expeditions in my local area, looking for snails in tree crevices, fishing for crabs in the local harbour and examining the dead pigeon we found under the tree in the garden. But if I'm honest I am mainly doing it because I still find such things fascinating, and I'm bringing the kids along for the ride. Happily, I also have a very supportive (non-scientist) partner, with a romantic streak 1.6 kilometres wide who recently uttered the words any woman like me longs to hear ....... "Darling, would you like a lizard for your birthday?". Now that's the type of cultural cross-over we really need.

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