The reason most NGO’s hire scientists is that, to a greater or lesser degree, the organization is science-driven. That is, they rely on the best available science to set organizational priorities, design and implement programs, or strategically direct investments. To hire botanists, these organizations most often have biodiversity conservation as their mission. Objectivity is essential for modern, progressive conservation organizations and botanists, along with other scientists, are relied upon to provide much of that objectivity. Essentially, this means applying the thoughtful skepticism and inquiry for which scientists are trained.
While formal biological training is fundamental, a common requirement today is for NGO botanists to have at least a Masters of Science degree. But your graduate research program may be the last time you narrowly focus on one subject area. Academic and research botanists tend to specialize in one or two areas during their career. Upon entering the world of NGO science, by contrast, botanists will be shocked (and possibly overwhelmed) by how fast they turn into generalists, although this varies across positions and organizations. Generalization is what makes NGO botany so exciting for many people (but not everybody). Depending on the position, be prepared to tackle taxonomy, floristics, invasive species, GIS and mapping, experimental design, population biology, biological monitoring, conservation planning, and, very importantly, grant writing and fundraising. It is this generalization that attracted me to NGO botany and has kept me intellectually challenged for more than 20 years. Here’s an example. While working in China, among other duties I applied my background in plant species conservation to the design of one of the first range-wide species conservation plans in the country – for narrow endemic and highly endangered primate!
An NGO botanist must be prepared to work on complex conservation issues with interdisciplinary teams consisting of a wide range of backgrounds, including many non-scientists. Communicating with a non-scientific audience, be it your supervisor, professional colleagues, donors, or the general public, will be the most significant professional challenge for an NGO botanist. We generally get no formal training for this, certainly not in most academic settings, but it is essential for success. You must be able to clearly and effectively communicate the complexity of the biological world and the uncertainty of scientific knowledge to a broad audience. This is a daunting task, but the payoffs can be big, both for your program and for biodiversity conservation.
The urgency with which conservation decisions need to be made often create tension between non-scientists and scientists and even within an individual scientist. Critical analyses always need to be made before actions are taken or investments are made, but uncertainty over scientific issues often creates the most problems. A balance needs to be struck, therefore, whereby a scientist remains thoughtfully skeptical but does not necessarily paralyze action due to uncertainty. Making decisions with less than ideal knowledge, and being confident in those decisions, is the hallmark of a conservation botanist.
As I said earlier, a gradate degree is needed for most NGO botany positions. This degree imparts experience in research that is essential for your career in applied conservation. That said, formal research may only be a small part or even absent from most conservation NGO science positions. But, aside from learning critical thinking skills, research training becomes important in two ways: (1) maintaining currency in fields of science relevant to your work and, mostly excitingly (2) engaging a wide range of specialists in applied research partnerships that address critical questions and knowledge gaps. NGO botanists often play a unique linkage role in this process, that is, application of research by translating new science into conservation action.
NGO Botany is not for everybody. If you like focused research, the seemingly scattered day-to-day activities of a conservation professional will drive you nuts. The urgent need to make decisions with less-than-complete knowledge can be distasteful. Trying to become an engaging communicator of science in the face of a bewildered non-scientific audience can seem futile. But for the right people, applying the science of botany to biodiversity conservation can be a supremely rewarding career.
Robert K. Moseley, The Nature Conservancy, Boise, Idaho