Although invasive plant species continue to grow like—well, weeds—costing millions of dollars in damage and control attempts, the field of weed science is not keeping pace. There is demand for further knowledge of herbicide persistence, movement and toxicity in the environment, and the biology and ecology of weeds. But the numbers of weed science researchers, educators, and Extension agents are few.
A new study in the April-June issue of the journal Weed Technology gauges the numbers of faculty and courses devoted to each of three plant pest disciplines—weed science, entomology, and plant pathology—at 76 U.S. land-grant universities. The authors found that the current university faculties of weed scientists are insufficient to meet a growing need.
Homeowners fight weeds on a small scale, while farmers, ranchers, highway departments, and others are often at war with invasive plants. Millions of dollars are at stake when weeds limit crop production, poison livestock, create fire hazards, block waterways, and interfere with transportation and recreation. And millions of dollars are spent each year combating these invasive species. A 2005 study estimated a total $34 billion economic impact from invasive plant species.
Weed science is lagging behind its companion disciplines. The current study found that compared to weed scientists, there are more than four times as many entomologists and three times as many plant pathologists at the 76 universities studied. There are five times as many undergraduate entomology courses and two-and-a-half times as many plant pathology courses as those in weed science. This may lead to reduced availability for training opportunities for weed scientists compared to other disciplines.
Today, combating weeds requires knowledge of the effects of herbicide resistance, climate change, and new nonnative species. Organic farmers are seeking alternative, nonchemical weed management techniques. Public and private agencies, growers, homeowners, and others look to university weed science specialists for information and strategies. Faculties are expected to generate new knowledge through research and to train students to enter the field.
To meet these needs, the authors suggest several steps to increase the presence of weed science at land-grant universities, including adding “Weed Science” to department names when possible. Spreading awareness of the impact of weeds along with the limited number of faculty in this discipline among university presidents and deans as well as elected government officials can bring additional resources. Federal funding directed specifically to weed science research must also be requested.