Service through Science – Meet Missouri Scientist, Dr. Peter Raven

Peter Raven, Ph.D., started working at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1971 where he engaged with people about science, the garden, and horticulture with an appreciation for the living world. 

Butterflies and Plants

His more than 60 year career in science started with collecting butterflies as a child that led him to focus on botany and become an advocate for the environment. He earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles where he discovered a new species of plant. He continued his education in London in a shared postdoctoral position at the Royal Botanic Garden and the Natural History Museum where he studied plants from the Primrose family. He went on to spend a year in New Zealand studying plant evolution and during his tenure at Stanford he was recruited by the Missouri Botanical Garden. 

“The position at the garden was in partnership with Washington University that Henry Shaw created 135 years ago. He set up a botany professorship at the university declaring the professor they hired should either be the first or second in command at the Missouri Botanical Gardens,” Dr. Raven said. “That has made a very close cooperative program between Washington University and the garden, which goes back all the way to 1885. There have been hundreds and hundreds of Ph.D. graduates and other graduates in plant sciences who have gone through the program.”

During his 39 years at the garden, Dr. Raven set up networks all over the world to study plants and encouraged people to think about the impact science has on the world. He had a role in establishing the St. Louis Science Center and he was a founder of the Danforth Plant Science Center that was founded to improve the human condition through plant science in partnership with Washington University. 

His career also includes prestigious awards such as National Geographic’s highest honor, The Hubbard Medal, he was a member of President Bill Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and received the U.S. National Medal of Science, the country’s highest award for scientific accomplishment along with being called “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine. 

He partnered with Paul Erlick to invent the idea of a coevolution which is where two or more species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. “The plant evolved into a kind of protection from the insects that feed on it, and then the insects, adapting to that protection and learning to tolerate it – keep feeding on them,” Dr. Raven said. In 1964, they published Butterflies and plants: A Study in Coevolution that has been cited thousands of times over the years. 

An Honored Career

Throughout his career he has received countless honors and medals and met with world leaders but heading the Missouri Botanical Garden and bringing it into a worldwide prominence as a research center for plants has been the most rewarding part of his career. “Before I got to the garden, even though it started in 1859, it hadn’t been so active all over the world. During the 39 years I was there, we opened all the major areas of the world: China, India, Latin America, Africa, and Madagascar,” he said. 

 “A great pleasure was leading the campaign that led to the garden’s acceptance in that district. It was the most substantial contribution I made. Getting the garden to become a member of the so-called Zoo-museum district, a taxing district that contributes about one quarter of the garden’s income,” he said.

It was also a great satisfaction when his botany book with Helena Curtis, Biology of Plants was published in 1970. It is currently in its eighth edition and has been translated into a variety of languages. “It turned out to be the leading body book worldwide for a very long time. I think it still is,” he said.

Reminiscing about his scientific career, he said, “I enjoy the process. I do everything in my power to try to live in the present and keep moving forward. I appreciate the opportunity to encourage, care for and nurture other people because it is what’s important about life. My personal philosophy promotes what you do for other people. So, I have always tried to keep that in mind, but science has given me a framework in which to carry out my activities.”

Policy and the Advancement of Science

Dr. Raven said he’s spent his life working on trying to bring scientific grounding into the formulation of public policy. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1978. As an officer of the academy – chairman of the Report Review Committee – which reviews all of the studies, he became aware of the great need for bringing scientific information into the formulation of political decisions and public policy. 

“Unfortunately, that process has become politicized,” he said. “Science is supposed to be a system of knowledge based on factual observations, deductions that can then and should be considered for the actions that we take at a public policy level.” 

“Science does not in itself say that certain steps or actions have to be taken, but it provides a sound basis for understanding the background against which those steps would be taken,” he said.

Dr. Raven continued, “It’s very important that people in public office who make decisions, understand science and consider the findings people have made in the investigations of the fields that mattered to them. [Scientists] either can, or they can’t know that it doesn’t tell policymakers what they ought to do about policy, but it gives them information, taking into account that this is the best information that people can derive, in making policy in the same way.” 

“Science says that if you jump off a 50-story building, it’s likely that you die when you hit the ground, but science does not say don’t jump off a 50-story building. That would be a matter of policy,” he explained. 

Bringing Science to Missouri Policy

Missouri is an important center for the study of science. St. Louis is sustained because of the Danforth center, the Cortex, the garden, and the universities, Dr. Raven said. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal Science, has launched the Local Science Engagement Network in partnership with MOST Policy Initiative to help Missouri scientists become more aware of the way that science works in informing decisions and to strengthen the state. “Due to the importance of science in informing decisions, such as those that affect dirty air, cause lung disease or disease by people, those that affect dirty water, those that have to do with climate change or global warming or climate warming, and all of those things need to be taken into account in Missouri,” he said. 

“They need to explain the facts and help them help us all to take science seriously in all parts of our live and our policy efforts. Scientific organizations in Missouri partly under the banner of the Missouri Science and Technology Policy Initiative (MOST) are trying to be sure that people here don’t neglect science in making their decisions so that those decisions will be in the best interest of the welfare of people in the state.”

Missouri has done well in the last 20 to 30 years because people have built on some of the organizations that were already here and have formed additional organizations. The St. Louis Academy of Sciences was founded to help people appreciate science, understand it, and use it in their day to day decision making. The Danforth center, a global leader and independent plant science organization was added through the partnership with the Washington University and the Missouri botanical garden, and a variety of other institutions, he said.

The Missouri science community has created organizations to inform people about science and to promote employment in the area of science in downtown St. Louis. “Which is also an amalgamation of the universities and other institutions in the area that include dozens of smaller startup organizations and other kinds of scientific organizations that have come together because people want to have science as part of their lives,” he said.  

“Missouri has been pretty good at it, but we’re not really good at taking science into account in our public decisions. Hopefully MOST and other organizations such as AAAS will help us to understand why that is important,” Dr. Raven said. “Science doesn’t tell you, you have to do certain things, but it certainly gives you reasons that you ought to take into account in deciding whether to do them or not.”

Passion Projects

Dr. Raven said he tries to train and help future scientists find a way forward in the field if they are involved with the institutions that he is associated with. He has continually argued for a rational understanding of scientific facts by the general public called “a scientific way of thinking.” 

“It’s arguing from logic about natural facts, then using those arguments from logic and the facts derived from them in moving forward. I do everything I can to enhance that process by introducing scientific facts to the degree that they can be justified into discussions at all levels,” he said. 

Dr. Raven was born in China but left with his family when he was a year old at the beginning of World War II when Japan started to invade China. He grew up in California but has created a connection with the Chinese country by researching it. He was co-chairman for 25 years of the project that involved “hundreds and hundreds of people that described all of the plants found in China, which are about 33,000 resulting in a 49-volume book Flora of China.”

Love of Science

Science is like a “gigantic game where new facts are discovered and then they’re tested,” he said. For example, he can make a hypothesis and other people test it, talk about it, argue about it and then think about it logically and try to see if it is true or false. Sometimes it is wrong, he said, but science progresses by having new ideas and testing them. 

 “I very much enjoy that game. I enjoy commenting on other people’s ideas and developing new ideas. That makes it a process and an effort that can engage you fully all your life,” he said. 

Leave a Reply