The successful utilisation of recent advances in plant biotechnology for the benefit of mankind, with the avoidance of fundamental mistakes that could lead to environmental disaster, requires wise and balanced legislation. In addition, the conservation of the habitats and germplasm so essential to plant breeding requires carefully planned management of resources. These, however, depend upon an informed public with a sensitivity to, and knowledge and understanding of, the issues at stake. It is the people, after all, who influence decision making by governments, through the ballot box or through the pressure of public opinion. Botanic Gardens have a vital role to play in public education, and have the capacity to become the shop windows for the whole of plant science.
Four examples of public education in plant biology being developed at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are considered, as follows:
(i) Public information, as exemplified by the provision of information about plants, lectures about plants and the development of ecological plantings and displays relating to agriculture, plant breeding and conservation.
(ii) Contact through art, as exemplified by the Andy Goldsworthy retrospective exhibition of 1990 and the 1991 exhibitions of the work of Redouté and Margaret Stones, in which the media of sculpture and painting inspired by the natural world have been used to build bridges between plant science and the wider public.
(iii) Education in primary schools, as exemplified by the ‘Living in a Rainforest’ project, in which young people and their teachers spend periods of time in a replica of a Bornean longhouse and through this experience develop an understanding of the importance of the balance between people and the complex ecosystem of the rainforest.
(iv) Education in secondary schools, as exemplified by the Science and Plants for Schools project in which rapid cycling Brassica rapa and other materials are used in the development of new and exciting approaches to the teaching of experimental plant science, genetics and breeding.
The ways in which projects such as these can be designed to convey important messages concerning plant breeding, genetic engineering, germplasm and habitat conservation and the role of plants in the world economy are discussed, and ideas for other approaches to public education in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are outlined.