Saturday, 15 July 2006

The Status of Soil Science.

Gordon J. Churchman, University of Adelaide, Private Mail Bag No. 1, Glen Osmond, Australia

This study aimed to establish the identity of soil science within a rapidly changing social and political environment. The study involved 1. a philosophical exploration of the place of soil science among sciences as a whole, and 2. a study of trends in the published literature in soil science in Australia and New Zealand from 1973 to 2003 in order to discern possible effects of the drastic changes in the nature of research funding that occurred over that period.

In philosophical terms, soil science is a ‘special science'. Science seeks to provide explanations of phenomena in the observable world. Special sciences have a philosophical status alongside the basic sciences e.g. physics and chemistry when not all explanations of the subjects of their concern are reducible to those of the basic sciences.

Soil science, as it is practised, comprises many aspects. Some are ‘technological', rather than ‘scientific', where technological research has a clearly defined focus on aspect(s) or property(ies) of a particular soil - or soils, and does not attempt to generalise outside these particular objects of study except, perhaps, by speculation. Scientific research, by contrast, is seen as having general objectives in mind insofar as they seek to contribute to a general understanding of soils, even if they study particular examples. Some of the scientific aspects comprise other disciplines as they are practised on soils as objects of study. Soil science has a unique concern among other scientific disciplines, (a) with the formation and properties of: (i) horizons, (ii) aggregates, and (iii) soil colloids, both inorganic and organic, and (b) with processes of decomposition and transformation of biota and of minerals by organisms in soils.

Studies of these four unique aspects together constitute the soil science ‘research tradition' within the scientific discipline. Scientific studies of other aspects within the discipline are reducible to those of other sciences. However, the four unique aspects differ in the reducibility of their explanations. Those of horizons, aggregates and processes of decomposition and transformation are incompletely reducible; the basic sciences cannot provide their most useful explanations, although these can assist with their understanding. The explanations of soil colloids are fully reducible to those of the basic sciences, but the most useful reduction results in explanations of capacities (e.g. areas and charges of surfaces) rather than in just structural descriptions of entities. In the particular case of (inorganic) soil colloids, it may be that the field has not progressed because of insufficient reduction in explanations to the level of atoms and molecules, or, at least, to their capacities. Reduction appears to have stalled at the level of the crystal structures of mineral species, partly because of the expense of high-energy instrumentation and partly because of the degree of satisfaction that the identification of minerals with apparently regular structures in soils has brought to researchers historically.

Trends in Australian and New Zealand soil science papers from 1973 to 2003 include: 1. A strong increasing trend in the total number of publications in soil research, especially from Australia. The total number of papers from New Zealand has increased only in latter years. 2. Not even an absolute increase in the number of scientific papers and hence a strong decrease in their proportion with time. There is a marked increase in technological papers. 3. An increasing trend in the number of papers that are reviews, especially technological.

Soil science has a valid philosophical status but the poor current funding of aspects seeking widely applicable understanding suggest that its social, political and economic status does not reflect the philosophical importance which the physical survival of humanity can surely claim.

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