Soil boring? My take on the image problem of soil science.

I am passionate about soil, especially about soil biodiversity and how soil organisms and plants interact and control C and N cycling. I have studied soils since I started my undergraduate in 1996, and I have witnessed a complete turnaround when it comes to interest in soil biodiversity and the functions it performs. When I started my PhD, no one was interested in soil organisms and how they regulate crucial ecosystem processes that also happen to be central to sustainable agriculture. Now, everyone is interested – from farmers, to policy makers, to fellow ecologists.

Well, I say everyone, but that is clearly not the case. Soil is still remarkably unsexy. I will illustrate this with a little anecdote.

Last Friday, I met the third year Zoology student who had been assigned to do a final year Science Media Education Project with me. As we walked up the stairs, I asked her what her background was, and she replied and said: “….. and you study soils, right?” in a slightly too upbeat manner. We went to my office, and after finding out that she’d like to interact with primary school children, I suggested organizing a book launch family activity or classroom activity linked to a children’s book about an earthworm that I provided scientific advice for. I explained to her what the book is about (it is about a little worm with low self-esteem, who goes on a journey and meets lots of impressive animals, but eventually finds out that worms are crucial for soil health and plant growth), that the authors are based in Manchester, and that it will come out in February. I saw her face light up as she got increasingly enthusiastic, and I said: “You probably thought, oh no, I have to do a project on soil” to which she replied that she had indeed been a bit worried. When she left, I felt happy that I had been able to excite her about the project, but sad that she had been worried about studying soil.

Sadly, I can’t really blame her.

I, too, often feel deeply bored when I read about soil.

Why is this?

Obviously, in putting soil on the map, much effort has been focused on highlighting the importance of soil for food production and sustainable agriculture, and other ecosystems that soil delivers. However, this narrative of ‘soils are under threat and they are very important’ does not have the effect of making soils sexy – rather, it brings across the message that we HAVE to study soils because otherwise the world is doomed, not because we CHOOSE to and that it’s inherently INTERESTING to study soils.

Then, another way through which we, the soil biodiversity community, have tried to make soil sexy is by emphasizing how beautiful and fascinating soil organisms are. I generally start my talks and lectures with a picture of a variety of pretty and weird soil organisms (Figure 1 from this recent Nature paper by Richard Bardgett and Wim van der Putten), and, true, sometimes it works, but sometimes I just get blank faces. Soil organisms are just not as charismatic as mammals, birds, or plants, and it doesn’t help that you can’t actually see them. The many Zoology students I supervise generally seem to end up doing projects on earthworms, and I teach about earthworms in our Urban Biodiversity course, because, although they are not particularly charming, you can at least see them with the bare eye and quantify them relatively easily and cheaply. But I have to admit that I, also, despite their importance, don’t get very excited about earthworms (and I know I am offending a lot of people now – sorry!).

These two approaches, which are actually effectively used by The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, do work to make other scientists, practitioners, and policymakers interested in soils. Indeed, many plant scientists and ecosystem ecologists are realizing that they can no longer ignore soil. Their website also provides great educational resources, mainly for primary school children. But they are not reaching high school and undergraduate students.

Thirdly, soil science used to be firmly embedded in agronomy, which, although interesting and important, is not the sexiest of research areas. Things are changing, but the field of soil science used to be dominated by old men in dark suits – not very conducive to attracting, for example, young, female, researchers to this field.

So, why am I excited about soils?

Not so much because they are important for the delivery of ecosystem services (although yes, I have also jumped on this bandwagon). Also not because now everyone realizes they are important, as has been widely promoted by the International Year of Soils.

Partly because of the beautiful and fascinating creatures that inhabit soils, but more so about how they interact – how they compete for resources and feed upon each other.

Also partly, because I had a fantastic lecturer, Lijbert Brussaard, teaching my first Soil Biodiversity course, who later became my PhD supervisor, and who inspired me to pursue a career in soil ecology. After that, I did my postdoc with another fantastically inspiring ecologist, Richard Bardgett. And along the way, I have met many other inspiring and motivating soil ecologists, who have collectively mentored me and fuelled my desire to unravel the things that happen below the soil surface.

More so because soils are of fundamental importance for global C and nutrient cycles, for plant competition, community assembly, and succession, and thus for ecosystem functioning. We can explain many patterns that we see aboveground from what is happening in the soil (I will have to come back to this in another post – I think this one will be too long and cluttered if I include examples here).

But mostly because soils represent a relatively under-explored world, in which things are working sometimes the same, sometimes differently from aboveground. Because they form a fantastic model system for testing and developing ecological theories, and they have provided us with empirical evidence for those theories, for example in the areas of microbial ecology and food web ecology (I will have to come back to this, too) – I think this one will be too long and cluttered if I include examples here). Because it is wonderful to work on things that you can’t see with your bare eye, and be able to explain the things that you can see. Because it is challenging to work with soil, and because I don’t like to take the easy option. Maybe, too, although this is increasingly less the case (or maybe I am just making this up), because being a soil scientist makes you a bit of a nerd.

I am doing what I can to enthuse students about soil, mainly by trying to get my enthusiasm across, and by highlighting surprising results, influential findings, and quirky facts about soils.

What are you doing? How are you battling the unsexy image of soil? And why are you excited by soil?

Soil is everywhere, but we're not treating it very well.

Soil is everywhere, but we’re not treating it very well.

11 thoughts on “Soil boring? My take on the image problem of soil science.

  1. How lucky you are! life put you near excelent masters… thanks for your words… I love soil science and specially applied ecology. I am finishing my PhD in Argentina and soil microbiology its a vacancy area so I enjoy read other professional opinions!

  2. I thought soil was pretty sexy once I found out that vampires are made from it. 😛 But to answer your question more specifically, I find soil so much more interesting to chat about when you are standing in the field within the context of the environment and you are able to stick your fork in and and have a handful of it in your palm. I’m speaking more from a farming perspective, but recently I’ve been hand digging beds and I can quite literally roll around in my soil (the kids were definitely doing just that as well as eating it). There is (for me) an innate sensuality about soil….and hey, what’s not sexy about that?

  3. Pingback: Soil Boring? | Soil Security Programme

  4. I found soil science really boring when I did a few courses of it during my undergraduate studies in conservation ecology. I now find myself working on a sustainable agriculture project on dairy farms, which obviously has a very large focus on soil science, and I have grown to love it! I have come to realise the significant role that soil plays in the agro-ecosystem, and how good soil management, especially with a focus on soil biodiversity, can contribute so greatly to a sustainable farming system. I think I found soil science boring at university as I did not make the connection to the applicability of it to any form of practical land management. I now realise that soil science is an integral part of any form of land management. You can check out what we are doing on our website (, and read some more about why I am excited about soils here:

  5. Pingback: Links 10/22/15 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  6. Nice post! I am also a Soil Scientist working on ecology, C & N cycles, and soil biology. If we haven’t been at the same conferences yet, we probably will be eventually.

    I came to Soil Science late in my career, after being utterly unaware of it as a discipline until I met the prof who would become my PhD advisor. Long, boring story. I love studying soil for several reasons, from the high-minded “soils are immensely complex ecosystems full of fascinating and poorly understood patterns and processes” to the more pragmatic “I don’t have to search endlessly for my study system, I can just look down (as long as I’m not on a boat)”.

  7. I find it heartening that our soil science department — one of the last freestanding ones in the USA — is in fact shot with young, brilliant, enthusiastic grad students, many of them women.

  8. It never ceases to amaze me the scope of what can be achieved through soil science. I think that soil science is a sexy subject but to make others think so too, we just need to show them the scope of soil science’s potential achievements (think big: tackle climate change! Feed the world!).

    I studied for a PhD in soil sciences and the enthusiasm never stopped. Now I mainly work on a freelance basis and I started my manuscript editing service ( specifically targeted to authors in the soil and agricultural sciences with English as a second language who need that extra bit of help to ready their manuscripts for publication in international soil science and agricultural journals. In my job I get the privilege of reading a huge range of new manuscripts and it excites me to directly experience just how much soil science is expanding as a topic in China and Japan.

  9. Great blog
    It’s amazing how much people take for granted. They walk about on soil all day every day and never give it a second thought, when without it we wouldn’t be here.

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