Economic botany concerns the past, present, and future use of plants by people. It is a heterogeneous field practiced by scholars of diverse backgrounds who may be concerned with either basic or applied questions. In the past decade, economic botany has become less purely descriptive and more analytical, quantitative, and interdisciplinary. The field has also become more engaged with social questions involving plants, such as sustainable development and intellectual property rights. The economic botany field in the 21st century will probably continue this evolution to become a powerful, if loosely integrated, discipline that will command the intellectual talents of some of botany's best and brightest students. Several of the priority areas for research in the 21st century will probably be: biodiversity prospecting; biodiversity conservation; baseline surveys of useful plants and plant management systems; and crop germplasm documentation, preservation, and improvement. In addition to greater attention to these research questions, economic botanists must become more engaged with intellectual property rights, professional ethics, institution building, technology and knowledge transfer to the developing world, and training of future generations of economic botanists.
To address all of these areas, stronger links must be forged with industry when particular research has an applied or commercial component, but the funding available from NSF for nonmission-oriented, basic economic botany research must be increased substantially. The potential benefits to society of dramatically increasing funding for research and training in economic botany are enormous. Economic botanists must communicate much more effectively to funding agencies, other scientists, and to the general public that, in many cases, the rational basis for the sustainable development of plant resources for the discovery of new foods, fuels, fibers, and medicines is within the purview of economic botanists. Economic botanists should seize the increasing opportunities for applying the results of their research to solve some of society's most pressing problems. The 21st century looks to be a period of dramatic growth in the importance of economic botany.