The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Story and a Shared Research Platform

Forest Service photo safe approach to nest cavity

Forest Service photo safe approach to nest cavity

Once, a long, long time ago, in a town I can’t actually remember, I was at a Society of American Foresters Convention. I can’t remember where or when, but perhaps someone else remembers. There was a presentation at a technical session of a study on Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers. At the end of the session a field forester asked a question that remains with me to this day. He said something along the lines of “you say they don’t do this in these places, but I’ve seen them doing it in these places.” The answer from the presenter was simply “what you say is not documented in the literature.” End of story, end of discussion. You know how it goes.. if you are working on something, you go to meetings where you get lectured to, but you never get to frame the question or really discuss why things look different to you. Transmission of information is basically one way.

At the time I thought “how powerful would it be if there were conversations between people in the woods observing first-hand and the scientific community?” And “how can SAF help make that happen?” I’m still working on this.

Through my career in research administration, I saw the gradual erosion of involvement of field people in research prioritization, and funding. At one time, extension folks were out there learning and teaching and hearing from field folks what they are interested in and what they know. At its best, the land grant system enabled them to interact with researchers and students and for all us to learn from, and teach each other. The land grant system provided a research, education and extension platform, on which those conversations could take place.

But as I worked at USDA, I found that the research folks there went from a land grant mission-centered model to a model where funding was decided by a random bunch of scientists from wherever, we hauled in to the national office (the NSF model). Ideologically, it came about as “formula” is bad, and “competitive” is good. People in the science establishment really believe this. At least, I personally have been unable to convey my belief that there are self-interest and power issues highly tied to their preference for the NSF model.

In fact, when I worked for the Fund for Rural America, an attempt by Congress to fund research that helps people (they had their doubts about the utility of what they were getting for the bucks), we (the Forestry Program) got in trouble for allowing (gasp!) stakeholders to sit on research panels.

Unfortunately, in my view, the locus of control was also shifted from the state universities to the Science Establishment. Maybe it works for other areas than natural resources and agriculture, which are profoundly local.

The reason I bring this up today is because of Bob’s owl piece here, and Mike’s comments here.

If we wanted to develop a new Shared Research Platform for practitioners, local people and academics to share what they have observed, say, for example, on the spotted owl, and what potential further research projects these observations could lead to, where would we do it? I think research studies should be suggested by the sum of observations made by everyone.. and that the observers and stakeholders should have a role in prioritization and design. Until we do that, we can use “the best available science” but the emphasis will be on “available” and no way on “best.”

I would propose that OSU and the relevant professional societies take the lead. Perhaps a group could develop a set of questions that could be answered online. Other ideas on where or how to do it?

Have you observed anyone doing this successfully on other topics ? I think the Fire Learning Network might be an example. Others?

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