Evolutionary Theory and the Practice of Policy For the 21st Century (1)

Unifying Perspectives of Evolution, Conservation and Breeding: A symposium in honour of Dr. Gene Namkoong in commemoration of his retirement after four decades of pioneering research in forest genetics July 22-24, 1999

Unifying Perspectives of Evolution, Conservation and Breeding: A symposium in honour of Dr. Gene Namkoong in commemoration of his retirement after four decades of pioneering research in forest genetics July 22-24, 1999

This summer I am celebrating my 40th year in the forestry profession. I am also going through my files and preparing for a transition to a past-forester, current theologian. I will be posting pieces that strike me as still relevant to the forest science/policy world.

The first is a piece I wrote for Dr. Gene Namkoong’s Festschrift in 1999 (15 years ago) at University of British Columbia. A Festschrift is a symposium in honor of a scientist’s work, where his or her students present papers. Here is a link, and a photo of the group above.

The rest of the Festschrift was published, as you can see from the link, but my paper was too odd to fit. It’s kind of a reflective look (“from the balcony”, as it were, thank you Richard Stem for sticking that expression in my brain!) at our business. I was honored to be counted among Gene’s students, even though I was only a post-doc. Even though the science I did with him at State had a short half-life, the practice of doing it and learning from him is still a rich and valued part of my life today. I could say a lot more about him and his work, but that deserves a separate post.

Anyway, I will post this in 500 or so word chunks. The paper is “about” making the science biz and policy more harmonious. At the time, I had spent 25 years or so working at the interface, both in forest policy and on biotechnology. You can see those experiences reflected in this piece. So here goes:


Policy issues reflect competing views about not only potential courses of action, but also about the nature of the problems themselves (Dunn, 1981). In the development of scientific research that is ultimately used in policy formulation, ideas of the nature of environmental problems tend to be implicit rather than explicit, and vary by discipline. In policy analysis, problem structuring is one of the most important steps in the process. Without careful thought, discussion, and analysis, it is common to address what turns out to be the wrong problem. In the U.S., research direction is determined at different levels by different groups, most frequently without substantive levels of involvement by policy makers, landowners, practitioners, citizens or other potential users of the research.

For example, let’s imagine the research budget that might be developed by Rosemary Radford Ruether, the ecofeminist theologian (1998). She feels that the ultimate environmental challenge is “to harmonize our needs with those of the rest of the earth-community.” She thinks the solution is “new social systems that relate men and women, races and ethnic groups, in a global community where all enjoy adequate means of life and where the land, air, soil, forests, oceans and rivers can be freed of toxic poisons and provide the sustaining basis for all earth creatures..this will involve new sustainable technologies.” One could imagine research directed toward finding the most environmentally destructive first world consumption and looking for ways to encourage people to consume less, find less polluting technologies, and look for ways to find poor rural people ways of caring for the land that are not destructive but do provide for their needs. Somewhere in this research effort would be concern for the environment, for social justice, and a culture that speaks to the human soul.

As mentioned in a previous paper at this symposium (Burley, 1999) it is estimated that 50% of the wood used in the world is used for cooking. Perhaps the best focus for research is developing cheap, environmentally benign energy technologies. Or perhaps further research on electronic paper might help decrease the amount of use of trees or other fiber for pulp. The dean of the college of agriculture might decide that with burgeoning populations, the only way to provide for needs is to use genetically engineered crops. But as we have seen, the benefits, costs and risks are not necessarily addressed by the sociology, economics, botany and zoology disciplines until the technology is already developed and in use. This allows the wasteful development of technologies that are not acceptable by consumers, with the opportunity cost of the lost improvements that could have been made in people’s well-being and the environment if research had been more carefully integrated from the beginning.

Nevertheless, these are difficult questions. If someone had funding for one molecular biologist, should they be developing systems for turning hog waste into environmentally benign useful products or developing genetically engineered crops that provide nutrients or flavors like meat but are less consumptive of resources than meat production? Studying a production system, even a potential production system, raises questions about who would benefit from this production system and who would lose, if the technology could be successfully developed. Often these questions, considered in policy analysis, are not considered in research programs, nor are they the subject of public discussion, even when the research is publicly funded.

One Comment

  1. Sharon

    Very thought provoking but I can’t help but laugh at an “ecofeminist theologian” who appears to believe that mankind can comprehend and solve problems that depend on knowing everything about everything including subjective social constructs that only the “Master Designer” can discern because only He can perfectly discern what is good and what is evil. Even if we were His equals in every other sense, we will always fail the test of perfect, self sacrificing love. ‘Every person’s way is right in their own mind’. A god of our own conception is no god at all, it is but our own pride that reveals our own foolishness.

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