Evolutionary Theory and the Practice of Policy (3): Disciplinary Fragmentation

Here's me giving my talk at the Festschrift.

Here’s me giving my talk at the Festschrift.

In this section, I focus on how producing droves of scientists has led to them forming smaller groups, or disciplinary splintering. This has, in turn, led to “reinventing the wheel” plus micro-disciplinary territorial disputes, all of which might be invisible to the naked policy eye. Policy makers, to my mind, must be aware of the sociology of these disputes to really understand what scientific information can contribute, or in some cases, cannot contribute. And I would argue that 15 years after I wrote this paper, we still know little about the environmental effects of genetically engineered organisms, compared to how widely they are dispersed into the environment. Follow the money, as they say, back to the groups who outline “priority research” and panels who decide how the funding is spent. I worked on one research program where bad vibes were given from above for actually including a stakeholder on research panels. Because it did not hold to the sacred NSF model that USDA was trying to emulate at the time, despite Congress’s clear direction for the program (the Fund for Rural America).

When a person in policy or management tries to arrange research developed by the current system into a package relevant to a real world problem, this can leave a somewhat awkward jumble of technologies and strategies as a pool of scientific information. An analogy might be designing a car by contacting a couple of hundred groups and asking them to work on car design. Some might work on door design, others engines. But perhaps no one works on steering or air conditioning. And there’s probably a few who decide that what’s really needed is a train or an airplane and work on that. And it’s no one’s job to ensure that the pieces are all there or that the pieces fit together. Within the research system, there is little to encourage interdisciplinary cooperation as journals, funding agencies and other power structures of research communities tend to be either disciplinary, or from a restrictive subset of disciplines (e.g., ecological economics). This makes the work of taking the discrete nuggets of scientific information and arraying them into a meaningful policy analysis another mix of science, art and intuition.


Administrators in research have selected for certain traits in scientists. Certainly it is desirable to measure accomplishments. This has been done for number of papers and grants awarded. However two questions arise. First, are there undesirable indirect effects from this selection? Second, how divergent is this selection from selection in the policy arena, and how would such a divergence influence scientists working with policy makers?

No doubt there are other forces that cause disciplinary fragmentation, but there has been a proliferation of journals and symposia, associations and subdisciplinary communities. This is good for publication records, but difficult to individuals who want to keep up with or synthesize science findings. In terms of worldview, there tends to be some “disciplinary drift” as well.

Each scientific discipline contains the paradox that the more the circumstances are controlled to get accurate data, the less relevant the answer is to the real world. Science used to depend for its legitimacy on designed experiments, which could be replicated and tested. As issues like global climate change come under scrutiny, however, or even evolution, it is recognized that in most cases rerunning the clock is not possible, and even if it were, stochastic forces might lead to a variety of possible outcomes. Therefore, as problems get more complex, science grows less “scientific.” We depend more and more on a given scientific community, rather than reproducibility, to determine what is good science and bad science. But as disciplines splinter and recombine, the scientific communities may be mixing values and science in varying proportions with unquestioned approaches and unstated assumptions and paradigms. Thus in today’s complex world, there may be ultimately no quality control on this science.

In addition, focusing on the production of publications as an organizational target plus disciplinary drift can have the effect of scientists amplifying minor discoveries or reinventing what is commonly known in another discipline. There is also a tendency to make the simple arcane and esoteric so that it appears that the discovery is important. In policy, citizens and their predilections are the key. In research, both citizens and practitioners are often left out of decisions and not the target of communication. This is a major difference between the two worlds.

Scientists can become advocates for technologies they develop, or amplify threats (from someone else’s technology). In this environment, it is difficult for a policy maker to get around the self-serving nature of these debates and get information that is balanced. For example, Jasanoff (1990) cites the Ecological Society of America adopting an influential public position on assessing the risk of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment. According to Jasanoff, this action was prompted in large part by a desire to enhance the organization’s professional standing; significantly it postdates a report from the National Research Council, in which the institutionally more powerful community of molecular biologists and biochemists had articulated somewhat different principles, downplaying ecological consequences. Today, almost nine years later, with substantial sums of research funds invested in the interim, we are no closer to understanding the true environmental risks of GMO’s than we were nine years ago. This is clearly an indictment of the scientific establishment’s ability or desire to look beyond its interests in increased research funding by discipline and develop information useful to the citizens of the U.S.


  1. General Andrew . A. Humphreys was one of the incorporators of the National Academy of Sciences. Ties to funding and policy were part and parcel of the NAS. An example of the political overtones of the politics of science in the United States. Look up General Humphreys for more examples of politically influenced science.
    Article I. Section 7 of the United States Constitution states: “…To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times…”
    From time to time Congress thinks they are promoting science by other means. For instance declaring that pi is equal to 22/7. Or withholding funds on scientific endeavors not considered politically correct.
    Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Service code has several tax advantageous exemptions. Including science, education, fraternal activity.
    Scientists who master finance and politics? Scientists who are considered favorably by Congress determine what science will be.
    So, Sharon, your comment about disciplines within the science community can be extended to the political sector. In today’s political climate, lobbyists exert, in my opinion, undue influence with no external balance. We all know more than any of us.

  2. It always seemed to me that, by training, a forester is (or should be) a generalist. After all, a forest consists of not only trees but other plants, soils, waters, weather, forest products, people, animals of all types, etc. A forester should, therefore, be thinking of and taking into consideration all those things as the forest is being managed.

    Today, however, forestry has become a bunch of fragmented disciplines. We’ve become specialized and specialists oftentimes move into management positions in which they become the forest manager. I suppose that is alright except that people tend to lean towards that which they know or they favor. For example, a biologist is likely to lean towards wildlife when making management decisions and maybe not thinking so holistically about all the other disciplines.

    I seems that a generalist (e.g., a forester) ought to be the forest manager because they should be thinking of the forest in a more holistic way. Where the forester/forest manager is lacking in expertise, that is where the specialist should be called in.

    I think federal forest management has gotten side-tracked, in part, because specialists have risen through the ranks and have become forest managers. As the manager, their particular discipline seems to get a little higher priority while disciplines other than their own have gotten the short end of the stick. Forest management has gotten fragmented. [I know of an “interdisciplinary team” charged with developing timber sales where, for example, a wildlife biologist has an inordinate amount of clout and greatly influences the outcome. I know of a forester who was asked to leave the team because he actually had to gall to advocate selling the trees produced on a commercial thinning sale!]

    This has become a problem for the Society of American Foresters. So many people in forestry have split off into more narrowly focused forest-related disciplines that forestry has become fragmented.

    Instead, we should all be working together and talking together to see the big picture; i.e., managing the whole forest, not just our particular discipline.

    • I agree with you, but I don’t think foresters have a lock on being able to see the bigger picture.

      When I was “growing up” in the FS, timber folks were OK, silviculturists were nerdy, and geneticists were at the bottom of the pecking order. So we tended to band with silviculturists and support each other (er.. reinforce our joint worldviews). If I were an organizational person, I would really want to set up a system where people formed an interdisciplinary support band at the beginning, so that at the end of the day, one’s buds were spread out throughout the disciplines.

      The other thing is that the disciplines were very separate during the time many of us were “growing up.” I’m hoping that younger people do not have the same warfare mentality. One can read the history of the President’s Plan as warfare between timber and wildlife folks. With, of course, we bottom- feeders getting crushed by the rocks thrown by the Titans. I guess that’s enough questionable analogies for one comment…

  3. SharonF

    Thanks again for this thought provoking series. In this “part 3”, you have done an extremely good job of putting these complex thoughts down in a relatively easily understood manner.

    Re: “In this section, I focus on how producing droves of scientists has led to them forming smaller groups, or disciplinary splintering. This has, in turn, led to “reinventing the wheel” plus micro-disciplinary territorial disputes, all of which might be invisible to the naked policy eye”
    –> In the arena of forestry, “reinventing the wheel” is a major problem. I see it in the JOF more than I would like. Academia and the SAF seem to have forgotten or deliberately ignored the scientific fundamentals of plant physiology, fire science, entomology and other related long established science. This science is established by consistent findings of innumerable statistically sound, replicated, on the ground, research which has also been consistently and repeatedly validated operationally at both large and small scales in a wide variety of situations and over long periods of time on probably over 100 million acres in the U.S. alone. As you imply, speculation as to why established science has been abandoned ranges from group think peer pressure to ego and on through to financial opportunism.

    Re: “Thus in today’s complex world, there may be ultimately no quality control on this science.”
    –> Based on what was drilled into my head in every science class from high school on and especially in “the statistical design of experiments” compared to what I see a great deal of now days, you are dead on. I see a great deal of supposition in the form of statements containing words like “might”, “could”, “possibly” and others being passed off as scientific fact just because they came out of the mind of a scientist or a group of scientists. Often, unproven assumptions are built into models and the results of running various scenarios are reported in a way that fails to stress that the results are nothing more than speculation by scientists based on their unproven theories/assumptions/suppositions.

    There are those who propose that with enough knowledge we can solve any problem. At the same time we find it impossible to assimilate what we do know because of the complexities of communication and because of our human frailties. I do not propose that we should quit trying. What I do propose is that we quit declaring that the end of the world will occur if we don’t do something drastic right now to address the most current trending fear. Instead of running around unproductively like Chicken Little proclaiming that the sky is falling every time a potential danger is propounded, we should push the clutch in and determine what established science says and do what can be done to resolve discrepancies between theories in a timely matter and then act appropriately. Decisions made in a panic or out of fear, more often than not, only make things worse because panic and fear severely limit our ability to think rationally. Destroying the present, which is all that we have for sure, for some uncertain future possibility that we can’t quantify with any degree of confidence is pure foolishness. In the end, Chicken Little dies from a heart attack before any catastrophe occurs because he has been overwhelmed by all of the anxieties that arise from living in fear which is its own spiritual death since global temperature change, earthquakes, tsunamis, asteroids, pandemics, hurricanes, solar storm induced global power grid failures for extended periods, exhaustion or contamination of potable water sources, and wars will always threaten. What good is trying to stop a one degree rise in temperature that is lower than other previous highs that mankind has survived when we are fat and happy and all content that no threat from enemies to our nation can touch us? All the while the doors to our border are wide open and swinging in the breeze with a welcome sign that says ‘welcome aboard, we will make sure that you are well taken care of until you blow us up or kill us all off by contaminating our water sources’. We can’t quantify all of the potential risks so we have no way to prioritize the risks to our society. As a result those who dream up the scariest scenario get the power and the money to direct our lives until someone with a silver tongue comes along with an even scarier theory. Life is meant to be lived, not squandered in fear.

  4. I’m enjoying the excerpts because they also touch on a larger problem, of insularization and isolation from the society USFS and science at large is supposed to help. Overspecialization also compounds the trend.
    Then there is the issue of application versus theory, the practitioners versus the theoreticians. Knowledge is great but has the most benefit when it is APPLIED to a real problem. Arcana looks good in journals, but I want something that benefits “me.”
    Finally, I’m hoping that you get around to the fact that science operates in a social context. Science matters and is highly regarded because many science achievements had tangible beneficial results for society at large. GMO’s are, ideology aside, a perfect example. Hybridization of natural plants has been going on for thousands of years — it’s empirical experimentation, not Frankenfood. If the deep ecologists had gotten the same grip on “science” as they now have, I doubt humanity would have gotten as far.

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