Practice of Science Friday: Location, Location, Location of Scientists and Impact on Science

Requiescat in pace , Bend Silviculture Lab

If you have been around the research business long enough, you have seen many research topics, administrative inclinations, and locations come and go. In the early 80’s, I worked for the National Forests in central Oregon.

Most of the research was done, and most of the scientists located, on the wet West Side (WWS) of Oregon. It made sense at the time, as those folks, private and public, were engaged in intensive timber management and wanted to know how to do it right. In addition, the land grant university with responsibility for agriculture and forestry (OSU) was in Corvallis. But that left us with a relative handful of scientists and projects everywhere from Bend to Lakeview to Pendleton. Now, OSU didn’t have an SRUS (a science regional utility standard) that required their research portfolio to be relevant to all parts of the state equally. The east side was a kind of scientific stepchild. At least SW Oregon had the FIR Program, which turned out much helpful information to practitioners in SW Oregon.

I’ll tell a couple of stories about “West-side-itis”. At one time, the Ochoco, Winema, Fremont and Deschutes silviculture folks had a training session with (Drs.) Chad Oliver and Bruce Larsen for a few days at Pringle Falls. I think both may have been at UW (Seattle) at the time. They were both fantastic teachers, especially as a duo. Bruce was rapid-fire, and Chad laid back and Southern, so it made long sessions entertaining as well as informative. They were talking about trees competing for light, and someone asked “how do the models handle it if it is competition for water, not light?” It took a while for them to answer, because in their WWS world, it wasn’t really an important question. I hope you can see my point. If people tend to study and understand what’s around them, in Oregon, the scientific topo lines would have been highest in Corvallis (note that the FS had a big lab there, which made sense, so they could interact with OSU, EPA and other scientists) and gone to zero somewhere between Klamath Falls and Hart Mountain.

One more story. In the early 80’s, an OSU economics prof came out to talk to us, and we met with the Weyerhaeuser folks who also had land in our area. The OSU fellow said that to use the latest science we needed to increase the size of our clearcuts to be more like the Weyco folks. This was, of course, long before (Dr.) Jerry Franklin came up with “big messy clearcuts” so there were the clearcuts that people didn’t like that were then made smaller, but then Jerry thought that big messy ones were better. If we didn’t do it, of course, we weren’t using “the latest science.” Which had been inspired, planned, designed, carried out, and analyzed without our input, and without consideration of (major) differences in the environment. But if you work in an area that folks don’t come out and study, doing things that science funders don’t find to be interesting, can you then be criticized for not having scientific evidence for what you’re doing? Well.. yes.

Of course, research managers have been challenged by declining budgets. But when you think of the closure of the Bend Silviculture Lab or the Macon Fire Sciences Lab, a person has to wonder what geographical diversity and knowledge was lost. Diversity is a good thing, right? At least today, that’s a value. Back in those days, you needed a building, and upkeep, and computer and staff support to have people somewhere. Maybe, especially in today’s virtual society, there’s an argument for locating federal researchers far away from universities and closer to the people working directly with the creatures, people, plants and landscapes or situations they study. Not the least advantage, in my mind, would be to interact more with their practitioner colleagues, and develop a better understanding of what they do and why they do it.

For an excellent history of the ponderosa research on the east side of Oregon, check out this paper by Les Joslin Ponderosa Promise: A History of US Forest Service Research in Central Oregon.

4 thoughts on “Practice of Science Friday: Location, Location, Location of Scientists and Impact on Science”

  1. Yes, it was a sad day when the Bend Silviculture Lab closed. It has taken a long time for that research deficit to start to be refilled and progress has been very slow. There are still some scientists at the Wenatchee Lab (though no silviculturists), so there are some fire studies going on via that lab. And there are scientists (including a silviculturist) at the LaGrande lab, but a lot of the focus there is the Starkey Experimental Forest (which has produced some outstanding research on ungulates in forests). There is no longer a research entomologist at PNW Lab either (hopefully that position will be refilled) and the Station Director position has been vacant for nearly 2 years.

    • I wonder how they decide which disciplines to hire, and how stakeholders are, or are not, involved in the process? I think it would be an important discussion to have, anyway, perhaps with the universities jointly, so that State and National Forest experts all could be assured that there would be scientists to research what they need to know. Of course, there may only be funding to get info from satellites or to run computer models, but if you don’t imagine it, you can’t search for funding for it.

      Is the ball in the hands of some mysterious feds somewhere in the bowels of NSF, NASA, or USGS? How much does WO R&D influence research priorities, or even the Station? Where are stakeholders involved in this process, if at all?

  2. Driving around central Oregon I was impressed by the amount of thinning and controlled burning that has taken place. (Not so impressive are the results of the catastrophic wildfires.)
    It is surprising that with Bend being so popular now, a OSU campus, and a beautiful FS District Building that there isn’t a research center there.
    It is kind of disheartening that in that sea of trees there is only one foreign sawmill left.

    • That area has been part of a CFLRP – Cooperative Forest Landscape Restoration Project – that has provided a lot of funding for that type of work at a landscape scale. They have also received a lot of supplemental hazardous fuels funding, so that has also helped increase the “pace and scale” of work in that area.


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