Science Friday: When is Research Useful and Who Decides? Uncertainty and Current Decisions

A pretty view of picnic grounds on Homestake Road (1890) Library of Congress

Jon made a comment yesterday that I think is worth exploring in detail. He said:

If this is just a compilation of existing data, that’s one thing. If this will be their basis for future planning, and they are saying they are going to ignore future climate change, it might be hard to argue that’s the best available science.

I’m sure that no one wants to “ignore climate science.” On the other hand, how exactly should specific pieces of climate science be applied to a decision? Who makes that call? In the past, when the topic was less adversarial (say reforestation practices), the National Forests hired experts who would make that determination and decide what Forests should do. Now, I’m sure it won’t surprise you that even with these less-charged kinds of decisions, there was sometimes disagreement between practitioners and researchers (as well as within each community). But most of the time these did not boil over into public spats as it was taken for granted that the authority to decide lay with the local technical expert. Researchers were content to publish, and practitioners were content to pick the best approaches based on experience. Many times FS researchers and National Forests worked closely together in what we might call today “co-design and coproduction”. Today, though, we have broader questions, with more disciplines involved, so that there may not be one “expert,” and the public wants to understand the scientific questions where they have policy relevance. Both of those changes present challenges.

As I’ve argued before, we don’t have a clue as to how microclimates perceived by trees will change due to climate change, and we also don’t know how those changes might affect living trees, nor do we know how those changes might affect their offspring. Remember, climate models as used for projecting future conditions have economics as an input. I think, reading the views of experts right now, they have no clue how much the Coronavirus may set back worldwide economies and emissions. If you run out this string of cumulative cluelessness about the future, it becomes a decision question for stakeholders and decisionmakers- we don’t know, so how should that uncertainty affect our decisions? We also don’t have a clue as to whether trade policies will let an invasive diseases or insects into the US which will decimate the ponderosa pines on the BH. The future, is indeed, unknown and uncertain. In fact, there are decision sciences that research how best to decide under conditions of uncertainty.

So, what to do about our cluelessness about future tree growth? I belong to what I might call the Pete Theisen school. He was the R-6 Regional Geneticist who said that additional growth due to tree improvement would come out in future measurements, so we shouldn’t try to model it in growth and yield models. Applying that to climate change, we would measure tree growth every ten years or so (or whatever the cycle is today) and incorporate that into future decisions. What we might call “monitoring the forest plan.” As we would then instances of insects, diseases, and fires.

But as Jon points out, we also have the question of what is the “best available science?”. We’d have to ask “who decides what is best? Based on what criteria?”. Peter Williams has spoken of the concept of “research utility.” I like that approach because it involves practitioners and stakeholders in determining whether a study is useful or relevant to the decisions that, at least on public lands, are essentially public decisions.

For me, the “best science” of tree growth in the Black Hills is what people have recently measured, knowing that it could change due to climate change or a variety of other factors, unknown, uncertain or unknowable.

4 thoughts on “Science Friday: When is Research Useful and Who Decides? Uncertainty and Current Decisions”

    • This paper reminds me of what the researchers at Morgantown used to call (if I remember correctly) “market induced succession” in the Appalachians in which folks cut down one species and it was replaced by another, and then people got used to using the new one, and so on…

      My three thoughts on this paper:
      (1) People haven’t worried as much about how forests changed in the past due to cc, but how they will change in the future.
      (2) However we do have some data on past changes (although there are certainly different ways to manipulate it), and only projections about the future.
      (3) I wish there were a step where practitioners could rate if this kind of work (attribution of past and future events) were actually useful to them, and what other research might be more useful. We’ve got what we’ve got and we don’t know what we might have, but there will be time to deal with it when it happens. If the idea is that we should spend relatively rare forest research bucks on topics that will lead to “we need to mitigate GHG emissions,”, well, isn’t there enough literature on that already? Will there ever be enough?

  1. The legal bar for demonstrating best available science is pretty low, but once you get into court the traditional SWAG (“professional judgment”) approach will rarely work if there is some credible research that contradicts it. The FS just has to acknowledge this stuff and explain why they did what they did. If they lose, it’s often because they didn’t make that effort. If uncertainty becomes an excuse to do what you want you still have to explain that.

    Back in the day, “earned harvest” was the effect on near-term ASQ of performing additional cultural work (including I assume genetics) that was expected to stimulate future increased yields. The Forest Service had no problem building that into their projected yields (uncertainty or not). I don’t know if that is still going on, but given this history it might be arbitrary to now ignore those things that might tend to reduce future yields.

    • Well, my experience is that judges can get involved in (to me, the weeds of ) “whose science is better/more relevant” regardless of using the BAS criterion.

      As to “earned harvest” that’s what I remember Pete Theisen saying that they shouldn’t use (from genetics). I don’t know whether they listened or not. But many forests are so far below ASQ that I question whether it’s even relevant (to many forests).


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