Long-term silvicultural research studies - the good, the bad, and the ugly

by

James M. Guldin and Lance A. Vickers

(JMG) Supervisory Research Ecologist and Project Leader, USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, P.O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, AR. 71902, PhD Graduate (LAV), University of Missouri, 203 Natural Resources Building, Columbia, MO 65211, To contact, call: 501-623-1180 x103 or email: jguldin@fs.fed.us

Abstract – Long-term silviculture research studies are thought to be the gold standard for research silviculturists in industry, academia, and Forest Service Research and Development. Repeated measurements on fixed plots over time are thought to give data that are a cut above comparative research studies, and in many cases are the basis for computer models of forest growth, development, and yield. However, establishing a long-term research study and bearing responsibility for it as a principal investigator can vary from being among the most rewarding of career accomplishments to among the most disappointing. Examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly will be highlighted, with lessons learned from each developed for discussion. The good is when long-term studies are maintained for an effective length of time, are integrated into an agency’s program of work for an extended period of time, and monitor changing conditions over time in an effective manner. That is made considerably more effective with an agency’s commitment to permanent full-time positions associated with the study, which ensures a commitment of salary and a modicum of operating dollars to the work. The good is accentuated when research products, especially publications in the refereed literature that are useful for field application, are produced. It can also be a tremendous asset when a unique collection of the right people at the right time provide a critical partnership for getting a big effort off the ground. The bad is when long-term studies are maintained more or less for the sake of maintaining them, or when studies are dramatically affected by natural disturbance (though some good can occasionally result from that). The bad can quickly turn ugly when considerable financial investments have been made over the long term without much in the way of effective research publications either through poor study design, poor study implementation, or an ineffective team of investigators. Equally bad is when a big effort is initially funded with (occasionally considerable) earmarked funds or short-term dollars that enable the hiring of temporary or term positions, but thereafter, agency priorities and funds are redirected. That leaves those involved in maintaining the studies facing the “bootleg” challenge of doing so without staff and support. Key tipping points in long-term studies include developing ways to secure new sources of funding when old sources disappear, interpreting data from studies in new and meaningful ways when old interpretations become out of date, and developing effective succession plans when principal investigators, especially those that have been in place for a long time, resign or retire. In short, the success of long-term studies falls to the three “F’s”: foresight, funding, and folks. The more pressing the need for a scientific answer to important questions that society seeks, the more stable the commitments from agencies and institutions for positions and operating dollars, the more useful the scientific deliverables that can be produced, and the more capably that a unique team of scientists can work together over their respective careers, the better–but these are difficult outcomes to ensure in advance, and to sustain over time.