Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


In the long run, what do we really know?

Scott J. Meiners

Finch, Galápagos. Photo: Paul Krawczuk via Creative Commons.

Finch, Galápagos. Photo: Paul Krawczuk via Creative Commons.

Modern science is built in discreet, publishable units that allow us to test specific ideas.

This is what careers are built upon, starting with smaller research projects when we are students and building to larger themes when we are (more or less) established. The foundation of these projects is most often an experiment or study done in a relatively short period of time, designed to address a specific question. We conduct our experiment, get an answer, and then move on to the next question.

The tricky, but ultimately critical, thing to know is whether this short term effect is representative of what happens year after year, or whether there will be other consequences if we continued the experiment for another week, year, or decade.

Thankfully, science is full of famous exceptions to this pattern of short and sweet studies.

The Grant’s study of evolution in Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos, the Hubbard Brook study of nutrient dynamics following forest harvest in New England, and the Park Grass experiment of agricultural amendments in Rothamsted, England are excellent examples of how truly transforming a long term perspective can be to our understanding of science.

All of these studies have generated surprising results along the way, surprises that could not have been anticipated, but were nonetheless critical.

“no one expected the evolutionary trajectory of finches to change with the development of El Niño ocean currents..”

It is in these surprises, these unexpected results, that the true value of a long term approach can be seen. Besides documenting long-term impacts of fertilizers, the Park Grass experiment also documented radioactive fallout entering ecosystems. This clearly cannot have been an anticipated effect as the study began in 1856 and radioactivity was not described by Henri Becquerel for another 40 years.

Similarly, no one expected the evolutionary trajectory of finches to change with the development of El Niño ocean currents or acid rain to start to change nutrient chemistry in soils and steams, but now we have a much better understanding.

A good reason to study something today may be an equally good reason to study it tomorrow and the next day.

The long-term study that I work with is a study of succession – what happens when you stop ploughing and allow agricultural fields to return to a more natural state – in our case a forest.

Three people, Murry Buell, Helen Buell and John Small, started the study in 1958 to study contemporary issues about how succession worked. There was a controversial new theory in the literature of the day and they wanted to test it. This is no different than much of what we do today. The key is that they saw the value in the study and just kept it going.

While the initial goals were addressed in the early decades, we have now used the data to capture the impacts of non-native species invasions and high deer populations – things that were never even thought about when the study was initiated.

We are able to use the decades of data in these long-term studies to address modern new theories that take a dramatically different approach to science. These data then become a wonderful complement to the short term studies that will always dominate science – a context for judging what is truly important.

After all, what do we really know?

About The Author

Scott J. Meiners

Scott J. Meiners is one of the authors of An Integrative Approach to Successional Dynamics: Tempo and Mode of Vegetation Change (2015). He is a Professor in the Department of Biol...

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