Seeing Green: Of trees, fighter jets, and the mysteries of science funding

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Dec. 2, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

Seeing Green: Of trees, fighter jets, and the mysteries of science fundingBy the time Dr. Maciej Zwieniecki returned to the blackboard, I’d gotten sufficiently lost in the intricacies of fluid dynamics that I wasn’t sure how much more I could absorb from his lecture on vertical water transport in trees.  Still, I could objectively admire his off-the-cuff artwork as he brushed away a cross-section of a tree and quickly outlined a perfectly recognizable…fighter jet?


The audience watched, bemused. Maciej chuckled, then explained how mechanisms borrowed from tree physiology might one day be used to efficiently transfer heat from jet wings to the cockpit.  At least, that’s what the Department of Defense, which funded his basic research on tree mechanics, hoped.


It was an unexpected  —  but informative  —  turn in the Harvard Forest researcher’s address.  Though motivated in equal parts by awe at the forest of pumps natural selection has produced, and by burning curiosity to understand how these pumps function, Maciej’s work was ultimately subject to the occasional left-hand turn in pursuit of biomimicry.


This was both a blessing and a curse.  A relatively plush DOD budget meant he could invest in detailed MRI imagery to watch water flow through living trees.  But when it came to basic ecological questions  —  How would his test seedlings adapt if grown under drought conditions?  Do all tree species employ the same strategies?  —  Maciej could only shrug.  His dollars were earmarked for a very specific purpose, and it was just luck that some basic science could be done simultaneously.


As I exited the lecture hall fifteen minutes later, I thanked my lucky stars that my research funding was far more flexible and hoped that the United States government would continue to invest in basic scientific research.  Sure, getting a grant funded by the National Science Foundation (as many basic research programs in my field are) is no mean feat, especially as financial belts are being tightened across the nation.  But the NSF is one of the few places you can turn for help answering fundamental questions about how the world works, laying the foundations for more applied developments.


The world is filled with accidental discoveries by curious researchers, later developed into some of our most important technologies.  Take X-rays, for example. Of course, many academics are motivated purely by their own curiosity  —  should a world-changing finding emerge from their work, well, that was just a lucky break.  Over the history of the United States, its citizens have largely supported these endeavors, and enjoyed the fruits of these labors in popular scientific accounts, documentaries, and the like.


But today, as pennies are being pinched and a growing faction actively denies the societal value of scientific knowledge, those of us working in basic science are feeling a bit on edge.  As evidenced by scores of cell biologists linking their work to cancer biology, and numbers of ecologists citing the impacts of climate change, we’re all looking for ways to make our work immediately relevant to society’s needs.


As an environmentalist, I think a certain degree of self-reflection is in order.  We each have to make a judgment call about the work that interests us, and the degree to which we want it to ‘matter’ beyond our inner circle.  But should that influence our ability to get funding?


Obviously, it depends on whose money you’re asking to spend.  Government agencies aside, there are plenty of private ventures funding their own teams of scientists (and please keep agendas in mind when you read, say, the environmental impact assessment produced by Shell Petroleum).


There’s something to be said for getting what you pay for: the most effective way to take hydraulics from trees to fighter jets doubtless begins by funding Maciej Zwieniecki to figure out exactly how trees work.  There’s also value in linking financiers, researchers, and beneficiaries.  In theory, the tighter the groups are coupled, the more the researchers’ efforts will reflect the needs and interests of those whose money they are spending.  This also keeps lines of communication open, and ensures that scientific results aren’t buried in the technical papers that have become the currency of academia.


Perhaps that’s why I’m glad to hear about peers  —  both scientists and journalists  —  turning to crowdsourced funding.  Taking advantage of modern technology they make web-based pitches that, if well-placed, can reach thousands.  To catch on, they must be concise, comprehensible and charismatic (which perhaps explains why friends’ studies of tropical biodiversity and coffee production or climate-driven extinction are succeeding in ways that my new project on tree-fungal coevolution might not).


Ultimately, that’s why we need many kinds of science funding  —  from an array of sources, and earmarked for a range of specificities.  Science emerged from a desire to describe the world around us, and to understand how humanity interacts with it.  To advance either goal, we must invest in both, an investment that Americans will hopefully continue to make, both with their tax dollars, and from their private funds.


Send comments, criticisms, and donations to the scientific cause to Holly at hollyvm ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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