In wake of the devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral this week, a heartwarming, but likely apocryphal narrative arose — the stunningly beautiful wood of the cathedral ceiling and steeple could be replaced because trees were planted during the French Revolution for just such a contingency. Attempts were made to verify this story, but so far it doesn’t seem like it’s accurate, no matter how much we want it to be, and old growth forest to replace the wood will either be difficult to source or simply doesn’t exist.
It is likely that the ideas here, planning for the “Long Now“, may have come from events at the University of Oxford, the story itself something of a blend of myth and reality (full disclosure: as an Editorial Director at Oxford University Press I am an employee of the University). New College (one of Oxford’s oldest, founded in 1379) features a dining hall with massive oak beams across its ceiling. About a century ago, these were found to be infested with beetles, as apparently is common for such beams. In the video below, you’ll hear the story of long term planning, or at least thoughtful woodland management.
This struck a chord with me as a scholarly publisher — we are the stewards of the “permanent record”, the long term preservation of the knowledge generated through research, and the history of its generation. In an era where as a society we are suffering from short term thinking, worrying about next quarter’s financial report rather than long term survival as a species, this should serve as a reminder to the sacred duty we carry for the long term. It’s why as a community we’re so invested in perpetual archiving mechanisms, and why retracted articles don’t just disappear. It puts into perspective our worries about this week’s scheme to remake scholarly communications or this month’s new set of rules that have given little thought to long term consequences.
9 Thoughts on "Oak Beams and Planning for the Long Term"
“In an era where as a society we are suffering from short term thinking, worrying about next quarter’s financial report rather than long term survival as a species, this should serve as a reminder to the sacred duty we carry for the long term.”
On the one hand, research purely for the short term does not secure the long term; on the other hand, research production at the whim of the individual research doesn’t either.
Think of the research archive as inventory. Over time, some of that inventory will age and become useless (except to historians.) Some will be drawn upon by society for its short-term needs, and strategies around engagement and social impact seem well suited to ensuring the usefulness of that short-term inventory.
But what kinds of strategy will ensure that the long-term inventory is equally useful? That thirty years from now (say) society does not just find a random collection of knowledge, generated purely by the random curiosities of individuals?
With regards to David Week’s comment above, isn’t “knowledge, generated purely by the random curiosities of individuals” what often leads to new discoveries? Think about people’s curiosity to fly, or eating roots and berries out of curiosity about their tastes and discoveries their healing and life saving properties in the process?
That’s the “received wisdom”, and an old one. Research at random may have worked in the past, but it might not be the best for the future, with humanity facing so many crises: food, conflict, water, climate, poverty, education, health, inequality…
Why not research the question itself? What research pathways have, in the past, been most beneficial? And why?
It’s an interesting question. But I would probably argue that due to the serendipitous nature of research, trying to direct it to specific known targets only would be an example of the short term thinking I’m decrying here. The most important research, in my opinion at least, has been basic science, which is responsible for the practical implementations that don’t seem obvious and often come much later. A great example and argument for this can be found here:
Nice film. But that’s an anecdotal argument. What’s the scientific argument? 🙂
I suppose one could methodically go through every piece of applied research, every medical treatment, every piece of technology that exists and point out the basic research concepts that underpin it. Or one could take the opposite tack and try to find even a single piece of applied research that arose de novo.
I think a better approach would be to back-track from the social benefits, and see if there were any pattern as to the type of basic research that gave rise the benefits. Then test those hypotheses on other data sets.
Science often claims that it is better to make public policy on the basis of scientific evidence, than on tradition or politics. Letting researchers follow their curiosity is just that: a tradition. More important: public research funders are ALREADY deciding that some research is “more important” than other research. What is the basis for their decision-making? Is it evidence-based? Is it transparent? Or is it just politics?
Scientists should insist that the research resource allocation process be evidence-based. This does not negate your very good point that investment should be in long-term as well as short-term research. But exactly because long-term research is so important, investment allocation should not be left to the private whims of the allocators.
I find it difficult to find actual papers on the science of curiosity-driven resourcing. Here’s one that might be of interest: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5906436/
I’m not sure I’d agree with the statement that funded research is largely based on researchers simply “following their curiosity.” Funding is increasingly difficult to come by, and only a small percentage of applications for funding are successful. Funding agencies set the agenda here, putting together programs of funding to address specific areas and then applications go through an extensive peer review process. Political pressures have largely driven the process in recent years, as legislators feel they are under pressure to show practical results for the money spent (see this infamous statement https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/oct/27/sarahpalin-genetics-fruit-flies). As a result of those pressures, governmental funders increasingly think about the short term and prefer projects that they can point to which provide quick results. This is a problem, as those are largely based on the basic research of previous decades, and if we fail to continue to provide new basic research, we will have no such basis upon which to base future applied projects.
It’s also not so easy to predict which projects will provide social benefits. As noted above, there is a level of serendipity in all types of research — you start off answering one question and it leads in unexpected directions. I wrote about this here (again using the previous anecdote about how research into bacterial defenses led us to recombinant DNA technologies https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/08/02/societal-impact-meet-new-metric-old-metric/). Worth also noting that those original funded projects took some 30 years to pay off, not something that could have been predicted in advance.
A similar (true) story on long-term planning involving oaks is the military-owned oak forest at Visingsö, Sweden:
There, oaks were planted in the 1830s to provide future construction timber for military ships, during a time when Sweden had lost important forests in Swedish Pomerania (northern Germany), and there were worries about a possible future oak shortage. The woods were carefully managed and kept until 1975 when the navy was notified that the oaks were ready to be delivered.
Of course, at the same time, this is a story about the difficulty of predicting technological advances. The navy wasn’t really interested in taking delivery of oak construction wood in 1975 to construct the next generation military fleet.