Commentary: Finding a Voice for Scientists & Natural Resource Experts

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 05.19.2010


For many of us, careers in natural resource-based organizations began with a love of wild places.  Over the years, with a combination of experience and a few degrees, I have come to think of myself as having at least an “informed opinion” on matters related to forestry and forest products – especially on environmental issues.  And as I look around at my friends, acquaintances and colleagues in the field I see a group of highly dedicated people that have committed themselves to their professions and who are truly experts on many of the issues under discussion by policy makers today.  Yet it seems that the views of this group are rarely represented in big picture discussions about things such as forest policy, climate change, cap and trade and the like – even though forests and the products and services derived from them are clearly part of the solution.  I know change is hard and we are highly resistant to it; but I also know that for positive change to occur we can’t throw away the learning’s of many lifetimes.  So, as we listen to policy makers discuss new and exciting solutions to the world’s problems, and the positions being advanced, some of us recognize the need to speak up – but where do we start?


The relationship between humans and natural resources has always been crucial to sustaining quality of life.  Yet humankind has become increasingly disconnected from natural resources in the last eleven to thirteen thousand years (since the beginning of agriculture).  The result of this disconnect is that there is less and less understanding on the part of the public of the inputs required and tradeoffs involved in producing, harvesting, extracting, processing, and delivering to market the products and materials needed to sustain society. Conversely, as industrial processing has advanced, there has been a growing disconnect between practices used to improve efficiency and the impacts of such practices upon nature. The development of rational environmental policy requires an understanding of both.


Although conservation efforts in the US and other parts of the world have been ongoing for generations, only in the last fifty years have significant numbers of people come together to try to change human behaviors and mitigate human impacts on the breadth and diversity of natural resources.  Yet today, debates about human impacts on natural resources are occurring in a political forum that is fraught with conflict and subject to compromise that can render well-intentioned acts meaningless. As individuals and groups in the public and private sectors rush to implement change they often rely on information that is intuitive rather than science-based. In many cases actions are the result of linear problem solving processes that don’t accurately consider the complex interplay of ecological, sociological, industrial and economic systems. One way to change this—and perhaps the easiest—is to make sure that people who think creatively and understand these complexities are more frequently involved in decision-making.


Individuals with land management and bio- products and engineering backgrounds (ranging from traditional agriculture and forestry practitioners to the developers of advanced hybrid composites and bio-energy solutions) have considerable expertise that could be brought to bear on development of effective natural resource policy solutions.  These fields of knowledge and experience are vastly under-represented in policy discussions today.


When critical expertise is excluded from, or is severely limited in, the decision-making process, implementation of solutions that are imperfect at best - and dangerously incorrect at worst – becomes much more likely. Thus, it is imperative that experts in sustainable biomaterials and bioenergy technology,  forest and agricultural land managers and scientists have a forum where they can evaluate, develop and inform policy recommendations and offer global leaders and decision makers  new insights to daunting problems. The science, technology, information and people exist to aid the formation of long-term approaches; it is the integration and organization of these resources that is currently lacking.


A challenge lies in identifying individuals and organizations that are willing to set territorial disputes aside for the betterment of the whole and to create a forum through which results from sound science and informed judgment can be effectively encapsulated and brought to the attention of policy makers.


The ongoing debates very much need an organized infusion of reality, science, and clear thinking. The key is in developing consistent, unified messages about at least those things that science can agree on and to provide clear concise objective input in situations where the science is indeterminate. Clearly, the voices of professionals in forestry, forest products, wood and bio-products science, and other natural resources-related fields need to be heard.


We started our careers for a love of wild places and we need to join our voices to articulate real solutions for balancing the tough choices we are facing.  No one else can do it for us; we must share our expertise and speak for ourselves.  Although we love wild places, I for one don’t want to end up being a voice in the Wilderness.


In future months Dovetail and our partners will be looking to identify a forum by which individuals can merge their areas of expertise to have a voice in global policymaking decisions around the use of forests and forest products. If you would like to provide input into what we do next and/or simply to join the discussion, just drop us a line at or join the discussion at LinkedIn (


Dr. Jeff Howe

May 2010