Where to start?

As this is my first posting on this webblog, I am starting it with a “smooth” thought. Forest Sciences as a scientific field have seen many changes since I have been a student in the 1990s.  It used to be a world of its own, pretty much uncontested and a microcosm of general science including such fields as for example history, law and politics on top of natural sciences. Forest Biometrics was one of the scientific fields, much respected both by students and academics, and usually honoured by a university chair.  Professorships in Forest Biometrics were usually responsible for the mathematical and statistical education of students, for consultation and for quantitative research.

Since then Forest Sciences have been absorbed by natural sciences, environmental science or natural resource management. This worldwide development was often coupled with a re-naming of forestry faculties.  This process of change has most likely not come to an end and is tied into university politics favouring basic rather than applied sciences.

In the current constellation, (Forest) Biometrics (also referred to as mathematical or computational forestry, mathematical natural-resource science, see Cieszewski and Strub, 2009 in MCFNS) is seen as a field of basic science by some and as an applied study area by others. In quite a few university chairs, Forest Biometrics is viewed as a synonym of statistics and all teaching and research is orientated towards it. Others have a broader approach and include mathematical topics, plant growth analysis and modelling along with other subjects such as sampling and forest inventory.  Causton and Venus (1981) for example wrote in their book “The Biometry of Plant Growth”: “We, however, take the view that biometry is a subject in its own right. The aspects of biology requiring quantitative study should form an integral part of biometry, and not merely dismissed once the problem has been put into quantitative form and attention turned to mathematical and statistical theory and methods.”  In his book “Mathematics of Life” Stewart (2012) is of a similar opinion when he writes “Mathematics is being used not just to help biologists manage their data, but on a deeper level to provide significant insights into the science itself, to help explain how life works. Biomathematics is not merely a new application for existing mathematical methods. You can’t just pull an established mathematical technique off the shelf and put it to use: it has to be tailored to fit the question. Biology requires – indeed demands – entirely new mathematical concepts and techniques, and it raises new and fascinating problems for mathematical research.”  I find this view quite agreeable, since Forest Biometrics in my opinion should be about interdisciplinary work bringing biology/ecology and mathematics/statistics together. Forest biometricians are meant to act as mediators between mathematical  statistics and forest science able to speak and understand both “languages”. On the websites of my Chair (http://www.slu.se/mat-stat-forest) you can see a few examples. Naturally, it is thrilling and re-assuring to see that there is a great diversity of research visions for Forest Biometrics. I am convinced that we need this pluralism of ideas to make real progress in quantitative research.  This topic is also considered in Joel E. Cohen’s essay “Mathematics is biology’s next microscope, only better; biology is mathematic’s next physics, only better from 2004 (PLoS Biol. 2, e439)”, which apparently has become a sort of proverb in biomathematics.

Cieszewski and Strub (2009) among others also pointed out that the advances in computer technology form another important column of research in Forest Biometrics in the same way as this technological development as resulted in other specialised fields such as Computational Physics and Computational Genetics.

As someone who has recently taken up a University Chair in Forest Biometrics, I am wondering how others – whether they are in a similar situation or not – feel about this?