Perspectives on the LTER Program

Network News Fall 1997, Vol. 20 No. 1
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It seems appropriate for me to provide some personal perspectives on the LTER program and its accomplishments after over 20 years of association with the program. This includes 6 years as the principal investigator on the H. J. Andrews LTER grant (1980-1986) and 12 years as chair of the LTER Coordinating Committee (1982-1994). My recollections of the program significantly precede the first LTER grants made in 1980, however.

LTER emerged from numerous discussions among NSF staff and ecological scientists, extending back to at least the early 1970s. I participated in meetings in 1973 and 1974 among NSF staffers-including Drs. john Brooks and Torn Callahan-in Dr. Betsy Clark’s office; she was than division director and subsequently assistant director of NSF when the first LTER grants were awarded. The challenge was to identify mechanisms to provide more dependable resources for support of long-term ecological research, including experiments and site-based programs.

Several workshops, many discussions, and 7 years later the first cohort of LTER sites were funded.

My personal view (supported by a variety of more objective analyses, such as the ten-year review) is that the LTER program has been extraordinarily successful. It has spawned a diverse array of long-term experiments and data sets addressing important ecological questions. These LTER- generated projects not only have great current value, but also will provide an incredible legacy for future generations of ecological scientists; my own experience with 50- to 80-year old ecological studies established by earlier generations also makes me certain that these experiments and databases will be used to address questions which have not yet been framed by ecologists and society.  By traditional measures of scientific productivity (such as publications) LTER has done extremely well--which is not surprising in view of the quality of the participants.

However, LTER also has made many nontraditional contributions to the advance of ecological science. Building on the experiences (positive and negative) of the U. S. International Biological Program, LTER projects have provided practical demonstrations of how truly interdisciplinary scientific teams can be created and maintained. Critical issues in management of large ecological data sets have been successfully addressed- although challenges, such as in the availability of data sets, remain.

Two particular satisfactions for me are the broad relevance of LTER science, and the success with which LTER projects have dealt with spatial extrapolation. Basic research in ecosystem science always has impressed me with its high degree of relevance to societal issues. But the even more broadly focused LTER projects are further illustrating both the versatility and relevance of fundamental ecological science. Whatever the new issue--global warming, biodiversity, resource management, environmental monitoring-LTER science (experiments, data bases, models, experience, etc.) is proving relevant- capable of being applied toward unanticipated directions.

The success of the LTER projects in broadening their geographic scope or "scaling up" was well demonstrated this fall at the Harvard Forest meeting; almost all of the LTER projects have developed successful-but highly varied-approaches to spatial extrapolation. The persistent criticism of the LTER program as a collection of localized or point-based projects-never accurate-has been rendered totally inappropriate with the regionalization of the projects.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for me has been the development of a truly interactive LTER network. This has not come easily. The LTER projects were selected on the basis of individual merit, not as parts of a potential network. Their individuality was strongly expressed in early LTER Coordinating Committee meetings where site representatives often made statements such as, "we have unique circumstances and no one is going to tell us what kind of hardware or software we need to buy!" Early developments in network standardization were protocols for management of data bases and meteorological monitoring.

Emergence and adoption of a common "minimum standard installation" for hardware and software at a meeting at Kellogg Biological Station was a major A breakthrough. Development of the first common dataset- satellite images of the sites-was another.

A significant factor in the success of the LTER experiment has been the partnership between the program and the National Science Foundation. Development of the  Perspectives network has been a mutual learning experience, and NSF deserves great credit for having put its money where its mouth was-enabling as well as provoking! As LTER stepped up to its opportunities, NSF provided support, such as for acquisition of standardized hard- and softwares. As the largest organized group of funded ecological projects, LTER has been a valuable testbed for NSF whether in introduction of new technologies to ecological science or in implementation of new administrative requirements, such as in making data sets quickly and broadly available. Hopefully this valuable reciprocal relationship between LTER and NSF will continue. - The current state of the LTER venture appears excellent to me. In many senses, we have the best of both worlds-the richness of 18 superb scientific teams with their individual approaches and the unique power to advance ecological science in new directions which are a product of a functional network. With time has come trust and experience which has made clear to LTER scientists the “added value” of the network.

Challenges remain and new ones will emerge. There is the critical need (clearly stated in the 10-year review and repeated frequently since) to provide adequate funding for the existing set of LTER projects. The long-term experiments and databases which are the core of LTER cannot be maintained with declining budgets, nor can the energy and enthusiasm of the participants. Development and transfer of leadership will continue to be a challenge for projects and the network as more first- and even second-generation investigators retire from that role.

l am excited about the continuing prospects of the LTER and International LTER programs and intend to stay engaged as a participating scientist and writer. And, as we move forward toward our 20th anniversary in A.D. 2000,  I would encourage you to remember and recognize the very special contributions of other key players in the development of LTER, such as John Brooks, Tom Callahan, Caroline Bledsoe, and Jim Gosz.