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Mark Harmon Oral History Interview, Part 2, October 1, 1997

Oregon State University

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Mark Harmon: I guess I convinced him. Tim was a little bit upset because I kind of went behind his back. I told him I was going to do it. Actually, I told him I thought he should do it, but he just wasn't. He was pretty dispirited at that point. He put a lot of work into it. I just don't think it was going much where he wanted to push it. So, we got money to shut it down and brought up another year. At that point people said, "You're the PI on this project. We're not going to follow Tim anymore." Actually, what happened for that money was, I wrote the proposal and Tim put his name on it first. People got Tim's draft, they just laughed and said, "We're not going to send this in, Tim." Tim went and revised it, but people came to me and said, "You write the proposal. You seem to know what's going on. These are the ideas, we'll work with you." And then we gave it to Tim as he was the PI. At that point, it was pretty clear people were not going to follow Tim any longer. They just were not. Eventually, we kind of worked it down to a nice hypothesis that was doable, which involved what happened to the carbon. We broke it down and in what we call a brown rot system or a white rot system. Just to explain that a little bit, a white rot degrades about everything, and a brown rot doesn't degrade lignin. If you have a brown rot system, it accumulates a lot of this brown mush on the ground, and in a white rot, it doesn't. It had a lot of impacts on nutrient cycling and carbon stores. We sold it on that basis. At that point, most everybody had dropped out. They were discouraged, maybe because it was clear NSF was not going to support a biodiversity emphasis. They're not gonna do it. Since then, we went in for a renewal, and NSF was very reluctant to fund it. I must say, I've been very disappointed in their level of support. Sometimes it got bad reviews, but even when it got good reviews, the program director never put it in a priority slot. I've temporarily given up on them as a source of funding for us. They don't seem to think it's worthy. I've presented lots of talks on it for NSF and LTER. They're always well-received, but it never translates into funding. It's a mystery to me.

Max Geier: Sounds like you had a connection with the program director?

Harmon: Well, I knew who he was, what he did. Normally, I never call the program director. I'm a person who will develop my ideas independent of the program director. I'd realized in the log research, I had to stick with real sound, basic science and not go for fads. I could not keep up with fads, and I couldn't apply them to the log research. If I was gonna do that, I had to convince people there was a lot to be learned, and it was good science. I found that I never got anything out of the program directors. It was impossible. My habit has always been to kind of not do that much, and this was a rare exception. I just felt desperate that we needed to not throw things out. Now, this happened to George Carroll on his tree [canopy] research. He had an NSF project going, they were doing some real exciting work, and then they had, I guess, a so-so proposal that could have been improved. But NSF basically said, "Don't send this in again. We're just cutting you off." And a lot of that data has never been examined to this day. They just turned it right off. I kind of reminded them of that disaster, because they were finding out lots of neat things in the canopy. Which is starting to be learned over again at Wind River [Experimental Forest in southern Washington, where they had a canopy crane for years at that point].

Geier: There was a recognition that NSF said that there had been a mistake?

Harmon: They had made a mistake in doing that. But, they threw their investment away is what they did. So, I made that argument, plus pleaded. I think I was pretty convincing. I was really concerned, I think that's how that came across. They found the money to just shut it down.

Geier: Maybe you could talk a little bit about your perception of the advantages and disadvantages of doing long-term research with grant-supported programs?

Harmon: It's not necessarily a study, but the advantage of a site where you can keep making these investments, it really does start to add up. And it may not be that synergistic in the sense that you get a lot more out of it than the parts. At least all the parts are there to build from, and assumptions about things can be much stronger. So, there's that. But also, I like to think of the synthesis before, after the fact. In other words, usually we take a whole bunch of facts and information, and we know we get a convincing story out of it, but a lot of times it's very qualitative. Whereas, when you have a synthesis before, you actually think of what the connections should be and go out and investigate them, you often can get more than a qualitative analysis. You can make a real quantitative analysis, and sometimes that can tell you things.

Here's an example: invertebrates are important in the decomposition of litter. There's no doubt about that. But, if you look at sites in the whole LTER network, you'll find there are some sites, like in the Arctic, they don't make a difference. They're not that big a deal. In the desert where there's termites, they're a big deal. They really control how litter disappears. So, in one place, they're eating a little bit, and in another place, they're eating most of it. You don't see that kind of stuff, a lot of times in after-the-fact synthesis. You don't see that kind of stuff. Now, that example is what we did in LIDET, which is more a spatial dimension than a temporal dimension. They're somewhat related. I think, the thing of being able over time to make these investments in a system, we'll set this up and we'll observe it, and periodically make experiments, you learn a lot more. And it just holds together as a story, without any artifice there. That's the story, versus making a likely story that sounds good, consistent with the facts, but God knows if it works.

I'll give you an example of that. A classic way to get at longtime dimensions is to substitute space for time. In other words, you go out and find old fields that are different ages, or forests that came from them, or in this case, find logs that are different ages in the same site, same time. They did that work on the Andrews, and they found decay rates. The big story was that Douglas-fir decays at half the rate of hemlock. People took that data and said, "Douglas-fir decays very slowly compared to Coweeta because it's really cold and wet out there. Coweeta is warm and wet." It's really temperature then, isn't it? Yeah, it's just colder at Andrews. The problem with that, and it sounded logical, but when we actually started putting it into an experiment, and we'd gotten the results, we found a given size hemlock decays at about the same rate as Douglas-fir, at least the first decade or so. Same rate. Why did they get that early result? Because they were measuring Doug-fir this big, like a meter across, and hemlocks, 30 centimeters across. What we found was, there's a tremendous effect of size. And Doug-fir does decay slightly slower than hemlock, don't get me wrong. But the major effect they were recording, was one of size. And that was the classic result, still out in the literature there. When I first came on board, that was one of the classic stories. Wow, these species are really different. So that was just an example of where this chronosequence approach can be misleading. When you put together what sounds like a good story, but then when you test it with an experiment over time, it isn't necessarily true.

Geier: Part of the study you were working on, to put together a long-term study like that, sounds like what you're saying is you need to have a very clear idea up front, so you have good testing points. This is what we've done so far, and this is what we're looking for next.

Harmon: Yes. That's right.

Geier: So that grant structure kind of encourages that kind of thought process.

Harmon: Yeah, I think so. It isn't a fishing expedition. And that's part of the problem we had early on, we were on a fishing expedition. We covered things from the nutrient-cycling, to the insects, to the plants that grow on the logs, to all these things. There hadn't been anything done, so we were going to do it all. We were going to be the wood decay center of the world. Which we kind of are now, de facto. But nobody else is interested in creating such a center. And we had to kind of learn that fact slowly. We were pretty stubborn.

Geier: I was going to say, flexibility sounds like an asset, and what you're saying is the reverse?

Harmon: Well, no, there is some flexibility. But I think that you need that to keep a really solid thing to build on. It can't be, as Fred Cox thought, the inverse of Sir Hillary's comment, "Why did you climb it? Because it's there." Scientists use the inverse, "Why did you study it? Because nothing's there." And that didn't sell real well. It's just not competitive. Plus, it's sloppy thinking. If you think hard enough about it, you'll come up with some things that are pretty profound. For example, that basic model we had of why size and species were different that I came up with back in '83, is now the basis of a simulation model that we're building that's gonna be applied all over the world, because, basically, we found the underlying controls. Now, the rates of those things are all different everywhere. But, it applies. It's a very general kind of model we had and were investigating. Now we know that it basically works, we can run with it.

Geier: What about some disadvantages, some problems, with that structure? Do you see any?

Harmon: Well, you're talking about inflexibility, but I think right now, I have probably a lot of long-term studies. Maybe more than average, if I listed them: there's the log study, we have a branch study, we have a long-term root decay study that I have with a graduate student that's a decade-long study. I have another, sort of a global-level branch decay study and log study, that's like a ten-year duration. I followed these elk exclosures for 15 years. And I've worked with Steve Acker and Sarah Greene and Art McKee on long-term vegetation measurements. All these long-term studies, I love them. But it's to the point where I can't do any short-term studies anymore. It's hard for me to do. I don't have the time. The commitment is overwhelming. Now I admit, I've gone overboard. And what I'm trying to do as I move through is try and turn those things over to graduate students or other people, so I can get some flexibility.

Geier: What are your priorities for teaching or communicating the results of your work? You talk quite a bit about graduate students, and my understanding was that for quite a while here you were on a courtesy appointment here at OSU, but you integrate a lot of the work you've done with the graduate program.

Harmon: Yeah, several things went on. For years, I had money allocated for graduate students, and the budgets would be cut by about that amount. I don't know if it was deliberate, but it was impossible for me to get graduate students. So, the first priority actually was to get technician support. Jay Sexton was a technician who's worked on the log study for probably to seven to eight years, something like that. So, my priority was to get funding for him. Then, with that being secured, I had some success, and then, I started looking into students. The first student I had was Chen Hua, who's from China, and I got involved with him on an exchange, an LTER-related exchange, sponsored by the Man and Biosphere program, but on wood decay. He was doing a project like that, I helped advise him, then he came to the US and got some training, he went back to China, and came back. He was the first one. I knew Chen real well, and we were very interested in doing some kind of project. So, we got into this root decay thing. Then, I got funding for another student on a grant. I was amazed. Finally, I had funding for two students. Then I started to realize that for me to advance, I need to have students and involve students more with the research I'm doing. I'm just doing too many things. There was a lot of stuff I was missing by just having technicians. The education element wasn't really there that much.

One of the problems I had early on when I was promoted to assistant professor, was they failed to tell me at OSU I had to apply to be on the graduate faculty. These are six-year academic appointments, so I had a three-year, mid-term review, and they asked me why I didn't have any students. I didn't know, because I was amazed no students had shown up. Well, I wasn't on their list, so no one knew I was available. Right after that, I started to get a lot of students, and I'd be on committees as grad rep or substituting for people who had dropped off. I got involved in a whole bunch of committees and started realizing I needed to get more involved with the students. That they were bringing in a dimension that technicians didn't bring.

Geier: How would you characterize that?

Harmon: The technicians are professionals, and they're paid to know the answers. I think up the absurd things we have to do, and sometimes we think them up together. But they really translate them into doable projects. I help them. I've always believed I should be out there helping, especially on big projects, in setting them up. So a lot of times I'll work with them as an extra hand. Nonetheless, they sort of bring that professional dimension and experience, as they usually have a lot of experience. The graduate students don't bring much experience, but they bring a lot of energy, and they bring a focus to specific questions that neither I or the technicians do. We're stretched thin maintaining things. But, we're maintaining lots of things. And the students can bring a focus that neither I nor the technicians can bring. I try to integrate, and I do integrate the technicians in with the students. They're introduced. The technicians provide guidance, and sometimes manpower, and extra hands, but they're not a substitute for the graduate students. I mean, the graduate students have to take command of their project. So initially, with Chen Hua, we probably did a little bit more than we should have. When we saw him floundering, we just stepped in and did things. But we're kind of working out a system now, where we can let students twist in the wind just long enough to learn something. If it's really going south, we'll come in and save the day. But we try and let them go as far as they can.

Geier: The shift to using graduate students sounds like it's fairly recent?

Harmon: It is. I wasn't a player at all in the beginning and I became pretty key in setting up an experiment. Then I sort of played a key advisor role, and it increased through time. At the end of LTER 3, Fred was relying on me a lot for advice, sort of as a sounding board. There were other people helping too, though. I'm not the only one. I was becoming more important in that way. Actually, as we wrote LTER 4, I played a major role in taking lessons of LTER 3 and applying them to that proposal and how it was structured. Fred had been at the helm for a long time. So, the plan would be eventually, that I would be the LTER main PI, conditioned on several things. But I realized that I really need more technician support and a good set of students to carry out my work, because I would soon not be able to do it. It's like I don't know how I'm gonna do, but I do know this. It's like the distance between setting up a study, the technical part, and the science part. If you're gonna do the technical sett-up, you have to do 100 percent, or 99 percent, something like that. A large proportion. It's not a trivial exercise. If you're gonna be the scientist, you've gotta do that. And if you're going to be trying to integrate these people, you can't be trying to do your science. You can do some of it, but really, it's a full-time job. You can't kind of half do that job. If you're gonna do it, you have to do the job.

Geier: Do you see yourself now moving more towards -- ? [LTER context/HJA-PI work]

Harmon: Well, I'm hoping to be sort of a cheerleader and a supporter, like Fred has been. You know, Fred really did get a lot of money in LTER during his tenure to do his stuff on disturbance. He got a lot of that through the Forest Service. But he put an incredible amount into guiding research and giving direction and focus, and getting the group to try and come into consensus. That takes a lot of work. Both figuring out what the consensus might be, so he could lead, but also, pushing the group when they need to be pushed. The main hang-up now is I'm still all soft money, and I can't do that job in this position. I have to have support, because I'll have to drop the thing that keeps me going on soft money. I can't be a mediocre scientist and a stellar leader. The science funding will dry up. That won't work. So more and more, I've realized that this transition is coming. Also, as I got promoted from assistant to associate professor, I realized that the things I need to do are different. The expectations are different. It's not just enough to be a slam bang scientist doing lots of research. You're expected to do more, provide more leadership.

Geier: And you've become more student-focused, too?

Harmon: More student-focused, the time for having an actual course. I taught small courses and honors courses for students, but a real course. A real curriculum, a contribution, but can't do it on soft money. So, there's lots of things I cannot do. My peers expect me to be able to go on review proposals. I've done some of that. But I can't afford six weeks to do that.

Geier: No. Your list is long-term projects. It's pretty mind-boggling to think of the time commitment involved there.

Harmon: There's a lot. In fact, I've paid a price for that. I've had problems mentally trying to hang on, and find a different way to do it. I've sorta come from the mold of you just push harder, you just keep pushing harder. Well, I found out you can only get so far, and then you need to think about another way. It doesn't serve you forever as a way of doing it.

Geier: So, your concept is to mentor people like Chen Hua along to pick up some of this science work to give time for more?

Harmon: Yeah. And I had one post-doc, too. I have a whole bunch of studies going in Russia, but that's not all my work. I'm doing other projects too.

Geier: Yeah. Sure.

Harmon: The idea is to find people to pick up the work at the post-doc level, eventually. So, maybe Chen Hua or someone else will do that for the decay studies. I've already got someone working on stuff we do in Russia, who kind is in charge of those now and he runs those studies.

Geier: You were talking earlier about applied research and basic plans for your work. Could you talk just a little bit about who you consider your most important audience, or audiences, and how important it is for scientists to convey knowledge?

Harmon: Well, there's a whole bunch there. I think our primary audience is scientists. We should be preparing for peer-reviewed, very-high quality science that will have an impact on how we think about the world, basically is the message there. I think, ultimately, that does trickle out in how the educated public is concerned about and thinks about the world. You can look at the issues that are brought out now about preservation of old growth, and really a lot of those issues had their origins in the IBP days. Discoveries about what's going on an actual old-growth forest. That's kind of a slow process, but it's not the only kind of communication that's important with the peers. I'm a very strong believer in what we call gray literature. There are some things that we owe in terms of documenting our science and methodologies and databases that we have to do. It's not just getting the cream of the cream, but we've gotta have some milk in that pitcher, too. I think the role in terms of the public is important, although I haven't spent a lot of time on that. We mostly do it through news contacts, so they can help us translate. It's sort of depending on when issues are hot or not. Right now, there's a lot of stuff on carbon sequestration and greenhouse gases for the upcoming summit. I'm getting called a lot about that recently.

Geier: Do you have journalists who kind of keep in regular contact with you?

Harmon: No. It's been a different crop each time. On that front, glad to provide information. We've had a couple press releases. Frankly, we've not had good luck through OSU getting our message out. Hasn't been good luck. We've done better on our own with reporters. Fred has good contacts and there are some people, but largely, we have to touch bases every time on issues we cycled, in the five years or whatever it takes to recycle. I've done things with school kids, I don't know if I have this year. I did a thing called the Magic Schoolbus. I didn't do it, but I was a consultant on it. Basically, it tells kids about decay, which is funny. It actually tells some things about wildlife management, wood, and ecosystems.

Geier: That was incorporated into the program?

Harmon: They knew about me, asked if I'd help, and I said yes. So there's a series called the Magic Schoolbus on PBS. And then, there's one on the Rod Squad. That's the one I helped on. And they had a book from that too. Actually, that was developed from the video series. I wasn't directly involved in the book, but a lot of ideas and guidance were there in the book nonetheless.

Geier: Who were they?

Harmon: Scholastic puts it out.

Geier: Okay.

Harmon: I'll bring one in for you to see. It's pretty funny. There have been other cases that haven't worked. There was this thing called Microcosmos or something, which got in touch with me but never really went anywhere. Some of that's for specific kids. And National Geographic, we'll be asked to provide photos, or mostly captions to photos, actually they get their own photos, better than we can take. I've done that for the canopy crane and there was a description of old-growth forests in the Northwest, and a drawing of a log and I had to check out whether they had it right. Well, for example, in the Magic Schoolbus, they had mosses growing inside a log with no light. I had to point out that these were photosynthetic plants so they needed some photons. They said, "Oh, we thought it'd look nice with moss artistically, but....." So, I think it's real important, but I had to balance it with my needs of survival in the soft money arena. So, I can't do all of that. But, when it's not gonna be a huge involvement, sure I get involved.

Geier: Do you think the Andrews group is typical or atypical in doing those kinds of things?

Harmon: Well, I don't know. I have a sense we're atypical, but I could be wrong. Let's say I haven't done a lot of surveying on my own. I think the LTERs are pretty involved in that kind of thing in general. I know the Palmer Station had an interactive web-page, live feed from Antarctic, where you could ask Francis questions. I think we might do some of that in the future, things that don't cost us a lot in time, but would get us interaction with the public more, also in terms of policy sometimes. I just wrote a letter to a Congressional committee on resources about a proposed thing, on carbon stores and advising them, in fact, there were some real problems with what they had there. They had to really think about what was going on here. I've also done it by publishing articles. The best story I'd give you is the Forest Service is supposed to clear up old growth to store more carbon. The idea being, to take up carbon from the atmosphere that the old forests weren't growing and the new forests were. So logically, get rid of those non-growing forests and get growing forests. But, we knew from our research that there were some problems with that perspective. In fact, major problems, as replacing old forest with young forest was going to release carbon into the atmosphere. So, Jerry Franklin and I and Bill Ferrell wrote a little article to Science. We had a press release come out with it. Within days two things happened: the Forest Service disavowed any knowledge of this proposed program, and they were searching for ways to get me fired. But I didn't work for them. And senators, I think Barbara Mikulski [cited in footnotes in the publication, they were Senators R.H. Murkowski and T. Stevens, R-AK], was one of them who had made lots of statements about this, suddenly said, "Oh, I never said that. No, no, no." So that really short-circuited that whole program, just by publishing the paper. We did advise them earlier and that was a mistake, and they were not listening. So, by putting it out in Science and having all these papers cover, it got covered in Arabia, and everywhere. People were sending me clippings from all over the world.

Geier: Do you have a copy of that?

Harmon: 1990. Yeah, I can give you a copy of the paper.

Geier: Yeah, I'd like to get a copy of that.

Harmon: It's interesting. I think it got published in Japan. I think the people who proposed this were really embarrassed that they hadn't listened.

Geier: Huh.

Harmon: Unfortunately, with the high leadership in the Forest Service, that has been true a lot. Maybe until recently.

Geier: That reminds me a lot of the reaction to a lot of the work.

Harmon: He probably told people who were managing that this is a concern, and they just lit up. That's what we got.

Geier: Do your kids ever go up to your site?

Harmon: I have one child, and yeah, he went up. He knows all about it. He's always giving me grief, "Oh Dad, you're just some deadwood nut." We joke about it. He's helped me set up research. When we first started, we were surveying these logs. He's getting a little better, but we were surveying where the logs were and were putting these posts in. He'd go around as a toddler, he'd yank the posts out and he'd throw them. They were brightly colored. You'd have someone tapping at your leg and he'd have the post that you'd just spent an hour surveying in.

Geier: (Chuckle).

Harmon: But now, he helps out. We went on a trip to do a study in Wyoming and he helped me with that. The other day we were doing studies on termites, because they release methane. So, this tree was getting eaten by termites, so let's see what they do. How much do they "fart" out in methane? That interested him. He chopped it up and brought them into the lab and measured it.

Geier: How old is he again?

Harmon: He's ten.

Geier: Okay.

Harmon: So, I'll probably be getting more involved in the school because he's getting old enough that the kids' science actually means something to him, and he's interested by it.

Geier: That's Russell?

Harmon: Yeah, Russell. So, especially if I wasn't going back to this hunting for salary all the time, I'd probably do more of that, actually. Maybe we'd set some things up on the web for students. That'd be kind of fun I think. Interesting fun facts about forests.

Geier: You'd need to get funding from somewhere besides NSF to do that?

Harmon: Maybe, maybe not. Or, we'd just do it. The funny thing about the web is, in relative terms, it's pretty cheap. You don't have to print anything, and not only that, but in terms of reviewing and stuff. It's not quite as rigorous. There's not the time commitment. Doesn't have to be as polished. In fact, you know, kind of outlining stuff is easier to access than sheets of print. So, there's something that you can do that isn't that expensive. I don't know. We'll have to think about it. We wouldn't turn down money. But, I wouldn't want that hanging us up, because I figure that's a pretty important connection.

Geier: I am curious if Russell had an impact on your decision to do the Magic Schoolbus?

Harmon: Oh sure. I knew that would be a gas for him. I probably would have done it anyway because it was pretty fun. But, actually what happened was, I read those kinds of books to him, the originals that were excellent. There was the trip to the water works, and to the center of the earth, and to the ocean, just excellent. I think this series, the new one is not quite as good. But I knew how good they were and how much they influenced his thinking about science. It wasn't so much Russell, per se, but he exposed me to that aspect. And I kind of could see how he reacted. So, I knew it was a good investment.

Geier: Well, I think we'll call it quits.