2 Apr 2009, 12:55pm
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Revitalizing Science in a Risk-Averse Culture: Reflections on the Syndrome and Prescriptions for Its Cure

G. H. Pollack. 2005. Revitalizing Science in a Risk-Averse Culture: Reflections on the Syndrome and Prescriptions for Its Cure. Cellular and Molecular Biology 51, 815-820

Gerald Pollack is Professor of Molecular Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in the Dept. of Bioengineering, University of Washington, Seattle WA

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


This paper considers problems with the scientific culture and granting systems, the most important of which is an aversion to risk. Grant awards tend to be “safe” rather than bold. This discourages the fresh approaches that may bring important breakthroughs. The paper then suggests remedies that could restore the scientific enterprise to one that is friendlier to fresh thinking.


The thoughts contained herein arise in part from my experience as a frequent dissenter from prevailing orthodoxy, and in part from my experiences attending workshops convened to address problems with granting systems. Inevitably, such experiences generate ideas. In this case, they have brought modest insights into how granting systems might better serve transformative approaches that challenge the status quo. At present, such approaches have little chance of success. Yet they are the very ones that could bring spectacular advances.

Here, I outline the problems as I see them with today’s system of doing science, and their etiology. I also suggest remedies that could enhance scientists’ natural proclivity to seek the truth. Some of these thoughts have been passed on to the funding agencies in the context of campaigns designed to make the peer-review system more responsive to highly innovative, “out of the box” approaches.

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2 Dec 2008, 8:10pm
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Missouri Compromise

Stephen J. Pyne. 2007. Missouri Compromise. Copyright 2007 Stephen J. Pyne.

Full text [here]

Review with selected excerpts by Mike Dubrasich

Stephen J. Pyne is more than the World’s Foremost Authority on Fire; he is our premier philosopher of fire and fire’s poet laureate. Author of more than 20 books about fire and the history of fire, Pyne is easily most prolific student of external combustion, and the most eloquent.

In his recent essay about fire in Missouri, Pyne touches on old themes but in a new landscape (for him). And in that new landscape he again demonstrates the essential nature of fire on Planet Earth: free-burning fire is inextricably bound up with humanity. This ancient fire planet has been home to a fire creature, Homo sapiens, for many tens of thousands of years, and that fire creature has usurped control. People are the Masters of Fire, and Masters of this Earth because of it. The arrangement is Faustian, though. The item cannot be returned to store. Fire is our tiger by the tail, and we can’t let go.

Missouri provides an ideal setting and history for another (delightful to the discerning reader) Pyne exposition on fire and culture and the landscapes they share. Missouri, in particular the Ozark Mountains, has an ancient history of human occupation and use. People have shaped the vegetation there through anthropogenic fire. Lightning fires are rare; human-set fires common.

But the rough and dissected terrain of the Ozarks has also played an important role, because that roughness precludes the propagation of fire across vast tracts (unlike the smooth and unbroken landscapes of the Great Plains or the Great Basin, for instance). The commingling of a landscape resistant to fire spread and waves of torch-bearing residents has led to a fire mosaic, a patchiness of burning and patchiness of the impacted vegetation.

The Ozarks are fragmented by human-set fire and fire refugia. The resulting mosaic is, perhaps, a model for fire propagation and control elsewhere. Such is Pyne’s lesson in Missouri Compromise, on the surface, but as always his teachings burn deeper than that.

He begins by reminding us that the accepted notions of fire and fire suppression lack depth. Our prevailing philosophies of fire are cursory and over-simplified, as is so much of our fast-paced, attention-deficient culture today:

… So it is that America’s fire polity has split into two dominant confederations. One looks to wilderness as a guide, and tolerates human activities insofar as they lead ultimately to their own removal. The other looks to working landscapes for which fire remains an implement for hunting, herding, logging, and other forms of sustenance that serve human economies. There is little common ground between them: a land must ultimately subscribe to one or the other. The lines between, often with legal and political sanction, are rigidly drawn. This time the national polarities do not align North and South but east and west. The wilderness ideal remains firmly anchored in the public domain of the West; the working landscape, in private ownership for the most part, or on the public lands providing recreational services, in the East.

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19 Jan 2008, 1:14pm
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The Wrath of Kuhn

Pyne, Stephen J. The Wrath of Kuhn: Meditations on Fire Philosophy. Informal talk presented to Association of Fire Ecology, November, 2006.

Full text [here]

Review by Mike Dubrasich

The paper’s title is a pun, a play on words (Steve Pyne is partial to puns, see his satirical novelette, Brittlebush Valley [here]). The Wrath of KAhn is a StarTrek movie featuring Ricardo Montalban as an angry Klingon. The wrathful KUhn in Pyne’s title is Dr. Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and popularizer of the notions of scientific paradigms and paradigm shifts.

The titular jest is an apology of sorts, because although Pyne bemoans the overuse and misuse of Kuhn’s concepts,

[C]alls for paradigm shifts are a cliché of our times, and deserve the righteous wrath of Thomas Kuhn.

he more or less calls for a paradigm shift in the scientific study of fire.

Sidenote: If any wrath is forthcoming, it will be from Thomas Kuhn’s ghost, because the Greatest Philosopher of the Post-Modern Era merged with the Infinite in 1996 at the age of 75.

Pyne’s essay is sparkling and brief, as befits a good speech, but it is also very profound. In The Wrath of Kuhn he examines three parallel but contrasting paradigms in fire science. The first is the physical view of fire. This is the dominant paradigm today:

Fire is a chemical reaction, the rapid oxidation of hydrocarbons, shaped by the parameters of its physical environment. These determine how the zone of combustion moves about the landscape. From this premise all other fire scholarship and fire practices arise. …

So dominant are these beliefs that I am willing to assert that few now among us can imagine any other configurations.

Pyne can, however, and does offer two others. The first alternative paradigm he presents is the “biological paradigm”:

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26 Dec 2007, 1:57pm
Management Philosophy
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“The Solution is Aircraft”

Pyne, Stephen J. “The Solution is Aircraft”: Aircraft and the Political Economy of Canadian Forest Fires. American Review of Canadian Studies, 2006, pp 458-477.

Stephen J. Pyne is Regents Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and author of 18 books and numerous essays. This essay derives from Pyne’s newest book, Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Introduction: Fire and the Northern Economy

The paradoxes are two, and both are well grounded in Canadian experience. The first is that institutions must reconcile the dynamics of political confederation with the rhythms of the boreal forest. The former builds on measured action, a steady pooling of many competing interests into a collective mean. The latter revels in extremes. Especially when it burns, the boreal forest goes from boom to bust to boom; and while nowhere is wildfire a bureaucratic category, the boreal landscape particularly mocks the norms, means, and statistics of aggregation that allow most agencies to plan. Almost always there is too much or too little, and never do reforms after the last firefight immediately lead to successes in the next. Instead, institutions repeatedly take a drubbing.

Aggravating the situation is the British North American Act that led to Confederation in which the provinces were granted control over their lands and natural resources. For 60 years an exception emerged in that the territory acquired from Hudson’s Bay Company, notably in the west, along with the Railway Belt and Peace River Bloc in British Columbia (B.C.), remained under the auspices of the Dominion even as provinces evolved and sprawled over those lands. Instead, the Dominion administered the resources; of particular significance was the Dominion Forestry Branch (DFB) within the Department of Interior which oversaw an archipelago of forest reserves, modeled closely on those of the United States. This estate gave the national government an active presence in and considerable leverage over how forestry might be conducted. Then in 1930 the Dominion ceded those lands to the provinces. The Dominion Forestry Branch nearly vanished, spared only because of its research capabilities. Thus, while the dynamics of the boreal environment argued for large entities, the politics of Canadian confederation pushed for smaller ones. That is the first paradox.

The second is that the Canadian scene matches the world’s most savage fires against its most advanced machines. Here, free-burning flame meets internal combustion. For Canada, however, combining the primitive with the technologically modern is far from unusual. Harold Innis early pointed out the apparent incongruity of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the industrial tip of global capitalism’s spear, thrusting through the Canadian wilderness, and later observed the necessity, for a country that was both modern and dispersed, to seize the latest developments in communication and transportation. Donald Worster, less kindly, has pointed out the industrial basis for Canada’s exploitation of its natural wealth, likening the country to a technological crack-baby. That Canada should turn to industrial technology to cope with backcountry fires should surprise no one…

The apparent solution was to apply capital to acquire equipment to move water. The outcome was a magnificent expression of the Canadian genius for applied knowledge. Canada became the world authority on portable pumps and hoses, and in order to move those appliances to the flaming front, on aircraft. Planes did for fire what railroads did for wood, wheat, and minerals. Instantly, aircraft began to change the geography of Canadian fire, and reformed permanently its political economy. Equally helpful, it allowed technology to substitute for philosophy. Cansos, float-equipped Beavers, Wajax pumps, these could furnish a common medium for the Canadian fire community in ways that politics could not. Canadian fire officers would come to share technology, and the means by which they would commit technology; they would not share institutions or ends. That technology imposed its own politics of power was a consideration they ignored in their determination not to surrender the levers and throttles that governed the relationship between province and Dominion.

26 Dec 2007, 1:18pm
Management Philosophy
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Burning Border

Pyne, Stephen J., Burning Border. Environmental History, 12 (Oct 2007)

Stephen J. Pyne is Regents Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and author of 18 books and numerous essays. This essay derives from Pyne’s newest book, Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada, reviewed [here].
Full text of Burning Border [here]

Selected excerpts:

ABSTRACT — The United States and Canada approach wildland fire differently. Fire matters to both countries for reasons of economics, public safety, duty-of-care to nature preserves, and bureaucratic identity and inertia. A useful survey of their differences could focus on three simple indices: how each assesses fire threats, how each assigns responsibility for fire management, and how each relates fire protection to land use. In all three instances, each country has evolved apparently similar but in reality parallel strategies that, like their shared border, meet but don’t merge. These differences reflect larger national traits.

IT IS OFTEN SAID that fire is no respecter of borders. In fact, it respects any boundaries that affect its ability to propagate. Satellite images routinely reveal stark contrasts in fire behavior among landscapes partitioned to farming, ranching, nature preserves, public forests, shopping malls, and exurbs. The U.S.-Canada border is no exception. The delineation would remain abstractly political if both countries had identical land use, adopted similar fire policies, and managed fire the same way. They don’t. There are national styles in fire as in literature and health care. Their practices are only superficially interchangeable, like pumps and CL-215s. In their deep structure their fires differ as much as the divergent politics behind the American style of federalism and the Canadian brand of confederation.

Does fire really matter? Here an answer is simple: Canada is a large and combustible swathe of fire-planet Earth. Historically, fires swept its prairies every two or three years; combusted its Cordilleran forests every five to fifty; and devoured its boreal forest, in immense chunks, every 50-120 years, a rhythm of binge-burning equaled solely in Russia. Only its sodden outer limits, Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) and Cape Breton, have evaded serious burns. On average Canada now experiences 8,500 fires a year that burn 2.5 million hectares, although statistics mean little in a place where the episodic big burn does all of the ecological work and where fires can blister 7.5 million hectares in a summer. All this matters because Canadians have sought to shield much of their national estate from flame and now spend $500-$900 million annually on the effort, a number galloping upward. The determination to battle blazes has come from commercial concerns over timber, a need to protect vulnerable human settlements, and bureaucratic inertia. Canada’s forest fires are thus a matter of economics, public safety, duty-of-care obligations to nature preserves, and, for those agencies who fight or study them, institutional survival. In all this it resembles American cognates-with a difference.

Byway of example, reflect how each assesses fire danger, how each distributes responsibility for fire management, and how each relates fire protection to land use. (The fire communities of both countries are congenitally partial to grouping by threes-the fire triangle serving as the water cycle does for hydrologists.) In all three instances, each country has evolved apparently similar but in reality parallel strategies that, like their shared border, meet but don’t merge…

9 Nov 2007, 5:14pm
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Blazes On The New Frontier

By Stephen J. Pyne

(This essay originally appeared in the The Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2007; Page B01, see [here])

It takes only a whiff of smoke for it all to return. Sensations deeper than memory. The streaks of flame. The throb of heat. The gusts of smoke, twisting white and black like exhausted whirlwinds. A rush of adrenaline that can blow your head off. A fatigue so profound that it can rearrange your chromosomes. The sense of a world in such commotion that it seems to slow.

The big fire.

Most fires aren’t big, and most wildland firefighting is a world of routine jobs and small blazes. It’s a life of coming to know a place through its fires as a naturalist might know it through its flowers or mammals. In the deep backcountry, away from lodges and roads, the chief skill is just finding the fire — a smoking snag, a smoldering stump. Only if that first attack fails does the firefight scale up into a campaign that resembles nothing so much as the moral equivalent of war. It’s an intoxicating life, full of flame and fortune.

It was the life I knew for 15 summers as a North Rim Longshot, fighting fires in the Grand Canyon. It was a way of life that defined fire protection from its origins on the frontier of the Old West until very recent times. It was one of the founding narratives of wildland fire, the saga of smoke-chasing, the firefighter as a kind of woodsman. It was a seasonal life for seasonal workers: Fire season was a time in your life before you grew up and went on to family and career. I traded my shovel for a pencil and began a career as a smoke-chaser scholar, tracking down the long history of humanity and fire around the world.

But over the past 15 years or so, this culture of fire has encountered a dramatically different environment. The names for the new fire frontier vary — the wildland-urban interface, the I-zone, the intermix. They all describe the mingling of exurban developments with lands that are uncultivated or wild, a kind of ecological omelet. America is recolonizing its once-rural countryside. In the East, this means houses sprouting on former fields and woodlands; in the West, on ranches and landscapes abutting the public domain. The city and the wild mix in metastable compound.

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