Long-Term Research on the Niagara Frontier
Take a map of the eight western counties of New York State and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Imagine it is three-dimensional, thick like a pancake. If the thickness is the time dimension, say, one year, we have the Niagara Frontier in space-time. Botanical studies have been made throughout the Niagara Frontier over the space of more than 160 years, so one can imagine 160 pancakes stuck together. If we take pollen studies into account, the space-time view of the Niagara Frontier is thousands of years thick.
The general goal of regional botanical studies is to be able to say what plants are found in the Niagara Frontier and how the composition of the vegetation changed over time. With this information we can predict future changes, which are important in this day of increasingly rapid environmental change. This includes the extirpation of native species and the addition of new, sometimes weedy or harmful species. Since there have always been far fewer botanists than are really needed to collect and analyze the vegetation, imagine the space-time view of the Niagara Frontier with streaks representing collection activities through the map extending through time, and concentrating around areas that have been well collected, such as the region of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and various well known nature haunts of naturalists over the years.
A long-term research plan requires an evaluation of our present collections, many of which were secured by amateurs in the past, and devise a better research program than that done in the past. The product of a good research plan is the ongoing generation of summaries of changes in the vegetation, an increasingly better understanding of why such changes occur, and appreciation of emergent knowledge, new facts, connections and theories that pop up as data is gathered and analyzed.
A good research plan requires both building on the past and discovery of new facts (as well documented observations or collections). Valuable results require a thorough bibliographic evaluation of past work on the Niagara Frontier or areas of similar flora, a knowledge of what was concluded, an understanding of past methods, and complete access to the older data for any needed reanalysis. We must have a good grasp of modern methods of gathering data and its analysis. We need an ability to work with others who are dealing with similar problems, this being especially important because there are few specialists regionally and there are many groups poorly understood. Besides, science requires a marketplace of ideas to thrive, and we must expect to contribute scholarly publications.
We have relatively few collections for the huge region of space time we have to analyze. Thus, we can only infer processes from the samples we hold in our collections or from new studies. It is thus important to plan for adequate new sampling studies in areas of interest. In statistics, we need about 30 samples for the total sample to have about the same proportion of variation as in the area sampled, that is, for the sample to represent a sample space. It is more complicated in practice, when we use regression analysis and GARP (Genetic Analysis for Rule Production) to develop inferences about vegetation changes, but the idea is the same. Regionally we need to identify relatively homogeneous sample spaces to identify those areas that need sampling or which are amenable to analysis. There is much literature on the different vegetation types in New York State, and an important task is to identify similar reference areas or sample spaces regionally.
Collections-based science is a quasi-experimental field, meaning that control group studies are not set up by an experimenter but are found in nature. Thus, we identify similar vegetation types, some of which are very nearly alike but others that differ in some one way. Analyzing the changes in that differing area gives us opportunity to theorize about the substance of change and reasons for change in the vegetation. For example, Purple Loosestrife is a plant that invades marshy areas. It crowds out species that are more valuable for wildlife and it reduces the biological diversity that supports the health of an ecosystem. Evaluation of what is happening and why requires comparison of infested marshes with those that are similar but are not infested.
Museum studies of the environment fit a description of science as a bonfire at the mouth of the cave that we humans, still a rather new species, live in. It illuminates a complex and poorly understood jungle "out there." We study collections and read publications of scientific analyses to create models in our heads of what might really be going on out there in that jungle. Using those models, we foray out of our cave with greater and greater confidence in being able to survive and prosper by predicting what will happen to us next and changing our behavior accordingly. Using the vast space-time sample space of collections-based museum studies as an area for making predictions based on our past, present and future samples, we hope that the present several global environmental crises as expressed locally will be dealt with more effectively and with better understanding.
Science is defined as the gathering, organization and analysis of information about the natural world and the inference of general principles therefrom. A long-term plan for research should include our plans and expectations for each element of that "we-are-what-we-do" definition. Now, who is this "we" I¹ve been referring to throughout this essay. You and me, of course.