[VIEWPOINT]Nature won't dance to a time clockThe International Congress of Ecology, the largest gathering of ecologists and environment specialists around the world, ended a few days ago. This was the eighth congress, but the first to be held in the 21st century, and it was held in Seoul, the capital of that little country in Asia so famous for its relentless economic growth.
The South Korean hosts had some difficulties -- the conference was scheduled quite late -- but visiting ecologists from all over the world agreed that it had been the best congress ever held. Though I feel slightly self-conscious in praising our achievement, the Seoul Congress of Ecology affirmed the position of South Korea in the world's ecology field, much as the World Cup did in general international society. Maybe it had not quite been the semifinals, but I flatter myself thinking that it could have been the quarterfinals.
A common topic of conversation that arose spontaneously in the congress, without prior coordination, concerned the importance of long-term ecological research. Starting with the opening ceremony keynoter, Professor Peter Grant from Princeton University, it seems that almost all speakers discussed the importance of this topic.
In a few days, the World Summit on Sustainable Development will be held in Johannesburg. Following the spirit of the 1992 Rio Declaration, the central agenda will once again be sustainable development. This was also one of the most important themes of the Seoul Congress of Ecology. But the Seoul Congress was a conference of scholars, not a summit meeting, and in the concluding Seoul Declaration, long-term ecological research once again became the central issue.
Professor Grant has devoted 30 years to the study of Galapagos finch species, the birds that provided Charles Darwin with the fundamental concept in his theory of natural selection. His study has revealed with accuracy and certainty all kinds of evolutionary changes that could not have been observed with merely a few years of research.
A study on titmouse species has been continuing at Oxford University for more than half a century, and Cambridge University also has been pursuing for several decades a study of deer that live on a small island off the coast of Scotland.
Though not without a sense of delay, I began a study on the behavior of magpies in 1997 with the determination that long-term ecological research should be established in Korea, too. Magpies are found widely throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but no place has as dense a magpie population and as favorable research conditions as Korea.
Thanks to this, Korea has become a mecca for magpie study in less than five years since the research was started. An extensive investigation of the breeding habits, vocal communication, nesting, feeding and storing habits, and also of the genetic distribution of the magpies around the world, is being carried out in our laboratory.
Evolution has taken place in the world of scholars as well and the merciless incentive of "publish or perish" has now become law. I suffered the embarrassment of having my five-year grant for conducting my magpie study halted after the first year when I couldn't produce the quantity of thesis papers that the other researchers were churning out. That is why I decided to publish the results of my research in the third year of my magpie study.
However, nature, as always, refused to become contained in man's knowledge. Due to the bitter cold weather of the third winter of the study, I observed such a discrepancy between that year's data and the data from the previous two years -- which had been more or less consistent -- that I could not publish my thesis. I had no choice but to wait another year -- only to see an average year's winter weather replaced by a mischievous spring that once again threw a completely different set of data at us. Nature once again told me to wait another year, the fifth in my research, to publish my results.
In this way, ecology research is inevitably a long process that requires us to be patient.
Joining us at the International Congress of Ecology was the head of the long-term ecological research team at the U.S. National Science Foundation. This agency has allocated a considerable amount of its budget for long-term ecological research and is well into the process of exploring rational research methods.
Our own Korea Science and Engineering Foundation and the government departments that are in charge of the science research budget should take this opportunity to change their tendency to insist on bottom-line outcomes at the end of one or two years and to develop instead a long-term outlook.
All the ecologists who participated in the congress applauded the "10-year project" of our Ministry of Environment. We did it in economy. Now we can do it in environment.
The writer is a professor of biology at Seoul National University.
by Choe Jae-chun