Getting research into policy and practice is a major challenge facing postgraduate students and other researchers. In this regard, forestry is no different than any other discipline but unlike agriculture, food, the marine and other natural resources, it has no central research institute or centre in Ireland.
As a result, there is little evidence available on the success rates of the hundreds of forestry research projects carried out in recent years. Virtually all of these have been supported from the public purse, as they are invariably carried out by universities, State organisations and public-private partnerships.
All eight projects featured at a recent seminar organised by UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science address issues that are relevant to Irish forestry, but the ultimate challenge is to ensure that their findings are adopted in Irish forest practice and policy.
Subjects covered include deer management, natural capital values of the forest estate, drought in Sitka spruce and barriers that impede agroforestry.
In addition, Elizabeth Shotten, associate professor at the UCD school of architecture, planning and environmental policy, provided the findings from architectural students on increasing the flow of structural timber through reuse.
The cross-fertilisation of research between disciplines such as forestry, architecture and biology was a welcome development at the conference as is the collaboration of private, State and a number of universities in developing major national projects such as HydroSED.
This project seeks to assess the hydrological and sediment impacts of forest operations in Coillte and private forests, and provide management guidelines.
Funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it involves wide input comprising three universities – UCD, TCD and MTU – Coillte and Green Belt.
All projects are relevant to the development of the forestry and forest products sector, but as Ireland has no forestry research institute or centre, the fate of many studies is uncertain.
How many will make it to the next level of influence or implementation is open to conjecture.
The best they can hope for is that their research will inform policy, rather than make policy.
All projects have a limited timescale to provide results, which is a major restriction on current forestry research. This could be addressed by the establishment of forestry research centre or institute as proposed by the Society of Irish Foresters (see panel below), which would provide the permanency that forestry research requires.
It is accepted that even the best and most relevant research can take years before it is accepted let alone practised.
Universities adopt the philosophy that the objective of their research should be to inform the policymakers and not to make policy, which is an understandable position, as it maintains their independence, but lessens their influence.
Maybe, they should be more proactive in influencing policymakers in adopting their research findings.
Take for example, research by University of Galway (UG) into the suitability of homegrown conifers for engineered wood manufacture.
Engineered wood – or mass wood – involves the use of technology to produce products such as glulam and cross-laminated timber (CLT) by strengthening it, so that it can be used in large structures including multi-storey buildings.
UG began research into two species – Sitka spruce and Douglas fir – 10 years ago led by Prof Annette Harte. The emphasis was on Sitka spruce, as it is widely available. A joint paper published in 2016 by UG – then NUI Galway – and Queen’s University Belfast, showed favourable results for homegrown Sitka spruce in CLT and glulam manufacture.
Building a CLT manufacturing sawmill should be the best outcome of UG research, but a few barriers prevent this.
While there is sufficient Sitka spruce available to manufacture CLT in Ireland, the technology involved is costly. No timber processor has yet to invest in CLT either in Ireland or Britain. The second barrier lies in Ireland’s outdated building regulations for either low-rise or multi-storey timber construction.
Building in mass wood is limited to 10m or three storeys, at a time when European buildings in mass wood are exceeding 80m.
So has UG research been in vain? It hasn’t because like all research, patience is required as are perseverance and promotion to get industry and policymakers sit up and take notice. Prof Harte and her team continued to promote their research results at every possible forum until policymakers and the timber industry could no longer ignore their findings.
Their findings on the suitability of Sitka spruce for engineering influenced Coillte to feature glulam Sitka beams in its innovative Visitors Centre, Avondale.
The next step is the construction of a public building using homegrown timber frame and CLT.
The changing of the building regulations will facilitate this outcome, which is currently being considered by the new Interdepartmental and Industry Timber in Construction Steering Group.
Ireland’s Forest Strategy 2023-2027 maintains that “research and innovation are key to realising the ambitious goals of the strategy”.
It acknowledges that “there are significant barriers around capacity and long-term research capacity in particular,” but it provides no structures or specific solutions on how these barriers might be overcome.
Since COFORD was downgraded from an independent forest research council in the early 1990s, the Society of Irish Foresters stated that it “is deeply concerned about the diminishing role of research in Irish forestry” in its policy position paper, A Revised Structure for Forest Research.
“In contrast to the other natural resource industries of agriculture, food and fisheries and indeed to forestry in most of the developed countries, no permanent centre for forest research currently exists in the Republic,” Dr Gerhardt Gallagher, co-author of the paper states.
The Department of Agriculture forestry strategy acknowledges the “unique dimension” of forest research including “the very long period… over which some research needs to be conducted”.
The SIF agrees with this analysis and proposes “a forest research centre be established to undertake long-term forest research in key areas that require commitment over time, such as forest performance under changing climatic conditions, tree improvement, silviculture and forest protection,” maintains Dr Gallagher.
“The centre could be incorporated in an independent forestry development agency, which the society and a wide range of stakeholders in the forestry and forest products sector have proposed.”