Published 2020-03-25

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Interdisciplinary science made Annika Nordin wiser

For eight years, Annika Nordin headed Mistra’s Future Forests programme. Now, several years after it ended, research on the future of Swedish forests is continuing under the same name. Basking in the glory of Future Forests has become a popular pastime.

Future Forests is a strong brand to which many want to lay a claim. So believes Professor Annika Nordin of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå, who directed the programme for eight years.

One explanation for this is the farsighted nature of the programme, which thereby helped to add new issues to the agenda. The initiative also moved interdisciplinary forest research forward. As well as producing over 450 scientific articles, including one in Nature Communications, Future Forests won excellent ratings in international reviews, especially because it created a good environment for interdisciplinary research collaboration and cooperation with society.

For Nordin herself, Future Forests also meant personal development.

Annika Nordin.

‘I’m a wiser person today. Even as a child, I was a very geeky scientist type. But by working with social scientists and humanities scholars, I learnt lots and, over time, became quite good at interdisciplinarity. I understand other people’s theoretical frameworks and perspectives easily, and that’s been very useful.

‘And, of course, it’s been frustrating that interdisciplinarity takes so much time, especially at first,’ she adds.

Immense respect for forest resources

However, her attitude towards forests has not changed. Since childhood, she has had a profound relationship with forests, based on her upbringing in a combined farm and forest setting. The forest was then an extension of the farm, starting just beyond the cow pasture.

‘I went there when I wanted to be alone — and that was quite often, because I had lots of little siblings and parents who were busy with milk production. Or just because I wanted to pick berries.’

Nordin says she has great respect for the resource that forests represent for us humans.

‘To me, the forest is infinitely big and totally fascinating in its rich variety. Just behind the house, far out in the countryside where I now live, there are, in a way, several different forests, with an endless number of species of animals and plants. I’m there every day.’

In the interface between different interests

Harald Hovland, head of the international assessment team, praised Future Forests for its innovative thinking — both in its scientific aspects and in capturing various stakeholders’ visions of the future. Under the Future Forests umbrella, virtually everyone with an interest in forests gathered: forest owners, nature interest groups and relevant government agencies. And during the programme, forests attracted keen interest in the public debate.

‘For example, the question of bioeconomy came up. Then we started a debate about whether forests are enough for everything, and that made us unpopular everywhere. Neither the forest industry nor nature conservation interests wanted to accept the need to prioritise what forests are for.’

In the interface between these different interests, Nordin and her Future Forests colleagues often had to act as mediators and facilitators, while also making a stand for science.

‘We broadened the horizons of everyone joining in the forest debate. We were there, we’re still there and we’re highly qualified. We became the scientific home base in various conflict-filled areas,’ she says.

Continuing Future Forests’ research

But how is the research in Future Forests continuing now that the programme is over? After all, the issues Future Forests highlighted are far from resolved. Outstanding questions include how best to use forests, what they should supply and how interests that are often conflicting can be met.

These questions themselves cause conflicts to an equally high degree.

During the final phase of Future Forests, intensive work was done to ensure its continuation. The first idea was to make it a research centre, but Future Forests became a ‘future platform’ at SLU instead. There, the work continues as a collaboration among SLU, Umeå University and the Forestry Research Institute of Sweden (Skogforsk). Over the past two years, they have raised about SEK 20 million in new research funding, including from Formas (the government research council for sustainable development) and Sweden’s National Forest Programme.

According to Nordin, this is a way to utilise the skills that were built up within Future Forests — skills that are not just about scientific production.

‘We speak the language in every area. That applies particularly to our young researchers. Future Forests’ researchers perform just as well at a forest owners’ association’s annual general meeting as at Almedalen during Politicians’ Week.’

Nordin still works half-time at Future Forests, mainly heading research and communication. She is also researching forest management; supervising two doctoral students; and training foresters on a basic course in ecology and tree biology.

‘It means that I get to be out in the woods a lot,’ she says.

Arena for sharing knowledge

Future Forests retains its important role in issues related to the climate and forests, and Nordin therefore often has to act as a sounding board for politicians and government agencies.

‘We’ve created an arena for knowledge exchange between forest policy and science. It’s thanks to Future Forests that this arena is so well defined today.’

First and foremost, it is officials at ministries and government agencies dealing with forests who turn to the programme.

‘But the other week, the Minister for Rural Affairs was here in Umeå, at a meeting on Sweden’s National Forest Programme held by the Swedish Forest Agency. Future Forests was responsible for the scientific content.’

How do you see forests in 30 years’ time?

‘Forests will look more or less as they do today. They grow slowly; the trees that exist then are already standing here today. Of course, climate change has an impact, but it’s happening much more slowly than our own ageing. So on a large scale — the whole landscape — the changes in a period of just 30 years will be relatively hard to see,’ Nordin says.

Text: Thomas Heldmark