How I decide what to research


Gillmanscreenshot_2by Guest Author Jeff Gillman of the University of Minnesota. Noticing that his current research subjects range from root slicing
to gravel beds and mycorrhizae, I asked Jeff how he chooses them and got this thorough answer.

That’s never an easy question and it’s just been getting harder
over the years.  We work closely with state park boards, private tree care companies, nurseries,
master gardeners, and to a somewhat lesser extent the general public to find
out what their major concerns are.  For example, people want to plant elms but there is concern over Dutch Elm Disease, so my research group and I
have spent the last 9 years looking at Dutch Elm Disease-resistant elms
here in Minnesota to find out which ones grow best here.

We really don’t have to go looking very far for potential research
projects.  Everyone seems to have questions about something or another. 
Do hydrogels work?  There’s a winter of research.  Do slugs cross over
eggshells?  A few weeks in the summer to figure out the best methods for
a research test, then a few days of testing.  Is it really a good idea
to prune my tree’s roots before it’s planted in the ground?  My research
group and I have been working on that for about seven years now. 

Show me the money
All of
this makes it sound as though finding a research project is pretty
easy.  Well….yes it is.  The hard part is funding them.  When I began my job as a professor 10 years ago we had a
lot of money from the state or
federal government.  It comes with expectations that the research will be useful and fit well with my teaching duties, but other than that this money is quite
flexible.  Unfortunately, over the years this funding has decreased, mainly due to the economy, so to keep doing research we have to find grants from sponsors.

Now grants are actually a good idea because they’re usually available for subjects people really care about – like elm disease.  Unfortunately that also means sometimes taking on projects we’re only slightly interested in to
meet salaries.  For example, this past year I ran two trials on herbicides for a pesticide company.  Not a big deal, but I would rather
have spent my time looking at a pet project that I haven’t yet found
funding for on grafting Japanese maples to improve their cold
tolerance.  We’ve been able to find good sponsors for some of our
best projects but there are still tons of them we’d dearly love to take on if we could just find the funding. 

How much money?
The cost of research projects varies widely, as you’ll see from these examples.  A project that we recently conducted
on the fertility needs of hazelnuts cost us about $35,000 per
year for four years.  A good study on techniques for planting a tree would take 3-10 years and average about $7,000 per year.  A study of whether hydrogels actually work cost us
about $1,500.  The study on whether slugs will cross eggshells?  That was
just me having fun. 

Research expenses are typically space rental (our greenhouse and field space isn’t free), buying plants (though
often we get a donor, and Bailey’s Nursery has been especially good to
us), and purchase of scientific equipment, but the biggest expense of all is salaries.  My salary is
paid for by the government, but everyone who works for me is paid,
at least in part, by grants. 

It’s probably worth noting at this point
that of those dollars that some of you have spent on my books, I’ve donated a significant portion (20 – 30%) back into
research at the University of Minnesota.  I do the same with much of the money I
receive in speaker fees.

If any of you are interested in a research
project I would love to hear about it.  Then we’ll see if your ideas make it over the hurdles listed below.

So, what are my criteria for doing a research project?
1.  Is
this a worthwhile project that will be helpful to someone (the nursery
industry, gardeners, landscapers, the general public, etc.)
2.  Can we
conduct this project with our expertise?
3.  Can we find some way to fund
4.  Can we do it without funding?
5.  Will it be fun?  I know that
one sounds silly, but it’s true.  You’ve got to love what you do.  Everyone
that I’m associated with here and at other universities loves their job.  We
love it because we get to do what we’ve always dreamed of doing:  working
with plants (and science) for a living!  And we’ll keep loving it as long as we do projects that keep us and the people we instruct informed and, yes, entertained.


  1. A cold-hardy Japanese maple??!!! Tell me where to send the money.
    I’m in Minneapolis and I’m only partly joking.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to spell that out. It was really helpful as well as interesting. And yes, I’ll take one of those cold hardy Japanese maples in my Wisconsin garden. It can play with all the Korean ones that Ed Hasselkus has us planting!

  3. I know I asked Allan Armitage to write on this topic, so it is good to see you write about it Jeff.

    I imagine it can be a difficult dance at times between universities, researchers and grant providers in the business world, even more so in stingy economic times. There is certainly common ground between business and farmers and gardeners. We want good healthy productive plants and workable solutions to growing challenges. Business wants to sell us products and services that work and that folks will keep buying. It sounds like a win win situation.

    Oh if only this world was a utopia. I came upon this horrifying post only a couple of days ago about a college in NC just west of me.

    I had to ask if this was a joke.

  4. During my four years as a grad student in horticulture at the “U” the process and challenges of funding research projects was never addressed as clearly as you just did in this post.

    In fact, if a grad seminar doesn’t already exist on this topic in the department, you just killed two birds with one stone as this post provides a strong outline for a semester-long, one or two credit grad seminar!

    Very well done!

  5. Ditto to what Terry said.
    I was involved in several research projects when at the Arnold Arboretum and never really understood the financial technicalities of it all.

    Thanks for articulating it .

  6. I confess I never thought about the costs of horticultural research – although the time that is required has always been clear. We owe you – and other researchers – a lot.

  7. Ciscoe Morris recommends Black Lace Elderberries as an alternative for Japanese maples in cold climates. WSU has already studied planting techniques, hydrogels, pruning, compost tea fallacies that can be found in The Informed Gardener book by Linda Chalker Scott.
    Why should big gov pay for research on altering an ornamental for aesthetic purpose?

  8. Old Kim: Jobs and economic development is one reason why the gov pays for research. Spin off from college research into the commercial world can be big big business. Which means more taxes and more money for the gov.

  9. Old Kim

    Great question. WSU is the government same as UMN is. Linda Chalker Scott and myself and others like us rely on each others research. It is sometimes difficult to understand, but it is vital that there is redundancy — we must redo each others research to ensure that it is valid. Without redundancy we’d still think that DDT was safe!

    Why should big gov pay for us to work on an ornamental? I’m not asking them to (beyond a portion of my salary). I won’t work on this problem until I find some entity — such as a nursery group — to fund it.

    That said, there are certainly groups that think people like myself and Linda Chalker-Scott aren’t needed because the work can be done by private industries. I don’t agree with them (Private industry researchers may skew results to their benefit), but I certainly respect their opinions.

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