Burley, who at the time was studying the chromosomes of several conifer species, remembers seeing an illustration in the paper that made him think to himself — which he now recalls with a laugh — “I can do better than that!” More importantly, he knew that he wanted to work alongside Mergen at Yale.
Over the next several years Burley would indeed work alongside Mergen as he earned a Master’s degree and Ph.D. at Yale. Burley, whose work across the globe during five decades has helped transform the field of forest research, says his career accomplishments might not have been possible without the years he spent at Yale — or without his mentor.
“I remember, we had to be in the Greeley Lab before [François] arrived each morning, at 8 o’clock, and we had to be there long after he left, late at night,” Burley says. “All of us hesitated to be the first to claim that we were tired and wanted to go home.
“I wouldn’t want to face that again now, but I am certainly glad I did it because it not only gave me the knowledge but the discipline to plan and conduct a decent research program.”
Burley, who is an Emeritus Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford University, and the former Director of the Oxford Forestry Institute,will return to F&ES this weekend to receive a Distinguished Alumnus Award.
In the years since he left Yale, Burley and his colleagues have helped to improve forestry practices throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and in vulnerable forest regions across the world.
After completing his Ph.D. at Yale in 1965, Burley spent four years in Central Africa. Working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he helped set up research laboratories in forest genetics and tree breeding that would strengthen research and forest resources in the three nations then known as the Federation of Central Africa (now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi).
“It was a great experience that resulted in quite a few publications,” he said. “But more importantly we had some impact on the development of their national programs — at least two of which are still very active and productive.”
He then returned to Oxford, where he would spend the rest of his career in three different roles: as the genetics research officer in the Commonwealth Forestry Institute, as a University Lecturer in Forestry, and most recently as Director of the Oxford Forestry Institute and Professor of Forestry in the University. But through the years Burley also has done extensive consultancy work for a wide range of developing countries, agencies, NGOs, and charities.
He says that many factors influence the success of research organizations. They need strong, creative and supportive leadership at all levels; encouragement of staff and recognition of successful outcomes; political and financial support from the organization and policymakers; appropriate equipment (although “not necessarily the latest in a catalogue”); and the ability and willingness of staff at all levels to communicate their work for a range of audiences, including peers, administrators, media, and the public.
“Above all,“ he said, “it requires skilled, experienced, cooperative and dedicated staff where cooperation includes collaboration with staff of other disciplines, institutions, and countries.”
Throughout his career he has also been a member of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the largest global network of forest researchers. In 1972 he established the first Working Party dealing specifically with tropical forest genetics with longtime colleague Garth Nikles, a tree breeder in the Queensland Department of Forestry in Australia. From 1996 until 2000 he was IUFRO’s president. “That,” he says, “had always been a professional aspiration.”
While reflecting on five decades spent in the forestry sector, Burley calls attention to the themes selected by IUFRO through the years for its World Congresses. As suggested by their titles — from “Forestry in a World of Limited Resources” in 1976 to “Linking Technology and Tradition” in 2005 — it’s clear, he says, that the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same: People need forests.
But he has also observed some definitive trends that have re-shaped forest management worldwide.