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Killing Cheatgrass and Shooting for the Moon

My grandfather, Grant A. Harris, wrote his Ph.D. thesis about the detrimental effects of cheatgrass (bromus tectorum) on rangeland ecology, so I’ve been taught since birth to hate this invasive plant species. So it didn’t surprise me to read that cheatgrass has become the equivalent of an eco-supervillain, wreaking havoc in farmer’s fields, rapidly spreading, and reducing wheat yield—sometimes by fifty percent.  

Microscope focusing on glass panel with sample on it

Washington State University scientist, Dr. Ann Kennedy, has successfully worked with a naturally-occurring soil bacteria that limits the depth of root growth in cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass increases the spread of wildfire, aiding the jump from plant to plant, and it afflicts livestock: lodging in the eyes and mouths of grazing cattle, not to mention having little nutritional value. For years, it’s been tenacious and incredibly prolific, out-competing native grasses and essentially “taking over” the eco-world.  Until now.  This New York Times article spotlights Washington State University scientist, Dr. Ann Kennedy, and her successful work with a naturally-occurring soil bacteria that limits the depth of root growth in cheatgrass, reducing its competitive advantage on the prairie.  

As a scientist, I was intrigued by this article because of what it didn’t say.  Dr. Kennedy, a good friend of mine and a great scientist, once told me that her bacteria experiment was the one she thought least likely to work. She’d looked at it as a kind of “shoot the moon” idea, riddled with “unknowns,” making it risky to spend too much time on.  In fact, she’d only had time to pursue this interesting and challenging experiment because she’d made time for it.

A concentrated solution of bacteria being sprayed on cheatgrass

A concentrated solution of bacteria is sprayed on fields, and over time, the organisms colonize the roots of the cheatgrass.

In a seminar she gave years ago about her work with cheatgrass, Dr. Kennedy shared her simple 60-30-10 prioritization method.  Sixty percent of her research effort was put into core projects she knew would yield publishable papers and keep her lab running.  Thirty percent of her time was spent on challenging projects that were more impactful but less likely to succeed. Finally, she put ten percent of her effort into “shoot the moon” type projects: research that was unlikely to come to fruition, but if successful, would have a dramatic impact in the world.  

In science, it’s easy to get stuck in the purely practical, only spending time on the experiments we know will work. It’s safer and won’t expose us to ridicule when things don’t go the way we hope. But, Dr. Kennedy has proven that there is value in trying things that might fail.  

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve listened to her lecture, but it still impacts the way we do research at METER. Although we spend a lot of time on projects we know will turn into finished instruments, we continue to dream up ways to produce frozen soil moisture release curves or measure leaf water potential. These ideas may not succeed, but if they do, they could have a big impact on the way we make measurements.

As I think about my team’s research priorities and the possibilities of success, I always first consider core projects: What are we really good at?  What will be a sure bet for success?  But because of Dr. Kennedy, I’ll always devote some of my time to more risky endeavors, speculating on what could happen and what might possibly change the world.  

(Read about our most spectacular example of risky research:  the collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories to send one of our sensors to Mars.)

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