Interview with Gene Likens, March 21, 2016

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Gene Likens, a former professor at Dartmouth College and Cornell University, was the president of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) from 1981-1982. In this interview, he discusses his education and his path to studying ecology. He also talks about his work at the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study as well as his research on acid rain.

Interview notes  

Gene discusses his midwestern roots and interest in baseball.  He grew up on a small farm in Indiana with lots of time outdoors, around lakes, and walking through the woods.  But he wanted to play professional baseball, and he did for two years in Kansas in the rookie leagues, making the all-star team one of those two years. 

One of his professors at Manchester College, now Manchester University, urged him to go on to graduate school, which he did after his short baseball career.  He was turned down by Cornell, where he later became head of the department.  He was accepted by Wisconsin and Indiana, went to Wisconsin, and greatly appreciated Art Hasler’s mentorship in grammar as well as science; he finished his Ph.D. in 1962. An unexpected opening occurred at Dartmouth and Gene went there in 1961 to fill the position, which initially was temporary.  He thinks of himself as “a great fan of serendipity.”   Soon he started working with colleagues there and started the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem.  His first colleagues at Dartmouth were Herb Bormann, a young botany professor, Norman Arnold, a wonderful mentor, William Ballard, Carl Wilson, and others.   

There was no ecosystem science at Wisconsin while he was there.  He took a course taught by John Neese, who used Odum’s 2nd edition, which is what got him excited about ecosystems.  He also enjoyed the limnology course from Hasler and he became his student. 

Gene worked with Herb Bormann to do something like what had been started at Coweeta.  Could you measure the chemistry of stream water like an M.D. might measure the chemistry of blood or urine?  Others involved were Johnson and Pierce.  Gene and Herb were not chemists, so both of them had to learn the chemistry.  Johnson had a geochemical background also from Wisconsin.  They learned about the atomic absorption spectrophotometer, a new instrument at the time and designed for medical purposes, and that made their whole ecosystem project possible.  They bought one of the first ones produced. They soon hired a technician to do field work, lab work, and data analysis.  He talks about John Eaton.  

His permanent positions included: Dartmouth 1963-69, then to Cornell, and in 1983 to Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.   
His interest in acid rain began when a rainwater sample collected at Hubbard Brook in 1963 was 100 times more acidic than they thought it should be, but they didn’t publish the first paper on acidity until 1972.  The first paper was called “acid rain” co-authored with Herb Bormann and Noe Johnson, and it stimulated public interest.  Previously his research career had been rather “quiet.”  The New York Times picked up the story which changed his life forever.  There was great “pushback” from the coal and auto industries. 

He describes the Clean Air Act and other laws pertaining to acid rain.     

The 1980s were the time of Ronald Reagan, but that administration was more inclined to study it than to regulate it.   

They sampled rainwater chemistry in Chile, Africa, Australia, China, and other places. 
They traced plumes in small planes.  There were not many scientific deniers, but he describes one case: Energy companies hired a room full of PhDs to contradict the acid rain science and to obfuscate the science, he says.  The long-term record at Hubbard Brook was fundamental.  He felt at one point that a contract had been put out on his career to prove him wrong, but they were not able to show that.   

Cartoons also played a role in telling “little white lies,” but they gave images to the public that acid rain was “bad stuff.”  So, cartoons also helped lead to reductions in acid rain.  Mapping acid rain and N deposition also had an influence.   
After a while, the media lost interest and funding dried up.  Dry deposition of ammonia and ammonium became of interest.  But new problems were identified, such as how acid rain destroyed soil buffering capacity.   
Gary moved to Cary Institute of Ecosystem Science in 1983, and that was one of the best decisions he ever made.  He stepped down in 2007 as president and director.  He describes the track record of the Institute, in terms of publications per year.  Institute scientists now have to generate more of their own salaries.  He describes his management philosophy.   

What are the most striking changes in the discipline of ecology? 

When he was president of ESA, there was great concern about too much emphasis on applied ecology, and there was opposition to a section on applied ecology.  But now the Section on Applied Ecology is the biggest section (see Historical Records Committee timeline, which suggests that this debate is an old one within ESA).  ESA now has a Public Affairs Office, which happened during his term.  
The development of urban ecology has been good.  Ecology as a discipline has changed by including more human-centric disciplines, which he thought was important to do. 

Today’s ecologists often are less field-oriented, or they don’t get into the field nearly as often, he thinks.  Gene gains inspiration from going to the field as often as he can.  He believes field stations are very important, and many students are trained there.   

Huge amounts of information are being generated.  He thinks the editors of ESA journals are overworked and not doing a good job, partly because of too many papers being submitted, and many reviewers being overworked.  It wasn’t like that when he entered the field.   

Funding is now much more difficult to obtain.  He remembers something like a 25% success rate with proposals, and now he says it’s more like 6%.  He implies that this hurts our science.   
New methods have developed and applied to ecology; stable isotopes have been powerful, modeling, new statistical approaches. 
He thinks there are now new questions that ecosystem ecologists are addressing; some of the old questions have been answered, more or less.     

He’s pleased that he was involved with discovering acid rain and that, after 27 years, he was around to see the problem “resolved.”  But now there are new questions about acid rain. Now we know more about how to approach answering those questions.

Development of ESA

Gene became a member in about 1957 or 1958, and he’s seen huge changes in ESA. 
Meetings in the early years were often with AIBS and other societies.  Now the meetings of ESA alone are huge, with several thousand attendees, and that’s led to many sections and chapters.  Gene didn’t want IES to become too big, to avoid isolation problems that develop when an organization becomes too big.   

Gene discusses Baltimore and Portland meetings where he had a hard time finding people and didn’t feel part of it like he used to be.  New members, Charlie Canham said, use social media now. What’s happening is “good and bad,” Gene said.  Young members interact differently.  ESA leadership, he thinks, has worked very hard to deal with this problem. 

The membership is much more diverse, with more enthusiasm among the participants, he thinks.  But he thinks it’s harder to maintain contacts and friendships.  ESA has become more “political,” reaching out in Washington more often, which he thinks is both good and bad.  There’s more “bureaucracy” now, which he doesn’t like.  

ESA has become a more powerful force in modern society.  There are daily programs on the environment, such as on National Public Radio.  

He thinks ESA has a good, important presence, and our field is extremely important.  The words “ecology” and “ecosystem” are better understood by the public than when he first became a member.  
He describes how, when he was president, he invited all of the past presidents and eminent ecologists to come to the annual banquet at Penn State in 1982. He thought the banquet was a “highlight” of the meeting each year, though it is now discontinued.  He honored the guests, introducing them each individually.  “It was a wonderful event.” He thought it built enthusiasm for ESA.  Now that couldn’t be done because there are too many.  

Charlie mentioned how many ESA members are now going to the American Geophysical Union meeting, which is even bigger.  But they have their own groups there.  ESA is emulating that to some extent.

Other topics   
He said [paraphrased]:  No, but I want to say again, I never thought that when I was a boy I would become an ecologist, but I’ve loved the discipline that I’m in.  I benefited greatly from being a member of ESA.  We would drive with students and colleagues across the country to go to ESA meetings.  I have many fond memories of those trips each summer.  






Oral History Item Type Metadata


89 minutes


Gene Likens and Charles Canham, “Interview with Gene Likens, March 21, 2016,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed September 21, 2023,