Monday, February 10, 2014

Ecological progress, what are we doing right?

A post from Charles Krebs' blog called "Ten limitations on progress in ecology" popped up a number of times on social media last week. Krebs is a established population ecologist who has been working in the field for a long time, and he suggests some important problems leading to a lack of progress in ecology. These concerns range from lack of jobs and funding for ecologists, to the fracturing of ecology into poorly integrated subfields. Krebs' post is a continuation of the ongoing conversation about limitations and problems in ecology, which has been up for discussion for decades. And as such, I agree with many of the points being made. But it reminded me of something I have been thinking about for a while, which is that it seems much more rare to see ecology’s successes listed. For many ecologists, it is probably easier to come up with the problems and weaknesses, but I think that's more of a cognitive bias than a sign that ecology is inescapably flawed. And that’s unfortunate: recognizing our successes and advances also helps us improve ecology. So what is there to praise about ecology, and what successes we can build on?

Despite Krebs’ concerns about lack of jobs for ecologists, it is worth celebrating how much ecology has grown in numbers and recognition as a discipline. The first ESA annual meeting in 1914 had 307 attendees, recent years’ attendance is somewhere between 3000-4000 ecologists. Ecology is also increasingly diverse. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology departments are now common in big universities, and sometimes replacing Botany and/or Zoology programs. On a more general level, the idea of “ecology” has increasing recognition by the public. Popular press coverage of issues such as biological invasions, honeybee colony collapses, wolves in Yellowstone, and climate change, have at least made the work of ecologists slightly more apparent.

Long-term ecological research is probably more common and more feasible now than it has ever been. There are long-term fragmentation, biodiversity and ecosystem function studies, grants directed at LTER, and a dedicated institute (the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)) funded by the NSF for longterm ecological data collection. (Of course, not all long term research sites have had an easy go of things – see the Experimental Lakes Area in Canada).

Another really positive development is that academic publishing is becoming more inclusive – not only are there more reputable open access publishing options for ecologists, the culture is changing to one where data is available online for broad access, rather than privately controlled. Top journals are reinforcing this trend by requiring that data be published in conjunction with publications.

Multi-disciplinary collaboration is more common than ever, both because ecology naturally overlaps with geochemistry, mathematics, physics, physiology, and others, and also because funding agencies are rewarding promising collaborations. For example, I recently saw a talk where dispersal was considered in the context of wind patterns based on meteorological models. It felt like this sort of mechanistic approach provided a much fuller understanding of dispersal than the usual kernel-based model.

Further, though subdisciplines of ecology have at times lost connection with the core knowledge of ecology, some subfields have taken paths that are worth emulating, integrating multiple areas of knowledge, while still making novel contributions to ecology in general. For example, disease ecology is multidisciplinary, integrating ecology, fieldwork, epidemiological models and medicine with reasonable success.

Finally, more than ever, the complexity of ecology is being equalled by available methods. More than ever, the math, the models, the technology, and the computing resources available are sufficient. If you look at papers from ecology’s earliest years, statistics and models were restricted to simple regressions or ANOVAs and differential equations that could be solved by hand. Though there is uncertainty associated with even the most complex model, our ability to model ecological processes is higher than ever. Technology allows us to observe changes in alleles, to reconstruct phylogenetic trees, and to count species too small to even see. If used carefully and with understanding, we have the tools to make and continue making huge advances.

Maybe there are other (better) positive advances that I’ve overlooked, but it seems that – despite claims to the contrary – there are many reasons to think that ecology is a growing, thriving discipline. Not perfect, but successfully growing with the technological, political, and environmental realities.
Ecology may be successfully growing, but it's true that the timing is rough...


Florian Hartig said...

I had similar thoughts while reading the post, in terms of jobs, money, structure and output, Ecology rather seems to thrive when comparing it to established fields (assuming we define Ecology as everything that has ecology in it's name).

Have we lost touch with taxonomy and natural history? Well, there are different opinions, see

Certainly, tremendous progress has been made in computational and statistical methods, and of course on molecular methods. I also think we have made significant progress on (long-term) data availability and data collection.

What would be interesting to discuss though is how much progress we have made on the theoretical foundation of ecology. We have certainly discovered many new correlations, but what about new concepts? Probably the most widely discussed new idea of the last decades is neutral theory, but it seems a bit meager that our biggest discovery of the last decades is that all our previous concepts may not be so relevant after all (with apologies for this unfairly short caricature of UNTB).

Caroline Tucker said...

Hi Florian - you raise a great point about whether we've made progress on theory for ecology. I'm not sure - I would add as new contributions something like metabolic theory of ecology (ala JH Brown et al), and also a number of theories that have been discarded in the last few years (like productivity diversity relationships, etc). It's a difficult thing to quantify though!

Jeremy Fox said...

Re: conceptual progress, this old post on the most-cited papers in ecology by decade is relevant:

Basically, since the MacArthur/May/Levins/etc. revolution in the '60s and '70s, the most-cited papers in ecology increasingly have been methodological advances and/or empirically-oriented, applied papers, particularly on anthropogenic alterations of the environment. Of course, there are various ways one might interpret this sort of data.

As to whether certain theories of (or empirical claims about) productivity-diversity relationships have been "discarded", clearly Caroline doesn't hang out with the proponents of those theories! :-)

Caroline Tucker said...

It's true I don't run into many productivity-diversity hardliners these days... But I am optimistic that the focus on context-dependence and complexity in ecology may be pushing simplistic pattern-based explanations out of favour.

Charles Krebs said...

Alas please do not call me a physiological ecologist, I am not that important but rest a couple of layers lower on the totem pole of ecology as a population ecologist. And I am reminded to write a blog on citations as they are a very poor index of anything in science yet are now elevated to be the major way we decide grants, tenure, and importance. I have often thought the answer is to get a group of friends who will cite every one of your papers no matter how relevant it is to the topic, so you citation score goes up. Later perhaps.

Caroline Tucker said...

My apologies - I've changed it: I had an office next to Rudy Boonstra for a while, and I guess I made too close an association between his stress-axis work and your collaborations!