Monday, July 25, 2011

The empirical divide

Has there been a shift in how ecology is done? In an interesting editorial in the most recent ESA Bulletin, titled “Losing the Culture of Ecology”, David Lindenmayer and Gene Likens wrote that “empirical and place-based research”, such as field studies and taxonomy, appear to be falling out of favor. They suggest that ecological modeling, meta-analysis, and data-mining (the three M’s) are more lucrative (and popular) approaches today, because these methods are faster, cheaper, and “easier” to perform, allowing more rapid publication. While they recognize the important advancements resulting from these methods, the result—they suggest—is that field-based empirical research is becoming less prevalent, to the detriment of ecology.

This is a polarizing issue, and the response of those ecologists we spoke to depended on where they position themselves on the field/theoretical divide. Those who define themselves as field ecologists tended to feel embattled in the face of long, expensive months of fieldwork, with slow returns in terms of data and publications. Some felt there is a subtle insinuation that fieldwork is less generalizable and so less valuable than techniques such as meta-analysis and ecological modeling, which by their nature tend to be theory-based and general.

On the other side, some theoretical ecologists we spoke to felt the need to defend the validity of doing “indoor” ecology, noting that theory and modeling can link pattern and process, without the confounding variation common in field experiments/observations. Although field ecologists felt that they have a more difficult time obtaining funding, theoretical ecologists noted that they often receive far less money because the assumption is that theory is “free”. Further, with the exception of very specialized funding opportunities (e.g., NCEAS), meta-analyses do not typically get funded as stand-alone projects.

It’s important to note that in its short history, ecology has frequently struggled with the balance between the field and lab. The primary criticism of field-based research at the turn of the 20th century was that it was “unscientific”, inseparable from natural history, producing lists of species names rather than furthering understanding, while labwork was considered to be too divorced from natural systems to be informative (producing so-called “armchair ecologists”). These conflicts split some of the first organismal departments in the United States (*) and tensions exist to this day. No doubt these criticisms are not unfamiliar to many modern ecologists.

There needs to be a balance between the production and consumption of data. Obviously abandoning fieldwork and using only meta-analysis, modeling, and data-mining is not sustainable, but these are important methods for modern ecology. In addition, the perceptions of bias against fieldwork may be due to a general decline in funding and greater overall competitiveness for the rewards of academic labour (jobs, grants, publishing in top journals, etc.), rather than a true decline in field ecology. As we discussed this article, it became clear that our own perceptions, and perhaps those of the broader community, have formed in the absence of empirical data. We examined the last few issues of some highly-ranked ecological journals that publish primary research (Ecology Letters, Molecular Ecology, American Naturalist), and recorded the number of papers that used empirical data, and further the number of those that collected their own data (versus using data from databases, literature, etc). Surprisingly, the vast majority of studies were based on empirical data, mostly data collected by the authors. In Molecular Ecology, 27 out of 28 papers were empirical, and 26 of these used data collected by the author(s); in Ecology Letters, 17 out of 20 papers were empirical, and 12 of these used data collected by the author(s). Even in American Naturalist, which is known for its theoretical bent, 44 out of 70 papers were empirical, and 32 used the author(s)’ own data. Overall, these journals, where competition for space is most severe, primarily publish empirical research.

It appears then, that neither grants nor publications systemically bias towards the three M’s. But is there still a cost to researchers on either side of the data producer-consumer divide? The answer is likely yes. The three M’s result in quicker publications, which means these researchers look more productive on paper, resulting in greater visibility. With more publications, they are likely to make it to the top of hiring committee lists. Conversely, unless a specific job has been advertised as a modeling position, candidates giving job talks focusing on the three M’s do not come across as knowledgeably as a very skilled field person. One of us (MWC) has seen job searches at four different institutions, and the unadvertised stipulation for many departmental faculty or committee members is that the candidate will come and establish a field program. Another common criticism of 3-M candidates is that they will not be able to secure large amounts of research funding.

Given this double-edged sword, what is the optimal strategy? The glib, easy answer is that ecologists need to become less specialized, to do both theory and empirical work, if they want a successful career. And maybe this is the solution, at least for some ecologists. But is having everyone become a generalist really the answer? Most field ecologists will tell you that they do fieldwork in part because they love being in the field and they’re good at it; most theoretical ecologists are adept at manipulating ideas and theory. Perhaps there is still a role for the specialist: after all quantitative ecology—which produces data—and theoretical ecology—which consumes it—are inseparable. They have a complementary relationship, in which field observations and data fuel new models and ideas, which in turn provides new hypotheses to be tested in the field. It’s obvious that people should be able to specialize, and that the focus should be on increasing collaboration between the two groups.

Despite the hand-wrenching, perhaps this collaboration is already happening. Many of the very best 3-M papers unite theoretically-minded with empirically-grounded ecologists. The working-group style funding by NCEAS (and its emulates) explicitly links together data producers and data consumers. These papers may be deserving of greater visibility. If collaboration is the future of ecology, why does the tension still exist between lab and field? The historical tension was not really about the laboratory vs. the field, but rather about scientific philosophy, and we think this holds true today. Ecology has tangibly moved towards hypothesis-driven research, at the expense of inductive science, which was more common in the past. The tensions between “indoor ecology” and field ecology have been conflated with changes in the philosophy of modern ecology, in the difficulties of obtaining funding and publishing as a modern ecologist, and some degree of thinking the “grass is always greener” in the other field. In fact, the empirical divide may not be as wide as is often suggested.

By Caroline Tucker and Marc Cadotte

* Robert E. Kohler. Landscapes and labscapes: Exploring the lab-field border in biology. 2002. University of Chicago Press. (This is a fascinating book about the early years of ecology, and definitely worth a read).