Doing Ecology Differently

Ecologists spend most of their time getting on with the job: asking questions, collecting and interpreting data and communicating about it. The quantity of ecological knowledge – as judged by the size of the ecological literature – thus continues to grow rapidly, even as the generation of novel ideas seems to decrease.  In contrast, we spend relatively little time reflecting on our rate of progress towards particular goals or assessing the efficiency of our approaches in generating new understanding.

How well have we performed?

  • What have been the truly ground-breaking ideas in ecology over the last 30 years, especially in terms of basic ecological principles?
  • What have we achieved since each was first formulated?
  • Is further progress limited by the lack of methodologies, the way we use our current methods, or by the Law of Diminishing Returns?
  • Can we identify the best – or better – approaches to the way we go about our research? Do we, in fact, need to do ecology differently?

Unlike ordinary workshops or conferences, this meeting will be far more of a philosophical discourse on the way we go about research than a show-and-tell of our latest results.  But in posing questions at the very heart of our discipline – questions that ecologists seldom discuss – we hope that it will have an important impact on ecology’s future development.

Is there a problem?

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Montana workshop, 2012

Ecology has become increasingly sophisticated, adopting more advanced techniques as they become available: recent examples include various molecular and statistical methods.  We are now able to answer questions that were completely beyond us only a decade or two ago.  Opportunities will continue to present themselves; for example, a current hot topic is big data, drawing upon things such as remote sensing, automated sensors, eDNA, crispr/cas9, high throughput phenomics, cheap genomics and coordinated distributed observation/experimental networks.  But whenever new techniques appear there will be new opportunities to make mistakes, particularly when they become more readily available and “user-friendly”.  Both researchers and peer reviewers can fail to appreciate crucial assumptions and limitations.  There is also the danger of research becoming method- rather than question-driven; examples of this abound.

Even the results of tried-and-tested ecological methods can be mis-interpreted, especially if we attempt to generalise from very little data.  Opportunities may also arise to glean useful information from studies not originally designed for the purpose.  Given the difficulties of investigating complex systems, we may seek to excuse a lax attitude towards inference in ecology: we may commonly have to interpret, with caveats, what our results seem to mean rather than be able to make definitive conclusions.  But it is all too easy to slip from statements of supposition to statements of “fact”.  Several forms of weak inference have, unfortunately, become commonplace in ecology: the collation of examples that support an idea but without adequately testing alternatives; blind adherence to null hypotheses without considering the probability of false negatives; the assumption of causality from correlation; the use of methods simply because they are popular.  Ecological concepts can be vague, so that they mean different things to different people, and key issues may be overlooked, such as the importance of scale.  Added to which, a considerable amount of ecology is done in the absence of clear questions or hypotheses, limiting its usefulness.

Of course, this does not mean that all ecology is flawed!  That is certainly not the case.  But an argument can be made that ecologists need a stronger awareness of potential pitfalls and be on the lookout for them.  And perhaps for some questions we need a fundamental change in the approaches that we have been taking, to make greater progress than we have been.  We may need to do ecology very differently.

It may be argued that such concern is not new.  In the 1980s and 1990s ecologists did a great deal of soul-searching about their discipline, how it had evolved and what it needed to become (see, for example, RH Peters (1991) A Critique for Ecology, Cambridge University Press).  In particular, there were those who yearned for a more exacting form of ecological science (“physics-envy”).  Although ecological society presidential addresses may occasionally revisit the issues, concerns about the direction of ecology appear to have diminished over time.  Ecology is what it is!  But did we resolve our earlier concerns?  Or were they too difficult to address?  The organisers of this meeting believe strongly that critical self-analysis is an essential component of a thriving discipline.  We should talk and resolve issues as we undertake our investigations, rather than relying on peer-review of completed research.

Current and future ecology

Although the workshop will address a number of very specific questions, it will be underpinned by the participants’ overviews of the current state of ecology and its future needs.  For example, we will be informed by your views on

  1. Is ecology a mature science? i.e. most of the theoretical framework has been set and we are now in a phase of testing and elaborating existing theory. Or are we waiting for a step change in theory generation in order to move on? Where will this come from?
  2. Will technological developments revolutionise ecology by providing information or manipulation tools that enable testing of previously untestable theory or stimulate new theory development?
  3. How will massive increases in observations change the science of ecology? How will future ecologists benefit from interacting among theory/models, observations, experiments and combine them in synthesis in ways that will soon become possible?
  4. Do we ask the right questions?  What are the most pressing questions in ecology; and what are our specific goals in addressing them?

Ecologists are a highly diverse bunch and there is unlikely to be a consensus of opinion. But we cannot assess progress in ecology – and any need to change approaches – without some idea of where we are heading.  The workshop will provide an environment for you to express your views, to work through specific questions and to participate in papers communicating challenges to your peers.