10 Limitations on Progress in Ecology

Ecological science moves along slowly in its mission to understand how the Earth’s populations, communities, and ecosystems operate within the constraints of human impacts on the Biosphere. The question of the day is can we identify the factors currently limiting the rate of progress so that at least in principle we could speed up progress in our science. Here is my list.

1. A shortage of ecologists or more properly jobs for ecologists. In particular a scarcity of government agencies employing ecologists in secure jobs to work on stable, long-term environmental projects that are beyond the scope of university scientists. Many young ecologists of high quality are stalled in positions that are beneath their talents. We are in a situation similar to having highly trained medical doctors being used as hospital janitors. This is a massive failure on many fronts, regional and national, political and scientific. Many governments around the world think economists and lawyers are key while environmental scientists are superfluous.

2. The lack of proper funding from both government, private companies and private individuals. This is typified by the continual downsizing of government scientists working on natural resource problems – fisheries, wildlife, park management – and continuing political interference with scientific objectives. Private companies too often rely on taxpayers to fund their environmental investigations and do not view them as a part of their business model. Private citizens give money to medical research rather than to environmental programs largely based on the belief that of all the life on Earth, only the human component is important.

3. The deficiency of taxonomic expertise to define clearly the species that inhabit the Earth. The estimates vary but perhaps only 10% of the total biota can be given a Latin name and morphological description, leaving out for the moment all the bacteria and viruses. Equate this with having a batch of various shaped coins in your pocket with only a few of them giving the denomination. This problem has been identified for years with little action.

4. Given adequate taxonomy, the lack of adequate natural history data on most of the biota. This activity, so critical for all ecological science, was called “stamp collecting” and thus condemned to the lowest point on the scientific totem pole. The consequence of this is that we try to understand the Earth with data only on butterflies, some birds, and some large mammals.

5. A failure of ecologists to map out the critical questions facing natural populations, communities, and ecosystems on Earth. The roadmap of ecology is littered with wrecks of ideas once pushed to explain nearly everything, and we need a more nuanced map of what is a critical issue. There are a considerable number of fractures within the ecological discipline about what needs to be done, if people and money were available. This fosters the culture of I win = you lose in competition for money and jobs.

6. The confusion of mathematical models with reality. There is a strong disconnect between models and data that persists. Models rapidly proliferate, data are slow to accumulate, so we try to paper over the fragility of our understanding with mathematical wizardry, trying to be like physicists. Connecting model predictions with empirical data studies would go a long way to righting this problem but it is a tall order in a world that confuses the number of publications and h scores with important contributions.

7 The fact that too many ecologists do not adopt the scientific method of investigation, to carry out experiments with multiple alternative hypotheses with clear predictions. Arguments continue endlessly based on words (‘concepts’) that are so vaguely defined as to be meaningless operationally. If you need an example, think ‘stability’ or ‘diversity’. These vague words are then herded into pseudo-hypotheses to doubly confound the confusion over what the critical questions in ecology really are.

8. The need for ecologists to work in stable groups. Serious ecological problems demand expertise in many scientific specialities, and we need better mechanisms to foster and maintain such groups. The assessment of scientists on the basis of individual work is long out of date, the Nobel Prize is an anachronism, and we need strong groups concentrating on important issues for long term studies. At the moment many groups exist to do meta-analyses and fewer to do science.

9. Placing the technological horse in front of the ecological cart. Ecology like many sciences is often led by technology rather than by questions. The current DNA bandwagon is one example, but we should not get so confused to think that that most important questions in ecology are those that use the most technology. Jumping from one technological bandwagon to the next is a good recipe for minimizing progress.

10. The fractionation of ecology into subdisciplines and the assumption that the only important research work has been done since 2000. Aquatic ecologists do not talk to terrestrial ecologists, microbial ecologists live in their own special world, and avian ecologists do not talk to insect ecologists. The result is that the existing literature is too often wasted by investigators who have no idea that question XX has already been answered either in another subdiscipline or in existing literature from 50 years ago.

Not all of these limitations apply to every ecologist, and at best I would view them as a set of guideposts that need to be considered as we move further into the 21st century.

Krebs, C. J. 2006. Ecology after 100 years: progress and pseudo-progress. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 30:3-11.

Majer, J. D. 2012. Critical times: How has ecological research responded over the past 35 years? Austral Ecology 37:149-152.

Sutherland, W. J. et al. 2010. A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25:1-7.

6 thoughts on “10 Limitations on Progress in Ecology

  1. Simon Leather

    Excellent post – Point 9 particularly resonates with me here in the UK where universities and funding bodies have almost entirely thrown whole organism biology out of the window. As an entomologist points 1 and 3 are also particularly relevant.

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  2. macromite

    I think I agree with all of your points, except I’m not sure of the appropriate funding models for points 1 and 2. I tend to see politically motivated government funding as one of the problems in ecological research – people are left chasing or are assigned to bandwagon research that goes in and out of favour with the government of the day. I think that government needs to be distanced from the selection of research priorities except in actual emergencies. I have no idea how to achieve this goal though.

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  3. Catharine Bruce

    re the ‘DNA bandwagon’, genetic approaches provide powerful tools for gaining insight into aspects of ecology that are not easy to observe directly. I absolutely agree that ecology should be driven by questions, not by technology, and that genetic analyses can be of little use if they are not set in the context of robust hypothesis testing. However, to dismiss these approaches as a technological bandwagon is short sighted. The problem as I see it is that ecologists have been slow to take up these tools, meaning that they remain employed primarily by molecular scientists who lack the ecological background to use them to their full potential in solving ecological problems. In their proper place, these tools can hugely accelerate our understanding of the natural world. They are also starting to help overcome the issue of the lack of taxonomic expertise – again DNA-based tools are certainly not always the answer for species identification but in certain contexts they are allowing us to address questions that traditional methods cannot even begin to address because of the scales involved.

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  4. Caroline Copley

    I wish to comment on point 10 first, I generally appreciate the article. I have been doing an upgrade in my quals and have discovered what goes on in areas I did not know about. I have discovered that people studying soil carbon study physical properties OR they study bacterial/archaean/fungal community effects. I have had the chance to study a large salt lake in southern Australia, and found that scientists have described it in terms of physical processes, in spite of the fact that others have shown it appears that the geochemistry may be controlled by microbes. Which by he way has probably been going on for 3+ billion years! I have come to the conclusion, even though more of a vertebrate-trained biologist, that microbes run the world, and of course observing runaway climate change, it is obvious that we do not, even if we provoked it!
    Something has to give regarding the impasse between the physical scientists and the microbial ones, for the future of the planet. That cannot happen if terrestrial biologists are not communicating with the microbial ones to form a bloc requiring that the rest of the world sits up and listens.
    I also agree with the need to be familiar with work that has gone before, as quite a lot is missed otherwise. But the truth is to get on top of all the info available today requires a superhuman!
    No 1 and 2 I think are partly due to the failure of the environmental lobby to get environmental accounting incorporated at governmental level. This is essential, nothing will shift until there is recognition of value. Most humans think that society is real and nature is somewhere out there, so they’ll be in for a rude shock if it all comes crashing down, as it is of course the other way around, human society and money are artificial. So the value system needs to change urgently. There needs to be a UN based introduction of these programs somehow i.e. encouraging national adoption of environmental accounting- so that reality doesn’t hit us in the face.
    Some of the other points relate to bad science is just bad science is bad science. Whether it is modelling prevailing over validation or assumptions based on satellites prevailing over on the ground work, or lack of hypotheses, this is all just bad science, and occurs across the board. What is needed is a reminder at all levels about what is not good science.

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  5. Brett Favaro

    With respect to #5, there are a huge number of “100 most important questions in ecology” type projects. There are at least ten out there on all sorts of ecological topics.

    Seems that lots of people are attempting to come up with a way to come up with such a map – but the best way to accomplish that is not clear.

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  6. Keren Embar

    I agree wholeheartedly with your points.
    Especially the lack of a clear map, the need for scientific approach, and the proper use of technology.
    However, please note that environmental science and ecology are not one and the same.
    I have degrees in both and their approach is fundamentally different.
    Environmental science is more often like a type of engineering, there is a problem, defined from human points of view (e.g. oil spill is dangerous to health, dirty and ugly), and the environmental engineer is there to solve the problem while staying within the limits of human policy and law. This usually means do not fix beyond the min requirements because it wastes money , effort and time (human resources).
    Ecology is a science, with questions, not problems. It uses hypothesis, theories, predictions, experiments to answer those question. Its not a problem solving machine in the immediately practical and limited way.
    Too often when people say ecologists they want environmental engineers. Environmental scientists are those charged with combining the results of research from various fields (ecology chemistry physics etc) and provide a problem fixing method. Ecologists supply one aspect of that range – the ecology. And vis versa, environmental sciences provide a human centric approach to a question, ecology scientists consider a more diverse view.
    Multidisciplinary research is great, but it may be that trying to do environmental science under the hat of ecology is wearing the wrong hat.

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