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.