Category Archives: Research Funding

On Climate Change Research Funding

I have grown weary of media and news statements that climate change research should be a priority. At the present time military spending, war, and oil and gas companies seem to be the priority spending of many governments. Climate change research seems to be more focused on the physical sciences in attempts to predict what changes in temperature, rainfall, and sea conditions can be expected if we continue at the present global rates of greenhouse gas emissions. This is all very good, and the IPCC reports are excellent. The people are listening and reacting to the bad news even if all the major western governments are close to ignoring the problem. So where does this leave ecological scientists?

Our first response is that we should mimic the climatologists in predicting what the ecological world will be like in 2050 or 2100. But there is a major problem with this centered around the fact that physics has a whole set of fixed laws that will not change in a thousand years, so that the physics of the atmosphere and the oceans is reasonably understood and by the application of the laws of physics, we can arrive at a reasonable prediction that should be constrained by physical laws. Ecological science is nowhere near that paradigm of predictability because it deals with organisms that can evolve and interactions that can change rapidly when an unexpected invasive species arrives on the scene or humans interfere with ecosystem services. Ecological changes are not driven solely by climate change, a fact it is easy to forget. One consequence of this limitation is that we cannot make any kind of reliable predictions about the state of our ecosystems and the state of the Earth’s biodiversity by 2050 or 2100. We can however, in contrast to the physical sciences, do something about ecological changes by finding the limiting factors for the species under concern, protecting these endangered species and setting aside natural areas protected from human depredation. While we can do this to some extent in rich countries, in poor countries, particularly tropical ones, we have a poor record of protecting the exploitation of national parks and reserves. Think Brazil or the Central African Republic.

But given this protection of areas and funding for threatened species, conservation ecologists still have some very difficult problems to face. First and foremost is the conservation of rare, endangered species. It is nearly impossible to study rare species to discover the limiting factors that are pushing them toward extinction. Second, if you have the information on limiting factors, it is difficult to reverse trends that are determined by climate change or by human disrespect for conservation values.

In spite of these problems, the ecological literature is full of papers claiming to solve these issues with various schemes that predict a brighter future sometime. But if we apply the same rigor to these papers as we do to other areas of ecology, we must treat them as a set of hypotheses that make specific predictions, and try to test them. If we have solutions that are feasible but will require 50 years to accomplish, we should be very clear that we are drawing a long bow. Some statement of goals for the next 5 years would be desirable so we can measure progress or lack of progress.

The screams of practitioners go up – we have no time to test hypotheses, we need action! If we have clear-cut a forest site, or bulldozed shrub habitats, we may have a good idea of how to proceed to restoration. But with a long term view, restoration itself in highly contestable. In particular with climate change we have even less ability to predict with knowledge based on the last 50 year or so. So if you are in a predictive mode about conservation issues, have multiple working hypotheses about what to do, rather than one certain view of what will solve the problem.

This is not a cry to give up on conservation, but rather to trim our certainty about future states of ecosystems. Trying to predict what will happen under climate change is important for the Earth but we must always keep in mind the other critical factors affecting biodiversity, from predators to parasites and diseases, and the potential for evolution. Human destruction of habitats is a key issue we do not control well enough, and yet it may be the most important short term threat to conservation.

All of this leads into the fact that to achieve anything we need resources –people and money. The problem at present is where can we get the money? Governments in general place a low value on conservation and the environment in general in the quest for money and economic growth. Rich philanthropists are useful but few, and perhaps too often they have a distorted view of what to invest in. Improving the human condition of the poor is vital; medical research is vital, but if the environment suffers losses as it is at present, we need to balance or reverse our priorities of where to put our money. I do not know how to accomplish this goal. The search for politicians who have even a grade 1 understanding of environmental problems is not going well. Read Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin. What is being accomplished now is more to the credit of private philanthropy which has clear goals but may pull in diverse directions. I submit that to date we have not been successful in this pursuit of environmental harmony, but it is a goal we must keep pushing for. E.O. Wilson once said that there was more money spent in New York City on a Friday night on beer than was devoted to biodiversity conservation for the entire world for the year.  This should hardly be a good epitaph for our century.

Our World View and Conservation

Recent events have large implications for conservation science. Behind these events – Covid, climate change, wars – lies a fundamental dichotomy of views about humanity’s place in the world today. At the most basic level there are those who view humans as the end-all-and-be-all of importance so that the remainder of the environment and all other species are far down the list of importance when it comes to decision making. The other view is that humans are the custodians of the Earth and all its ecosystems, so that humans are an important part of our policy decisions but not the only part or even the most important part. Between these extreme views there is not a normal distribution but a strongly bimodal one. We see this very clearly with respect to the climate emergency. If you explain the greenhouse dilemma to anyone, you can see the first reaction is that this does not apply to me, so I can do whatever I want versus the reaction of others that I should do something to reduce this problem now. It is the me-here-and-now view of our lives in contrast to the concern we should have about future generations.

Our hope lies in the expectation that things are improving, strongly in young people, more slowly in older people, and negligibly in our politicians. We must achieve sustainability professed by the Greta Thunberg’s of the world, and yet recognize that the action needed is promised by our policy makers only for 2050 or 2100. There is hope that the captains of industry will move toward sustainability goals, but this will be achieved only by rising public and economic pressure. We are beset by wars that make achieving any sustainability goals more difficult. In Western countries blessed with superabundant wealth we can be easily blinded by promises of the future like electricity from nuclear fusion at little cost, or carbon-capture to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. If things get impossibly bad, we are told we can all go to Mars. Or at least the selected elite can.

Conservation gets lost in this current world, and pleas to set aside 30% or 40% of the Earth for biosphere conservation are rarely even heard about on the evening news. The requests for funds for conservation projects are continually cut when there are more important goals for economic growth. Even research funding through our first-class universities and government laboratories is falling, and I would wager without the data that less than 20% of funding for basic research goes to investigating environmental problems or conservation priorities. In my province in Canada a large section of this year’s budget labelled “Addressing Climate Change” is to be spent on repairing the highways from last year’s floods and trying to restore the large areas affected by fires in the previous dry summer.  

What is the solution to this rather depressing situation? Two things must happen soon. First, we the public must hold the government to account for sustainability. Funding oil companies, building pipelines, building highways through Class A farmland, and waging wars will not bring us closer to having a sustainable earth for our grandchildren. Second, we must encourage private industries and wealthy philanthropists to invest in sustainability research. Conservation cannot ever be achieved without setting aside large, protected areas. The list of species that are in decline around the Earth is growing, yet for the vast number of these we have no clear idea why they are declining or what can be done about it. We need funding for science and action, both in short supply in the world today. And some wisdom thrown in.   

On How Genomics will not solve Ecological Problems

I am responding to this statement in an article in the Conversation by Anne Murgai on April 19, 2022 (https://phys.org/news/2022-04-african-scientists-genes-species.html#google_vignette) : The opening sentence of her article on genomics encapsulates one of the problems of conservation biology today:

“DNA is the blueprint of life. All the information that an organism needs to survive, reproduce, adapt to environments or survive a disease is in its DNA. That is why genomics is so important.”

If this is literally correct, almost all of ecological science should disappear, and our efforts to analyse changes in geographic distributions, abundance, survival and reproductive rates, competition with other organisms, wildlife diseases, conservation of rare species and all things that we discuss in our ecology journals are epiphenomena, and thus our slow progress in sorting out these ecological issues is solely because we have not yet sequenced all our species to find the answers to everything in their DNA.

This is of course not correct, and the statement quoted above is a great exaggeration. But, if it is believed to be correct, it has some important consequences for scientific funding. I will confine my remarks to the fields of conservation and ecology. The first and most important is that belief in this view of genetic determinism is having large effects on where conservation funding is going. Genomics has been a rising star in biological science for the past 2 decades because of technological advances in sequencing DNA. As such, given a fixed budget, it is taking money away from the more traditional approaches to conservation such as setting up protected areas and understanding the demography of declining populations. Hausdorf (2021) explores these conflicting problems in an excellent review, and he concludes that often more cost-effective methods of conservation should be prioritized over genomic analyses. Examples abound of conservation problems that are immediate and typically underfunded (e.g., Turner et al. 2021, Silva et al, 2021).   

What is the resolution of these issues? I can recommend only that those in charge of dispensing funding for conservation science examine the hypotheses being tested and avoid endless funding for descriptive genomics that claim to have a potential and immediate outcome that will forward the main objectives of conservation. Certainly, some genomic projects will fit into this desirable science category, but many will not, and the money should be directed elsewhere.  

The Genomics Paradigm listed above is used in the literature on medicine and social science, and a good critique of this view from a human perspective is given in a review by Feldman and Riskin (2022). Scientists dealing with human breast cancer or schizophrenia show the partial but limited importance of DNA in determining the cause or onset of these complex conditions (e.g., Hilker et al 2018, Manobharathi et al. 2021). Conservation problems are equally complex, and in the climate emergency have a short time frame for action. I suspect that genomics for all its strengths will have only a minor part to play in the resolution of ecological problems and conservation crises in the coming years.

Feldman, Marcus W. and Riskin, Jessica (2022). Why Biology is not Destiny. The New York Review of Books 69 (April 21, 2022), 43-46.

Hausdorf, Bernhard (2021). A holistic perspective on species conservation. Biological Conservation 264, 109375. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109375.

Hilker, R., Helenius, D., Fagerlund, B., Skytthe, A., Christensen, K., Werge, T.M., Nordentoft, M., and Glenthøj, B. (2018). Heritability of Schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Spectrum based on the Nationwide Danish Twin Register. Biological Psychiatry 83, 492-498. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.017.

Manobharathi, V., Kalaiyarasi, D., and Mirunalini, S. (2021). A concise critique on breast cancer: A historical and scientific perspective. Research Journal of Biotechnology 16, 220-230.

Samuel, G. N. and Farsides, B. (2018). Public trust and ‘ethics review’ as a commodity: the case of Genomics England Limited and the UK’s 100,000 genomes project. Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy 21, 159-168. doi: 10.1007/s11019-017-9810-1.

Silva, F., Kalapothakis, E., Silva, L., and Pelicice, F. (2021). The sum of multiple human stressors and weak management as a threat for migratory fish. Biological Conservation 264, 109392. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109392.

Turner, A., Wassens, S., and Heard, G. (2021). Chytrid infection dynamics in frog populations from climatically disparate regions. Biological Conservation 264, 109391. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109391.

On Research Grant Funding

All ecologists except for Charles Darwin have had to apply for funding to carry out their research. I am mainly familiar with how this is done in Canada and the United States, with a little experience in Australia. So, depending on where you live, these comments may or may not apply. I would expect the European Union, the United States, and Britain to have the best funding processes since they lead the developed world in research funding. But I stand to be corrected in all this discussion and in my evaluations which are largely focussed on ecological research.

Ecological research is funded largely from government funding and paid for by the taxpayer. There is relatively little private funding available for ecology and this could be because few think ecological science matters to the world, or because private funding goes mainly to medical research. Government funding is pulled in many diverse directions, as anyone who follows the news knows. Governments devoted to exponential growth are wary of ecological work because it does not usually contribute to GDP and ecologists are very wary of exponential growth. But changes in public expectations can influence how governments view environmental work. The continued concern about climate change and a growing interest in biodiversity in general is pushing governments ever so slowly in the direction of environmental science.

But despite this apparent positive trend we are going backwards. The fraction of money going into environmental work is going down once you correct for inflation. The funding of universities is also going down with more student debt so that as the population grows and more jobs in environmental work ought to occur, it is not happening. This situation is most apparent in funding universities for research and for training research students. The amount of money per capita is falling and this leads to two problems in research funding. The first is that governments in general have adopted what I call the “Oxford and Cambridge Paradigm” of research funding. This paradigm in its simple form argues that all the important and innovative research comes from Oxford and Cambridge, or the equivalent universities in your country, and so most of the government research funding must go to these places. But the minor research players in the smaller universities cannot be ignored so they are given a pittance to do some research to keep them quiet. The same strategy can be applied to the funding of graduate students and research assistants. A simple result is that this works well in part but produces clear cases of amazing researchers in a minor university being underfunded while a mediocre researcher at “Oxford” is rolling in money. One consequence of this general pattern is that the major universities reach out and hire the amazing researchers from the smaller universities at a high salary and substantial amounts of funding, so the pattern tends to stabilize rather than evolve into a better system.

The second problem is that competition increases if funding per capita is falling, so that excellent young scientists cannot be employed in their chosen field. The politicians will argue that young people should choose profitable areas in which to study, and perhaps university advisors should tell budding ecologists to go to business schools. Competition rarely leads to useful outcomes in human society, despite the economic gospels we are inundated with. Competition in research can lead to useful liaisons of many scientists working on the same problem, but this happens less frequently than seems desirable. The Holy Grail for competition is the Nobel Prize which goes to one or two scientists in a field despite the common knowledge that they achieved their goals with the help of dozens to hundreds of colleagues.

This problem has not gone unnoticed of course but few provide formal analysis of the details of funding and how funding is dispersed (Aagaard et al. 2020, Scholten et al. 2021). Murray et al. (2016) showed at least for Canada smaller universities were being research funded less well per capita than larger ones, and both Ferreira et al (2016) and De Peuter and Conix (2021) have discussed peer reviews as a major problem in the current funding situation. The problem of bias in review panels is well recognized. If the main objective is to fund excellence, the problem has become more difficult because of social considerations of sexism and racism added to the demand for excellence. This is a minefield I do not wish to enter here.

The existing situation cries out for answers as to how funding decisions are made at both lower and higher levels. In particular as a Canadian example, we might ask why fundamental science total funding in the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has not changed since 2007 (https://can-acn.org/science-funding-in-canada-statistics/). The average research grant in Canada in the NSERC Ecology and Evolution Panel was $39K in 2016 and $37K in 2021. Lest we ecologists feel persecuted, in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funding for basic biomedical research has not changed since 2006. The trends in these numbers are important because someone at the higher levels of making decisions on funding basic science at least in Canada has decided that basic science is not “important”, so that even though we are moving into catastrophic global predictions from climate change and biodiversity loss, basic science funding does not increase in real dollars. I am not sure whether other countries have a similar issue, but the same problem can be seen in many governments in decisions about funding for the basic sciences.

The bottom line is that there are continuing important issues in funding basic science, from biases at the committee level in evaluating individual research grants all the way to the much larger issue of who at the top of the decision pile allocates funds for national and local scientific priorities. If scientific research is about excellence, we have much left to do to achieve appropriate funding in Canada and elsewhere.

Aagaard, K., Kladakis, A., and Nielsen, M.W. (2020). Concentration or dispersal of research funding? Quantitative Science Studies 1, 117-149. doi: 10.1162/qss_a_00002.

De Peuter, S. and Conix, S. (2021). The modified lottery: Formalizing the intrinsic randomness of research funding. Accountability in Research 1-22. doi: 10.1080/08989621.2021.1927727

Ferreira, C. et al. (2016). The evolution of peer review as a basis for scientific publication: directional selection towards a robust discipline? Biological Reviews 91, 597-610. doi: 10.1111/brv.12185

Murray, D.L., Morris, D., Lavoie, C., Leavitt, P.R., and MacIsaac, H. (2016). Bias in research grant evaluation has dire consequences for small universities. PLoS ONE 11, e0155876. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155876.

On Replication in Ecology

All statistics books recommend replication in scientific studies. I suggest that this recommendation has been carried to extreme in current ecological studies. In approximately 50% of ecological papers I read in our best journals (a biased sample to be sure) the results of the study are not new and have been replicated many times in the past, often in papers not cited in ‘new’ papers. There is no harm in this happening, but it does not lead to progress in our understanding of populations, communities or ecosystems or lead to new ecological theory. We do need replication examining the major ideas in ecology, and this is good. On the other hand, we do not need more and more studies of what we might call ecological truths. An analogy would be to test in 2022 the Flat Earth Hypothesis to examine its predictions. It is time to move on.

There is an extensive literature on hypothesis testing which can be crudely summarized by “Observations of X” which can be explained by hypothesis A, B, or C each of which have unique predictions associated with them. A series of experiments are carried out to test these predictions and the most strongly supported hypothesis, call it B*, is accepted as current knowledge. Explanation B* is useful scientifically only if it leads to a new set of predictions D, E, and F which are then tested. This chain of explanation is never simple. There can be much disagreement which may mean sharpening the hypotheses following from Explanation B*. At the same time there will be some scientists who despite all the accumulated data still accept the Flat Earth Hypothesis. If you think this is nonsense, you have not been reading the news about the Covid epidemic.

Further complications arise from two streams of thought. The first is that the way forward is via simple mathematical models to represent the system. There is much literature on modelling in ecology which is most useful when it is based on good field data, but for too many ecological problems the model is believed more than the data, and the assumptions of the models are not stated or tested. If you think that models lead directly to progress, examine again the Covid modelling situation in the past 2 years. The second stream of thought that complicates ecological science is that of descriptive ecology. Many of the papers in the current literature describe a current set of data or events with no hypothesis in mind. The major offenders are the biodiversity scientists and the ‘measure everything’ scientists. The basis of this approach seems to be that all our data will be of major use in 50, 100 or whatever years, so we must collect major archives of ecological data. Biodiversity is the bandwagon of the present time, and it is a most useful endeavour to classify and categorise species. As such it leads to much natural history that is interesting and important for many non-scientists. And almost everyone would agree that we should protect biodiversity. But while biodiversity studies are a necessary background to ecological studies, they do not lead to progress in the scientific understanding of the ecosphere.

Conservation biology is closely associated with biodiversity science, but it suffers even more from the problems outlined above. Conservation is important for everyone, but the current cascade of papers in conservation biology are too often of little use. We do not need opinion pieces; we need clear thinking and concrete data to solve conservation issues. This is not easy since once a species is endangered there are typically too few of them to study properly. And like the rest of ecological science, funding is so poor that reliable data cannot be achieved, and we are left with more unvalidated indices or opinions on species changes. Climate change puts an enormous kink in any conservation recommendations, but on the other hand serves as a panchrestron, a universal explanation for every possible change that occurs in ecosystems and thus can be used to justify every research agenda, good or poor with spurious correlations.

We could advance our ecological understanding more rapidly by demanding a coherent theoretical framework for all proposed programs of research. Grace (2019) argues that plant ecology has made much progress during the last 80 years, in contrast to the less positive overview of Peters (1991) or my observations outlined above. Prosser (2020) provides a critique for microbial ecology that echoes what Peters argued in 1991. All these divergences of opinion would be worthy of a graduate seminar discussion.

If you think all my observations are nonsense, then you should read the perceptive book by Peters (1991) written 30 years ago on the state of ecological science as well as the insightful evaluation of this book by Grace (2019) and the excellent overview of these questions in Currie (2019).  I suggest that many of the issues Peters (1991) raised are with us in 2022, and his general conclusion that ecology is a weak science rather than a strong one still stands. We should celebrate the increases in ecological understanding that have been achieved, but we could advance the science more rapidly by demanding more rigor in what we publish.

Currie, D.J. (2019). Where Newton might have taken ecology. Global Ecology and Biogeography 28, 18-27. doi: 10.1111/geb.12842.

Grace, John (2019). Has ecology grown up? Plant Ecology & Diversity 12, 387-405. doi: 10.1080/17550874.2019.1638464.

Peters, R.H. (1991) ‘A Critique for Ecology.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.). 366 pages. ISBN: 0521400171

Prosser, J.I. (2020). Putting science back into microbial ecology: a question of approach. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Biological sciences 375, 20190240. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0240.

On the Canadian Biodiversity Observation Network (CAN BON)

I have been reading the report of an exploratory workshop from July 2021 on designing a biodiversity monitoring network across Canada to address priority monitoring gaps and engage Indigenous people across Canada. The 34 pages of their workshop report can be accessed here, and I recommend you might read it before reading my comments on the report:

https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Media-Media/NewsDetail-DetailNouvelles_eng.asp?ID=1310

I have a few comments on this report that are my opinion only. I think the Report on this workshop outlines a plan so grand and misguided that it could not be achieved in this century, even with a military budget. The report is a statement of wisdom put together with platitudes. Why is this and what are the details that I believe to be unachievable?

The major goal of the proposed network is to bring together everyone to improve biodiversity monitoring and address the highest priority gaps to support biodiversity conservation. I think most of the people of Canada would support these objectives, but what does it mean? Let us do a thought experiment. Suppose at this instant in time we knew the distribution and the exact abundance of every species in Canada. What would we know, what could we manage, what good would all these data be except as a list taking up terabytes of data? If we had these data for several years and the numbers or biomass were changing, what could we do? Is all well in our ecosystems or not? What are we trying to maximize when we have no idea of the mechanisms of change? Contrast these concerns about biodiversity with the energy and resources applied in medicine to the mortality of humans infected with Covid viruses in the last 3 years. A monumental effort to examine the mechanisms of infection and ways of preventing illness, with a clear goal and clear measures of progress toward that goal.

There is no difficulty in putting out “dream” reports, and biologists as well as physicists and astronomers, and social scientists have been doing this for years. But in my opinion this report is a dream too far and I give you a few reasons why.

First, we have no clear definition of biodiversity except that it includes everything living, so if we are going to monitor biodiversity what exactly should we do? For some of us monitoring caribou and wolves would be a sufficient program, or whales in the arctic, or plant species in peat bogs. So, to begin with we have to say what operationally we would define as the biodiversity we wish to monitor. We could put all our energy into a single group of species like birds and claim that these are the signal species to monitor for ecosystem integrity. Or should we consider only the COSEWIC list of Threatened or Endangered Species in Canada as our major monitoring concern? So, the first job of CAN BON must be to make a list of what the observation network is supposed to observe (Lindenmayer 2018). There is absolutely no agreement on that simple question within Canada now, and without it we cannot move forward to make an effective network.

The second issue that I take with the existing report is that the emphasis is on observations, and then the question is what problems will be solved by observation alone. The advance of ecological science has been based on observation and experiment directed to specific questions either of ecological interest or of economic interest. In the Pacific salmon fishery for example the objective of observation is to predict escapement and thus allowable harvest quotas. Despite years of high-quality observations and experiments, we are still a long way from understanding the ecosystem dynamics that drive Pacific salmon reproduction and survival.

Contrast the salmon problem with the caribou problem. We have a reasonably good understanding of why caribou populations are declining or not, based on many studies of predator-prey dynamics, harvesting, and habitat management. At present the southern populations of caribou are disappearing because of a loss of habitat because of land use for forestry and mining, and the interacting nexus of factors is well understood. What we do not do as a society is put these ideas into practice for conservation; for example, forestry must have priority over land use for economic reasons and the caribou populations at risk suffer. Once ecological knowledge is well defined, it does not lead automatically to action that biodiversity scientists would like. Climate change is the elephant in the room for many of our ecological problems but it is simultaneously easy to blame and yet uneven in its effects.

The third problem is funding, and this overwhelms the objectives of the Network. Ecological funding in general in Canada is a disgrace, yet we achieve much with little money. If this ever changes it will require major public input and changed governmental objectives, neither is under our immediate control. One way to press this objective forward is to produce a list of the most serious biodiversity problems facing Canada now along with suggestions for their resolution. There is no simple way to develop this list. A by-product of the current funding system in Canada is the shelling out of peanuts in funding to a wide range of investigators whose main job becomes how to jockey for the limited funds by overpromising results. Coordination is rare partly because funding is low. So (for example) I can work only on the tree ecology of the boreal forest because I am not able to expand my studies to include the shrubs, the ground vegetation, the herbivores, and the insect pests, not to mention the moose and the caribou.  

For these reasons and many more that could be addressed from the CAN BON report, I would suggest that to proceed further here is a plan:

  1. Make a list of the 10 or 15 most important questions for biodiversity science in Canada. This alone would be a major achievement.
  2. Establish subgroups organized around each of these questions who can then self-organize to discuss plans for observations and experiments designed to answer the question. Vague objectives are not sufficient. An established measure of progress is essential.
  3. Request a realistic budget and a time frame for achieving these goals from each group.  Find out what the physicists, astronomers, and medical programs deem to be suitable budgets for achieving their goals.
  4. Organize a second CAN BON conference of a small number of scientists to discuss these specific proposals. Any subgroup can participate at this level, but some decisions must be made for the overall objectives of biodiversity conservation in Canada.

These general ideas are not particularly new (Likens 1989, Lindenmayer et al. 2018). They have evolved from the setting up of the LTER Program in the USA (Hobbie 2003), and they are standard operating procedures for astronomers who need to come together with big ideas asking for big money. None of this will be easy to achieve for biodiversity conservation because it requires the wisdom of Solomon and the determination of Vladimir Putin.

Hobbie, J.E., Carpenter, S.R., Grimm, N.B., Gosz, J.R., and Seastedt, T.R. (2003). The US Long Term Ecological Research Program. BioScience 53, 21-32. doi: 10.1016/j.oneear.2021.12.008

Likens, G. E. (Ed.) (1989). ‘Long-term Studies in Ecology: Approaches and Alternatives.’ (Springer Verlag: New York.) ISBN: 0387967435

Lindenmayer, D. (2018). Why is long-term ecological research and monitoring so hard to do? (And what can be done about it). Australian Zoologist 39, 576-580. doi: 10.7882/az.2017.018.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Likens, G.E., and Franklin, J.F. (2018). Earth Observation Networks (EONs): Finding the Right Balance. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 1-3. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.10.008.

Ecological Science: Monitoring vs. Stamp Collecting

Ecology as a science is deeply divided by two views of the natural world. First is the view that we need to monitor changes in the distribution and abundance of the biota and try to explain why these changes are occurring through experiments. The second view is that we need to understand ecosystems as complex systems, and this can be done only by models with a tenuous link to data. It is worth discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each of these views of our science.

The first view could be described as the here-and-now approach, studies of how the populations, communities, and ecosystems are changing in all the biomes on Earth. It is clearly impossible to do this properly because of a lack of funding and person-power. Because of this impossibility we change our focus to short-term studies of populations, species, or communities and try to grasp what is happening in the time scale of our lifetime. This had led to a literature of confusing short-term studies of problems that are long-term. Experiments must be short term because of funding. Any long-term studies such of those highlighted in textbooks are woefully inadequate to support the conclusions reached. Why is this? It is the baffling complexity of even the simplest ecological community. The number of species involved is too large to study all of them, so we concentrate on the more abundant species, assuming all the rare species are of little consequence. This has led to a further division within the monitoring community between conservation ecologists who worry about the extinction of larger, dominant species and those that worry about the loss of rare species.

The first approach is further compromised by climate change and human exploitation of the Earth. You could invest in the study of a grassland ecosystem for 15 years only to find it turned into a subdivision of houses in year 16. We try to draw conclusions in this hypothetical case by the data of the 15 years of study. But if physiological ecologists and climate change models are even approximately correct, the structure of similar grassland ecosystems will change due to rainfall and temperature shifts associated with greenhouse gases. Our only recourse is to hope that evolution of physiological tolerances will change fast enough to rescue our species of interest. But there is no way to know this without further empirical studies that monitor climate and the details of physiological ecology. And we talk now about understanding only single species and are back to the complexity problem of species interactions in communities.

The second approach is to leap over all this complexity as stamp-collecting and concentrate on the larger issues. Are our ecological communities resilient to climate change and species invasions? Part of this approach comes from paleoecology and questions of what has happened during the last 10,000 or one million years. But the details that emerge from paleoecology are very large scale, very interesting but perhaps not a good guide to our future under climate change. If a forward-looking forestry company wishes to make sure it has 100-year-old trees to harvest in 100 years’ time, what species should they plant now in central Canada? Or if a desert community in Chile is to be protected in a national park, what should the management plan involve? These kinds of questions are much harder to answer than simpler ones like how many dingoes will we have in central Australia next year.

Long-term experiments could bridge the gap between these two approaches to ecological understanding, but this would mean proper funding and person-power support for numerous experiments that would have a lifetime of 25 to 100 years or more. This will never happen until we recognize that the Earth is more important than our GDP, and that economics is the king of the sciences.

Where does all this lead ecological scientists? Both approaches have been important to pursue in what has been the first 100 years of ecological studies and they will continue to be important as our ecological understanding improves. We need good experimental science on a small scale and good broad thinking on long time scales with extensive studies of everything from coral reefs to the Alaskan tundra. We need to make use of the insights of behavioural ecology and physiological ecology in reaching our tentative conclusions. And if anyone tells you what will happen in your lifetime in all our forests and all the biodiversity on Earth, you should be very careful to ask for strong evidence before you commit to a future scenario.

Beller, E.E., McClenachan, L., Zavaleta, E.S., and Larsen, L.G. (2020). Past forward: Recommendations from historical ecology for ecosystem management. Global Ecology and Conservation 21, e00836. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00836.

Bro-Jørgensen, J., Franks, D.W., and Meise, K. (2019). Linking behaviour to dynamics of populations and communities: application of novel approaches in behavioural ecology to conservation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B.  Biological Sciences 374: 20190008.  doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0008.

Lidicker, W.Z. (2020). A Scientist’s Warning to humanity on human population growth. Global Ecology and Conservation 24, e01232. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01232.

McGowan, D. W., Goldstein, E. D., and Zador, S. (2020). Spatial and temporal dynamics of Pacific capelin Mallotus catervarius in the Gulf of Alaska: implications for ecosystem-based fisheries management. Marine Ecology. Progress Series 637, 117-140. doi: 10.3354/meps13211.

Tsujimoto, M., Kajikawa, Y., and Matsumoto, Y. (2018). A review of the ecosystem concept — Towards coherent ecosystem design. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 136, 49-58. doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2017.06.032.

Wolfe, Kennedy, Kenyon, Tania M., and Mumby, Peter J. (2021). The biology and ecology of coral rubble and implications for the future of coral reefs. Coral Reefs 40, 1769-1806. doi: 10.1007/s00338-021-02185-9.

Yu, Zicheng, Loisel, J., Brosseau, D.P., Beilman, D.W., and Hunt, S.J. (2010). Global peatland dynamics since the Last Glacial Maximum. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L13402. doi: 10.1029/2010GL043584.

Why Ecology Fails to Prosper

The general science of Ecology has changed dramatically during the last 60 years and my perception is that at present it is failing its critical role in developing science for the good of the Earth. I ask here if this pessimistic view is correct, why that might be, and if it is possible to change our trajectory. Every science must focus on major problems and these problems are too often lost as time progresses. The causes of these changes are rarely due to the competence of the scientists involved and more typically are found in the social milieu.  

The most obvious problem is science funding. You will appreciate that some sciences are funded very extravagantly and others very poorly. It is a decision of most societies that the sciences of medicine, economics and law are the kings of the hill. More funding probably flows to medical science than to all the other sciences combined. You can argue that this is what should occur, since humans are the most dominant and most important species in the Earth’s ecosystems. The confound here is the ethical one – are the poor of the world to be helped or not? Such a question seems outrageous, but just look at the distribution of Covid vaccines at different countries around the world. Economics is a strange bedfellow of medicine in the apparent view of society and its governments. The result is that there are more economists in the world today than non-medical scientists. We will not change this in our day.

The sciences that are most highly regarded are those that achieve two goals: first, rapid developments that improve our wealth, economic, and social goals, and second, developments that enable Earth as a planet to be exploited for human welfare. The physical sciences and engineering permit us to travel quickly, to fight wars against our enemies, and as a spinoff provide us with better automobiles and kitchen appliances. Geology helps us to find oil, iron ore, and lithium while it maps the Earth to help us understand its history. Zoology and Botany are different. They are supported strongly when they interface with the medical sciences and agriculture at a very practical level but otherwise are low in the funding order.

Ecology differs in that it proposes to understand how the populations of animals and plants, the biological communities, and ecosystems operate and what forces cause these to change. The first problem that arises with this mandate it that ecological understanding requires time frames that exceed human lifespans. So, ecology faces the same problem as geology but is not easily able to be useful in telling us where to build dams, where to mine gold and coal. We face an impossible barrier. To describe the biota of the Earth with its millions of species will occupy us for hundreds of years, assuming the funding is there. To understand why communities and ecosystems change will require an equal time span. But since ecological elements are driven in many ways by weather, climate change forces us to analyse an ever-changing network of species interactions.  

A consequence of this dilemma for ecologists is that they must study how humans are destroying the Earth and suggest a resolution of these problems. We are squeezed between our original objective of understanding how ecological interactions structure our world and serious immediate problems. An introduced pest is killing our trees – do something about this. Deer populations are too high so fix that. Fisheries are in difficulty, manage that. Some iconic species are declining in abundance, so citizens push to have more funding for biodiversity conservation. These are all short-term problems, while the need for ecological understanding is almost entirely long term. This takes us back to funding. For the past 30 or more years governments around the world have been reducing funding for ecological investigations. Government biologists have not increased in number given the urgent problems of the day. University funding of ecological sciences and ecological faculty members has declined partly because ecologists do not increase economic growth. Private funding has not come to the rescue because it is largely directed to social and economic issues, partly because of the feeling that it is the government’s job to deal with long-term issues in research.

The only solution is for ecologists to work together on important large-scale ecological problems with minimal funding. But this is impossible within the university system in which teaching is a focus and research can only be short-term. Attempts to address the large-scale ecological issues have resulted in many publications that use meta-analyses to resolve ecological questions. I doubt that these have achieved the resolution of ecological issues that we need (e.g. Geary et al. 2020).

What can we do about this relatively gloomy situation? One suggestion is to continue as we are, addressing short-term questions with limited funding. The advantage of this approach is that it allows individuals freedom from group constraints. One disadvantage is that two studies of the same problem may not be comparable unless the methods used were the same (e.g. Christie et al. 2019). The argument that climate change is happening so everything will change, and the past will not be relevant to the present is an argument of a broad uncoordinated approach to ecological issues.

Another approach can be to identify the critical ecological questions that we need answered now. Few have been brave enough to attempt this (Sutherland et al. 2010, 2013, 2018) for the broad area of conservation biology. An attempt to judge how much progress had been made on the issues listed in these three papers would be profitable in order to determine if this approach is useful in coordinating research programs. We might hope that ecological discord would be reduced if critical ecological questions were attacked with a consistent experimental design.

This discussion of ecology fits under the ‘empirical ecological studies’ framework of Fulton et al. (2019), and the expansive belief that theoretical models and system models will drive ecology into a successful science is illustrated in this recent review (O’Connor et al. 2020) and the accompanying articles. My concern is that these approaches have gotten us very little ahead in understanding ecological systems to date, and that until empirical ecological studies are increased in scope, duration, and precision we will not know whether models and systems analysis are leading us to a better understanding of the Earth’s ecosystems and the drivers of change or not. There is much left to be done.  

Christie, A.P.et al. (2019). Simple study designs in ecology produce inaccurate estimates of biodiversity responses Journal of Applied Ecology 56, 2742-2754. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.13499.

Fulton, E.A.et al. (2019). Where the ecological gaps remain, a modelers’ perspective. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 7. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00424.

Geary, W.L., et al. (2020). Predator responses to fire: A global systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology 89, 955-971. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13153.

O’Connor, M.I.et al. (2020). Editorial: Unifying ecology Across scales: Progress, challenges and opportunities. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 8, 610459. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2020.610459.

Sutherland, W.J. et al. (2010). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25, 1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003.

Sutherland, W.J. et al. (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101, 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.

Why Science is Frustrating

Many people train in science because they are convinced that this is an important route to doing good in the world. We operate on the simple model that science leads to knowledge of how to solve problems and once we have that knowledge the application to policy and management should be reasonably simple. This model is of course wildly incomplete, so if you are a young person contemplating what to do with your life, you should perhaps think very carefully about how to achieve progress. I review here three current examples of failures of science in the timely management of acute problems.

The first and most complex current problem is the Covid-19 pandemic. Since this virus disease became a pandemic more than a year ago, many scientists have investigated how to thwart it. There was spectacular success in developing vaccines and advances in a basic understanding the virus. However, some proposals had no value, and this was often because the scientific papers involved were not yet peer reviewed but were released to the news media as though they were the truth. All the common mistakes of scientific investigation were in clear view, from simple hypotheses with no testing to a failure to consider multiple working hypotheses, to a failure to evaluate data because of non-disclosure agreements. Speed seemed to be of the essence, and if there is a sure way to accumulate poor science it is by means of speed, including little attention to experimental design, probabilities, and statistical analysis. Many books will soon appear about this pandemic, and blame for failures will be spread in all directions. Perhaps the best advice for the average person was the early advice suitable for all pandemics – avoid crowds, wash your hands, do not travel. But humans are impatient, and we await life going “back to normal”, which is to say back to rising CO2 and ignoring the poor.  

A second example is the logging of old growth forests. Ecologists all over the world from the tropics to the temperate zone have for the last 40-50 years decried logging practices that are not sustainable. Foresters have too often defended the normal practices as being sustainable with clever statements that they plant one tree for every one they cut, and look out your car window, trees are everywhere. It is now evident to anyone who opens their eyes that there is little old growth left (< 1% in British Columbia). But why does that matter when the trees are valuable and will grow back in a century or two or four? Money and jobs trump biodiversity and promises of governments adopting an “old-growth logging policy” appear regularly, to be achieved in a year or two. The tragedy is written large in the economics where for example in British Columbia the local government has spent $10 billion in the last 10 years supporting the forestry industry while the industry has contributed $6 billion in profits, not exactly a good rate of return on investment, particularly when the countryside has been laid waste in the process. Another case in which economics and government policy has trumped ecological research in the past but the need to protect old growth forests is gaining with public support now.

A third example comes again from medicine, a fertile area where money and influence too often outrace medical science. We have now a drug that is posed to alleviate or reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s, a tragic disease which affects many older people (Elmaleh et al. 2019, Nardini et al. 2021). A variety of drugs have been developed in an attempt to stop the mental deterioration of Alzheimer’s but none so far has been shown to work. A new drug (Aducanumab) is now available in the USA for treatment of Alzheimer’s but it already has a checkered history. This drug seemed to fail its first major trials yet was then approved by the Federal Drug Administration in the USA over the protests of several doctors (Knopman, Jones, and Greicius 2021). Given a cost of thousands of dollars a month for administering this new drug to a single patient, we can see the same scenario developing that we described for the forest industry and old growth logging – public pressure for new drugs resulting in questionable regulatory decisions.

There are several general messages that come out of this simple list. The most important one is that science-on-demand is not feasible for most serious problems. Plan Ahead ought to be the slogan written on every baseball hat, sombrero, Stetson, toque and turban to remind us that science takes time, as well as wisdom and money. If you think we are having problems in the current pandemic, start planning for the next one. If you think that drought is now a problem in western North America, start hedging your bets for the next drought. Sciences moves more slowly than iPhone models and requires long-term investments.

I think the bottom line of all the conflict between science and policy is discouraging for young people and scientists who are doing their best to unravel problems in modern societies and to join these solutions to public policy (González-Márquez and Toledo 2020). Examples are too numerous to list. Necessary policies for controlling climate change interfere with people’s desires for increased global travel but we now realize controls are necessary. Desirable human development goals can conflict with biodiversity conservation, but we must manage this conflict (Clémençon 2021). The example of feral horses and their effects on biodiversity in Australia and the USA is another good example of a clash of scientific goals with social preferences for horses (Boyce et al. 2021). Nevertheless, there are many cases in which public policy and conservation have joint goals (Tessnow-von Wysocki and Vadrot 2020, Holden et al. 2021). The key is to carry the scientific data and our frustration into policy discussions with social scientists and politicians. We may be losing ground in some areas but the present crises in human health and climate change present opportunities to design another kind of world than we have had for the last century.

Boyce, P. N., Hennig, J. D., Brook, R. K., and McLoughlin, P. D. (2021). Causes and consequences of lags in basic and applied research into feral wildlife ecology: the case for feral horses. Basic and Applied Ecology 53, 154-163. doi: 10.1016/j.baae.2021.03.011.

Clémençon, R. (2021). Is sustainable development bad for global biodiversity conservation? Global Sustainability 4. doi: 10.1017/sus.2021.14 2021.14.

Elmaleh, D.R., Farlow, M.R., Conti, P.S., Tompkins, R.G., Kundakovic, L., and Tanzi, R.E. (2019). Developing effective Alzheimer’s Disease therapies: Clinical experience and future directions. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 71, 715-732. doi: 10.3233/JAD-190507.

González-Márquez, I. and Toledo, V.M. (2020). Sustainability Science: A paradigm in crisis? Sustainability 12, 2802. doi: 10.3390/su12072802.

Holden, E., Linnerud, K., and Rygg, B.J. (2021). A review of dominant sustainable energy narratives. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 144. doi: 10.1016/j.rser.2021.110955.

Knopman, D.S., Jones, D.T., and Greicius, M.D. (2021). Failure to demonstrate efficacy of aducanumab: An analysis of the EMERGE and ENGAGE trials as reported by Biogen, December 2019. Alzheimer’s & Dementia 17, 696-701. doi:/10.1002/alz.12213.

Nardini, E., Hogan, R., Flamier, A., and Bernier, G. (2021). Alzheimer’s disease: a tale of two diseases? Neural Regeneration Research 16, 1958. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.308070

Tessnow-von Wysocki, I. and Vadrot, A.B.M. (2020). The voice of science on marine biodiversity negotiations: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in Marine Science 7, 614282. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.614282.

On Innovative Ecological Research

Ecological research should have an impact on policy development. For the most part it does not. You do not need to take my word for this, since I am over the age of 40, so for confirmation you might read the New Zealand Environmental Science Funding Review (2020) which stated:

“I am not confident that there is a coherent basis for our national investment in environmental science. I am particularly concerned that there is no mechanism that links the ongoing demand environmental reporting makes for an understanding of complex ecological processes that evolve over decades, and a science funding system that is constantly searching for innovation, impact and linkages to the ever-changing demands of business and society.” (page 3)

Of course New Zealand may be an outlier, so we must seek confirmation in the Northern Hemisphere. Bill Sutherland and his many colleagues has every 3-4 years since 2006 (nearly in concert with the lemming cycle) put out an extraordinary array of suggestions for important ecological questions that need to be answered for conservation and management. If you should be running a seminar this year, you might consider doing a historical survey of how these suggestions have changed since 2006, 2010, 2013, to 2018. Excellent questions, and how much progress has there been on answering his challenges?

Some progress to be sure, and for that we are thankful, but the problems multiply faster than ecological progress, and I am reminded of trying to stop a snow avalanche with a shovel. Why should this be? There are some very big questions in ecology that we need to answer but my first observation is that we have made little progress with the Sutherland et al. (2006) list, which would be largely culled from the previous many years of ecological studies. The first problem is that research funding is too often geared to novel and innovative proposals, so that if you would ask for funding to answer an old question that Charles Elton proposed in the 1950s, you would be struck off the list of innovative ecologists and possibly exiled to Mars with Elon Musk. Innovation in the mind of the granting agencies is based on the iPhone and the latest models of cars which have a time scale of one year. Any ecologist working on a problem that has a time scale of 30 years is behind the times. So when you write a grant request proposal you are pushed to restate the problems recognized long ago as though they were newly recognized with new methods of analysis.

There is no doubt some truly innovative ecological research, and to list these might be another interesting seminar project, but most of the environmental problems of our day are very old problems that remain unresolved. Government agencies in some countries have a list of problems of the here-and-now that university research rarely focuses on because the research cannot be innovative. These mostly practical problems must then be solved by government environmental departments with their ever-shrinking resources, so they in turn contract these out to the private sector with its checkered record of gathering the data required for solving the problems at hand.

Environmental scientists will complain that when they do reach conclusions that will at least partly resolve the problems of the day, governments refuse to act on this knowledge because of a variety of vested interests; if the environment wins, the vested interests lose, not a zero-sum game. If you want a good example, note that John Tyndall recognized CO2 and the Greenhouse Effect in 1859, and Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chamberlin calculated in 1896 that burning fossil fuels increased CO2 such that 2 X CO2 would = + 5ºC rise in temperature. And in 2021 some people still argue about this conclusion.

My suggestion is that we would be better off striking the word ‘innovation’ from all our granting councils and environmental research funding organizations, and replacing it with ‘excellent’ and ‘well designed’ as qualities to support. You are still allowed to talk about ‘innovative’ iPhones and autos, but we are better off with ‘excellent’ environmental and ecological research.

New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. (2020). A review of the funding and prioritisation of environmental research in New Zealand (Wellington, New Zealand.) Available online: https://www.pce.parliament.nz/publications/environmental-research-funding-review

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2006). The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK. Journal of Applied Ecology 43, 617-627. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01188.x.

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2010). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25, 1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003

Sutherland, W.J., (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101, 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.