Ecology became a serious science some 100 years ago when the problems that it sought to understand were clear and simple: the reasons for the distribution and abundance of organisms on Earth. It subdivided fairly early into three parts, population, community, and ecosystem ecology. It was widely understood that to understand population ecology you needed to know a great deal about physiology and behaviour in relation to the environment, and to understand community ecology you had to know a great deal about population dynamics. Ecosystem ecology then moved into community ecology plus all the physical and chemical interactions with the whole environment. But the sciences are not static, and ecology in the past 60 years has come to include nearly everything from chemistry and geography to meteorological sciences, so if you tell someone you are an ‘ecologist’ now, they have only a vague idea of what you do.
The latest invader into the ecology sphere has been conservation biology so that in the last 20 years it has become a dominant driver of ecological concerns. This has brought ecology into the forefront of publicity and the resulting political areas of controversy, not necessarily bad but with some scientific consequences. ‘Bandwagons’ are for the most part good in science because it attracts good students and professors and brings public support on side. Bandwagons are detrimental when they draw too much of the available scientific funding away from critical basic research and champion scientific fads.
The question I wish to raise is whether conservation ecology has become the latest fad in the broad science of ecology and whether this has derailed important background research. Conservation science begins with the broad and desirable goal of preserving all life on Earth and thus thwarting extinctions. This is an impossible goal and the question then becomes how can we trim it down to an achievable scientific aim? We could argue that the most important goal is to describe all the species on Earth, so that we would then know what “money” we have in the “bank”. But if we look at the insects alone, we see that this is not an achievable goal in the short term. And the key to many of these issues is what we mean by “the short term”. If we are talking10 years, we may have very specific goals, if 100 years we may redesign the goal posts, and if 1000 years again our views might change.
This is a key point. As humans we design our goals in the time frames of months and a few years, not in general in geological time. Because of climate change we are now being forced to view many things in a shorter and shorter time frame. If you live in Miami, you should do something about sea level rise now. If you grow wheat in Australia, you should worry about decreasing annual rainfall. But science in general does not have a time frame. Technology does, and we need a new phone every year, but the understanding of cancer or the ecology of tropical rain forests does not have a deadline.
But conservation biology has a ticking clock called extinction. Now we can compound our concerns about climate change and conservation to capture more of the funding for biological research in order to prevent extinctions of rare and endangered species.
Ecological science over the past 40 years has been progressing slowly through population ecology into community and ecosystem ecology while learning that the details of populations are critical to the understanding of community function and learning how communities operate is necessary for understanding ecosystem change. None of this has been linear progress but rather a halting progression with many deviations and false leads. In order to push this agenda forward more funding has clearly been needed because teams of researchers are needed to understand a community and even more people to study an ecosystem. At the same time the value of long-term studies has become evident and equipment has become more expensive.
We have now moved into the Anthropocene in which in my opinion the focus has shifted completely from trying to answer the primary problems of ecological science to the conservation of organisms. In practice this has too often resulted in research that could only be called poor population ecology. Poor in the sense of the need for immediate short-term answers for declining species populations with no proper understanding of the underlying problem. We are faced with calls for funding that are ‘crying wolf’ with inadequate data but heartfelt opinions. Recovery plans for single species or closely related groups focus on a set of unstudied opinions that may well be correct, but to test these ideas in a reliable scientific manner would take years. Triage on a large scale is practiced without discussing the issue, and money is thrown at problems based on the publicity generated. Populations of threatened species continue to decline in what can only be described as failed management. Blame is spread in all directions to developers or farmers or foresters or chemical companies. I do not think these are the signs of a good science which above all ought to work from the strength of evidence and prepare recovery plans based on empirical science.
Part of the problem I think lies in the modern need to ‘do something’, ‘do anything’ to show that you care about a particular problem. ‘We have now no time for slow-moving conventional science, we need immediate results now’. Fortunately, many ecologists are critical of these undesirable trends in our science and carry on (e.g. Amos et al. 2013). You will not likely read tweets about these people or read about them in your daily newspapers. Evidence-based science is rarely quick, and complaints like those that I give here are not new (Sutherland et al. 2004, Likens 2010, Nichols 2012).
Amos, J.N., Balasubramaniam, S., Grootendorst, L. et al. (2013). Little evidence that condition, stress indicators, sex ratio, or homozygosity are related to landscape or habitat attributes in declining woodland birds. Journal of Avian Biology 44, 45-54. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-048X.2012.05746.x
Likens, G.E. (2010). The role of science in decision making: does evidence-based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8, e1-e9. doi: 10.1890/090132
Nichols, J.D. (2012). Evidence, models, conservation programs and limits to management. Animal Conservation 15, 331-333. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00574.x
Sutherland, W.J., Pullin, A.S., Dolman, P.M., Knight, T.M. (2004). The need for evidence-based conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19, 305-308. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.03.018