On Global Science and Local Science

I suggest that the field of ecology is fragmenting into two large visions of the science which for the sake of simplicity I will call Global Science and Local Science. This fragmentation is not entirely new, and some history might be in order.

Local Science deals with local problems, and while it aspires to develop conclusions that apply to a broader area than the small study area, it has always been tied to useful answers for practical questions. Are predators the major control of caribou declines in northern Canada? Can rats on islands reduce ground-nesting birds to extinction? Does phosphate limit primary production in temperate lakes? Historically Local Science has arisen from the practical problems of pest control and wildlife and fisheries management with a strong focus on understanding how populations and communities work and how humans might solve the ecological problems they have largely produced (Kingsland 2005). The focus of Local Science was always on a set of few species that were key to the problem being studied. As more and more wisdom accumulated on local problems, ecologists turned to broadening the scope of enquiry, asking for example if solutions discovered in Minnesota might also be useful in England or vice versa. Consequently, Local Science began to be amalgamated into a broader program of Global Science.

Global Science can be defined in several ways. One is purely financial and big dollars; this not what I will discuss here. I want to discuss Global Science in terms of ecological syntheses, and Global Science papers can often be recognized by having dozens to hundreds of authors, all with data to share, and with meta-analysis as the major tool of analysis. Global Science is now in my opinion moving away from the experimental approach that was a triumph of Local Science. The prelude to Global Science was the International Biological Program (IBP) of the 1970s that attempted to produce large-scale systems analyses of communities and ecosystems but had little effect in convincing many ecologists that this was the way to the future. At the time the problem was largely the development of a theory of stability, a property barely visible in most ecological systems.

Global Science depends on describing patterns that occur across large spatial scales. These patterns can be discovered only by having an extensive, reliable set of local studies and this leads to two problems. The first is that there may be too few reliable local studies. This may occur because different ecologists use different methods of measurement, do not use a statistically reliable sampling design, or may be constrained by a lack of funding or time. The second problem is that different areas may show different patterns of the variables under measurement or have confounding causes that are not recognized. The approach through meta-analysis is fraught with the decisions that must be made to include or exclude specific studies. For example, a recent meta-analysis of the global insect decline surveyed 5100 papers and used 166 of them for analysis (van Klink et al. 2020). It is not that the strengths and limitations of meta-analysis have been missed (Gurevitch et al. 2018) but rather the question of whether they are increasing our understanding of the Earth’s ecology. Meta-analyses can be useful in suggesting patterns that require more detailed analyses. In effect they violate many of the rules of conventional science in not having an experimental design, so that they suggest patterns but can be validated only by a repeat of the observations. So, in the best situations meta-analyses lead us back to Local Science. In some situations, meta-analyses lead to no clear understanding at all, as illustrated in the conclusions of Geary et al. (2020) who investigated the response of terrestrial vertebrate predators to fire:

“There were no clear, general responses of predators to fire, nor relationships with geographic area, biome or life-history traits (e.g. body mass, hunting strategy and diet). Responses varied considerably between species.” (page 955)

Note that this study is informative in that it indicates that ecologists have not yet identified the variables that determine the response of predators to fire. In other cases, meta-analysis has been useful in redirecting ecological questions because the current global model does not fit the facts very well (Szuwalski et al. 2015).

The result of this movement within both ecological and conservation science toward Global Science has been a shift in the amount of field work being done. Rios-Saldana et al. (2018) surveyed the conservation literature over the last 35 years and found that fieldwork-based publications decreased by 20% in comparison to a rise of 600% and 800% in modelling and data analysis studies. This conclusion could be interpreted that ecologists now realize that less fieldwork is needed at this time, or perhaps the opposite. 

In an overview of ecological science David Currie (2019) described an approach to understanding how progress in ecology has differed from that in the physical sciences. He suggests that the physical sciences focused on a set of properties of nature whose variation they analyzed. They developed ‘laws’ Like Newton’s laws or motion that could be tested in simple or complex systems. By contrast ecology has developed largely by asking how processes like competition or predation work, and not by asking questions about the properties of natural systems, which is what interests the general public trying to solve problems in conservation or pest or fisheries management. Currie (2019) summarized his approach as follows:

“Successful disciplines identify specific goals and measure progress toward those goals. Predictive accuracy of properties of nature is a measure of that progress in ecology. Predictive accuracy is the objective evidence of understanding. It is the most useful tool that science can offer society.” (page 18)

Many of these same questions underlay the critical appraisal of ecology by Peters (1991).

There is no one approach to ecological science, but we need to continue to ask what progress is being made with every approach. These are key questions for the future of ecological research, and they are worthy of much more discussion because they determine what students will be taught and what kinds of research will be favoured for funding in the future.

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

Geary, W.L., Doherty, T.S., Nimmo, D.G., Tulloch, A.I.T., and Ritchie, E.G. (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.

Gurevitch, J., Koricheva, J., Nakagawa, S., and Stewart, G. (2018). Meta-analysis and the science of research synthesis. Nature 555, 175-182. doi: 10.1038/nature25753.

Kingsland, Sharon .E. (2005) ‘The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890-2000  ‘ (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.) ISBN: 0801881714

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

Ríos-Saldaña, C. Antonio, Delibes-Mateos, Miguel, and Ferreira, Catarina C. (2018). Are fieldwork studies being relegated to second place in conservation science? Global Ecology and Conservation 14: e00389. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2018.e00389.

Szuwalski, C.S., Vert-Pre, K.A., Punt, A.E., Branch, T.A., and Hilborn, R. (2015). Examining common assumptions about recruitment: a meta-analysis of recruitment dynamics for worldwide marine fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 16, 633-648. doi: 10.1111/faf.12083.

van Klink, R., Bowler, D.E., Gongalsky, K.B., Swengel, A.B., Gentile, A. and Chase, J.M. (2020). Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science 368, 417-420. doi: 10.1126/science.aax9931.