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.

1 thought on “On Innovative Ecological Research

  1. Simon Leather

    I really enjoy your rants, but why don’t you have a couple of share buttons for Twitter at the very least?

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