Tag Archives: climate change

Is Ecology Becoming a Correlation Science?

One of the first lessons in Logic 101 is classically called “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” or in plain English, “After that, therefore because of that”. The simplest example of many you can see in the newspapers might be: “The ocean is warming up, salmon populations are going down, it must be another effect of climate change. There is a great deal of literature on the problems associated with these kinds of simple inferences, going back to classics like Romesburg (1981), Cox and Wermuth (2004), Sugihara et al. (2012), and Nichols et al. (2019). My purpose here is only to remind you to examine cause and effect when you make ecological conclusions.

My concern is partly related to news articles on ecological problems. A recent example is the collapse of the snow crab fishery in the Gulf of Alaska which in the last 5 years has gone from a very large and profitable fishery interacting with a very large crab population to, at present, a closed fishery with very few snow crabs. What has happened? Where did the snow crabs go? No one really knows but there are perhaps half a dozen ideas put forward to explain what has happened. Meanwhile the fishery and the local economy are in chaos. Without very many critical data on this oceanic ecosystem we can list several factors that might be involved – climate change warming of the Bering Sea, predators, overfishing, diseases, habitat disturbances because of bottom trawl fishing, natural cycles, and then recognizing that we have no simple way for deciding cause and effect and therefore making management choices.

The simplest solution is to say that many interacting factors are involved and many papers indicate the complexity of populations, communities and ecosystems (e,g, Lidicker 1991, Holmes 1995, Howarth et al. 2014). Everyone would agree with this general idea, “the world is complex”, but the arguments have always been “how do we proceed to investigate ecological processes and solve ecological problems given this complexity?” The search for generality has led mostly into replications in which ‘identical’ populations or communities behave very differently. How can we resolve this problem? A simple answer to all this is to go back to the correlation coefficient and avoid complexity.

Having some idea of what is driving changes in ecological systems is certainly better than having no idea, but it is a problem when only one explanation is pushed without a careful consideration of alternative possibilities. The media and particularly the social media are encumbered with oversimplified views of the causes of ecological problems which receive wide approbation with little detailed consideration of alternative views. Perhaps we will always be exposed to these oversimplified views of complex problems but as scientists we should not follow in these footsteps without hard data.

What kind of data do we need in science? We must embrace the rules of causal inference, and a good start might be the books of Popper (1963) and Pearl and Mackenzie (2018) and for ecologists in particular the review of the use of surrogate variables in ecology by Barton et al. (2015). Ecologists are not going to win public respect for their science until they can avoid weak inference, minimize hand waving, and follow the accepted rules of causal inference. We cannot build a science on the simple hypothesis that the world is complicated or by listing multiple possible causes for changes. Correlation coefficients can be a start to unravelling complexity but only a weak one. We need better methods for resolving complex issues in ecology.

Barton, P.S., Pierson, J.C., Westgate, M.J., Lane, P.W. & Lindenmayer, D.B. (2015) Learning from clinical medicine to improve the use of surrogates in ecology. Oikos, 124, 391-398.doi: 10.1111/oik.02007.

Cox, D.R. and Wermuth, N. (2004). Causality: a statistical view. International Statistical Reviews 72: 285-305.

Holmes, J.C. (1995) Population regulation: a dynamic complex of interactions. Wildlife Research, 22, 11-19.

Howarth, L.M., Roberts, C.M., Thurstan, R.H. & Stewart, B.D. (2014) The unintended consequences of simplifying the sea: making the case for complexity. Fish and Fisheries, 15, 690-711.doi: 10.1111/faf.12041

Lidicker, W.Z., Jr. (1991) In defense of a multifactor perspective in population ecology. Journal of Mammalogy, 72, 631-635.

Nichols, J.D., Kendall, W.L. & Boomer, G.S. (2019) Accumulating evidence in ecology: Once is not enough. Ecology and Evolution, 9, 13991-14004.doi: 10.1002/ece3.5836.

Pearl, J., and Mackenzie, D. 2018. The Book of Why. The New Science of Cause and Effect. Penguin, London, U.K. 432 pp. ISBN: 978-1541698963

Popper, K.R. 1963. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. 608 pp. ISBN: 978-1541698963

Romesburg, H.C. (1981) Wildlife science: gaining reliable knowledge. Journal of Wildlife Management, 45, 293-313.

Sugihara, G., et al. (2012) Detecting causality in complex ecosystems. Science, 338, 496-500.doi: 10.1126/science.1227079.

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.

On Ecological Climate Change Research

The media world is awash in climate change articles and warnings. When your town is faced with the fourth one-in-100-year-flood or your favourite highway has been washed away, you should perhaps become aware that something is changing rapidly. Ecologists are aware of the problems that climate change is producing, and the question I want to raise here is what kind of research is needed to outline current and future problems and suggest possible solutions. This fact of current climate change means that each of us has something important to do at the individual level to reduce the impacts of climate change, like taking the bus or bicycling. But that is another whole set of social issues that I cannot cover here.

The first thing most scientific organizations want to do when faced with a big problem is to have endless meetings about the problem. This unfortunately eats up much money and produces little understanding except that the problem is complicated and multidimensional. Ecological research on climate change must begin with the axiom that climate change is happening rapidly, and that we as ecological scientists can do nothing about this at the level of climate physics. Given this, what are we to do? The first approach we could take is to ignore climate change and carry on with normal research agendas. This works very well for short term problems on the time scale of 20-30 years. Since this is the research lifespan of most ecological scientists, it is not an unreasonable approach. But it does not help solve the earth’s future problems, and this is not a desirable path to take in science.

There are three broad problems that accompany climate change for ecological science. First, geographical ranges of species will shift. We have from paleoecology much information on some of these changes since the last Ice Age. Data from palaeontology is less useful to planning, given that we have enough problems trying to forecast the next 100 years of change. So, we have major ecological question #1 – what limits the geographical distributions of species? This relatively simple question is greatly confounded by human activities. If we send oil and other chemical pollution out onto a coastal coral reef, we should not be surprised if the local distribution of sea life is affected. For ecologists this class of problems of distribution changes caused by human activities is a very important focus of research. If you doubt this, read about Covid viruses. But there is also a large area of research needed to estimate the possible changes in geographic distributions of organisms that are not immediately affected by human activities. How fast will tree species colonize up-slope in mountains around the globe, and how will this affect the bird and mammals that depend on trees or the vegetation types the trees displace? These changes are local and complex, and we can begin by describing them, but to understand the limiting factors involved in changes in geographical distributions is not easy.

Population ecology addresses the second central question of ecology: what causes changes in the abundance of particular species? While we need answers to this simple question for our conservation and management issues, population ecology is an even bigger minefield for research on the effects of climate change. There is no doubt that climate in general can affect the abundance and changes in abundance of organisms, but the complications lie in determining the detailed mechanisms of explaining these changes in abundance. Large scale climate indicators like ENSO sometimes correlate positively with animal population increases, sometimes negatively, and sometimes not at all in different populations (Wan et al. 2022). Consequently, a changing climate may not have a universal effect on biodiversity. This means we must dive into details of how climate affects our specific population, is it via maximum temperatures?, minimum temperatures?, dry season rainfall?, wet season rainfall? etc., and each of these aspects of weather have many subcomponents – March temperatures, April temperatures, etc. and the search for an explanation can thus become infinite. The problem is that the number of possible explanatory variables in weather dwarfs the number of years of observations of our study species (c.f. Ginzburg and Jensen 4004, Loken and Gelman 2017). The result is that some of the strongest papers with conclusions about the impact of climatic change on animals can be in error (Daskalova. Phillimore, and Myers-Smith 2021). The statistical pitfalls have been discussed for many years (e.g., Underwood and Chapman 2003) but are still commonly seen in the ecological literature today.

A third central question is that each population is embedded in a community of other species which may interact so that we must analyse the changes occurring community and ecosystem dynamics. Changes in biological communities and ecosystems are subject to complications arising from climate change and more because of species interactions which are not easy to measure. These difficulties do not mean that we should stop trying to explain population and community changes that might be related to climate change. What it does mean is that we should not jump to strong conclusions without considering all the alternate possible agents that are changing the earth’s biomes. The irony is that the human caused shifts are easy to diagnose but difficult to fix because of economics, while the pure climate caused shifts in ecosystems are difficult to diagnose and to validate the exact mechanisms involved. We need both strong involvement in diagnosing the major ecological problems associated with climate change, but this must be coupled with modesty in our suggested conclusions and explanations. There is much to be done.

Daskalova, Gergana N., Phillimore, Albert B., and Myers-Smith, Isla H. (2021). Accounting for year effects and sampling error in temporal analyses of invertebrate population and biodiversity change: a comment on Seibold et al. 2019. Insect Conservation and Diversity 14, 149-154. doi: 10.1111/icad.12468.

Ginzburg, L. R. and Jensen, C. X. J. (2004). Rules of thumb for judging ecological theories. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19, 121-126. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2003.11.004.

Loken, Eric and Gelman, Andrew (2017). Measurement error and the replication crisis. Science 355, 584. doi: 10.1126/science.aal3618.

Underwood, A. J. and Chapman, M. G. (2003). Power, precaution, Type II error and sampling design in assessment of environmental impacts. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 296, 49-70. doi: 10.1016/s0022-0981(03)00304-6.

Wan, Xinru, Holyoak, Marcel, Yan, Chuan, Maho, Yvon Le, Dirzo, Rodolfo, et al. (2022). Broad-scale climate variation drives the dynamics of animal populations: A global multi-taxa analysis. Biological Reviews 97. (in press).

Five Stages of Ecological Research

Ecological research falls into five broad classes or stages. Each stage has its strengths and its limitations, and it is important to recognize these since no one stage is more or less important than any other. I suggest a classification of these five stages as follows:

  1. Natural History
  2. Behavioural Ecology
  3. Applied Ecology
  4. Conservation Ecology
  5. Ecosystem Ecology

The Natural History stage is the most popular with the public and in some sense the simplest type of ecological research while at the same time the critical foundation of all subsequent research. Both Bartholomew (1986) and Dayton (2003) made impassioned pleas for the study of natural history as a basis of understanding all the biological sciences. In some sense this stage of biological science has now come into its own in popularity, partly because of influential TV shows like those of David Attenborough but also because of the ability of talented wildlife photographers to capture amazing moments of animals in the natural world. Many scientists still look upon natural history as “stamp-collecting” unworthy of a serious ecologist, but this stage is the foundational element of all ecological research.

Behavioural ecology became popular as one of the early outcomes of natural history observations within the broad framework of asking questions about how individuals in a population behave, and what the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these behaviours are to adaptation and possible future evolution. One great advantage of studying behavioural ecology has been that it is quick, perfectly suited to asking simple questions, devising experimental tests, and then being able to write a report, or a thesis on these results (Davies et al. 2012). Behavioural ecology is one of the strongest research areas of ecological science and provides entertainment for students of natural history and excellent science to understand individual behaviour and how it fits into population studies. It is perhaps the strongest of the ecological approaches for drawing the public into an interest in biodiversity.

Applied ecology is one of the oldest fields of ecology since it arose more than 100 years ago from local problems of how organisms affected human livelihoods. It has subdivided into three important sub-fields – pest management, wildlife management, and fisheries management. Applied ecology relies heavily on the principles of population ecology, one level above the individual studies of behavioural and natural history research. These fields are concerned with population changes, whether to reduce populations to stop damage to crops, or to understand why some species populations become pests. All applied ecology heavily interreacts with human usage of the environment and the economics of farming, fisheries, and wildlife harvesting. In a general sense applied ecology is a step more difficult than behavioural ecology because answering the applied problems or management has a longer time frame than the typical three-year thesis project. Applied ecology has a broad interface with evolutionary ecology because human actions can disrupt natural selection and pest evolution can complicate every management problem.

Conservation ecology is the new kid on the block. It was part of wildlife and fisheries management until about 1985 when it was clear to all that some populations were endangered by human changes to the ecosystems of fisheries, forestry, and agriculture. The essential problems of conservation ecology were described elegantly by Caughley (1994). Conservation issues are the most visible of all issues in population and community ecology, and they are often the most difficult to resolve when science dictates one conservation solution that interferes with the dominant economic view of human society. If species of interest are rare the problem is further confounded by the difficulty of studying rare species in the field. What will become of the earth’s ecosystems in the future depends in large part as to how these conservation conflicts can be resolved.

Ecosystem ecology and community ecology are the important focus at present but are hampered by a lack of a clear vision of what needs to be done and what can be done. The problem is partly that there is much poor theory, coupled with much poor data. The critical questions in ecosystem ecology are currently too vague to be studied in a realistic time period of less than 50 years. Climate change is impacting all our current ideas about community stability and resilience, and what predictions we can make for whole ecosystems in the light of a poor database. Ironically experimental manipulations are being done by companies with an economic focus such as forestry but there are few funds to make use of these large-scale landscape changes. In the long term, ecosystem ecology is the most significant aspect of ecology for humans, but it is the weakest in terms of understanding ecosystem processes. We can all see the negative effects of human changes on landscapes, but we have little in the way of scientific guidance to predict the long-term consequences of these changes and how they can be successfully ameliorated.

All of this is distressing to practical ecologists who wish to make a difference and be able to counteract undesirable changes in populations and ecosystems. It is important for all of us not to give up on reversing negative trends in conservation and land management and we need to do all we can to influence the public in general and politicians in particular to change negative trends to positive ones in our world. An array of good books points this out very forcefully (e.g., Monbiot 2018, Klein 2021). It is the job of every ecologist to gather the data and present ecological science to the community at large so we can contribute to decision making about the future of the Earth.

Bartholomew, G. A. (1986). The role of natural history in contemporary biology. BioScience 36, 324-329. doi: 10.2307/1310237

Caughley, G. (1994). Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology 63, 215-244. doi: 10.2307/5542

Davies, N.B., Krebs, J.R., and West, S.A. (2012) ‘An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology.‘ 4th edn. (Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.). 520 pp.

Dayton, P.K. (2003). The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist 162, 1-13. doi: 10.1086/376572

Klein, Naomi (2021) ‘How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other ‘ (Simon and Schuster: New York.) 336 pp. ISBN: 978-1534474529

Monbiot, George. (2018) ‘Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.’ (Verso.). 224 pp. ISBN: 1786632896

What Can You Do About the Climate Emergency?

It is very easy to do little in the climate emergency because it is a long-term problem, and many of us will be gone by 2050 when Shell Oil and our government promise Net Zero emissions. Possibly the first thing you should do is find out what “net zero” really means. “Net zero emissions” refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced by us and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere. So clearly it does not mean zero emissions so pollution will still be with us, and all it promises is equality between what goes in and what comes out. If you believe that net-zero will happen, you are living in la-la land, but consider it a scientific hypothesis and if you are young and live to 2050, check the numbers. It means that all the greenhouse gases that are here today will remain and all the problems on our doorstep today will continue – floods, fires, drought, sea level rise, agricultural changes, temperature increases – and if you think none of this will bother you, you can probably buy an inexpensive house in New Mexico and avoid shopping for groceries.

But do not throw your hands up since there are many small things all of us can do to minimize these problems. Here is a partial list:

  1. Drive less, fly less, walk more, get an electric car if you can. Try a bicycle.
  2. Avoid coal, gasoline, and natural gas implements. Sit in the sun, not under a propane heater on the deck.
  3. Put solar panels on your roof if you can. In addition to your windmill generating power.
  4. Put your retirement funds into renewable energy funds, not into oil companies.
  5. Educate yourself and ignore all the dangerous nonsense about climate change that is provided in advertisements, radio, TV, and social media.
  6. Protest against climate nonsense by writing letters, using social media, phoning the stations that allow nonsense to be perpetrated. Your one letter may have minimal effect, but if a million people do the same, someone might listen.
  7. Demand that politicians actually answer questions about climate change action plans. And as they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.
  8. Nominate Greta Thunberg again for the Nobel Prize. If she does not receive it, request that the Nobel Committee be disbanded and replaced by young people.
  9. Relax and enjoy your life while keeping a lid on your carbon budget.

The climate emergency is not difficult to comprehend. Help the world survive it for your grandchildren.

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 Assumptions in Ecology Papers

What can we do as ecologists to improve the publishing standards of ecology papers? I suggest one simple but bold request. We should require at the end of every published paper a annotated list of the assumptions made in providing the analysis reported in the paper. A tabular format could be devised with columns for the assumption, the perceived support of and tests for the assumption, and references for this support or lack thereof. I can hear the screaming already, so this table could be put in the Supplementary Material which most people do not read. We could add to each paper in the final material where there are statements of who did the writing, who provided the money, and add a reference to this assumptions table in the Supplementary Material or a statement that no assumptions about anything were made to reach these conclusions.

The first response I can detect to this recommendation is that many ecologists will differ in what they state are assumptions to their analysis and conclusions. As an example, in wildlife studies, we commonly make the assumption that an individual animal having a radio collar will behave and survive just like another animal with no collar. In analyses of avian population dynamics, we might commonly assume that our visiting nests does not affect their survival probability. We make many such assumptions about random or non-random sampling. My question then is whether or not there is any value in listing these kinds of assumptions. My response is that this approach of listing what the authors think they are assuming should alert the reviewers to the elephants in the room that have not been listed.

My attention was called to this general issue by the recent paper of Ginzburg and Damuth (2022) in which they contrasted the assumptions of two general theories of functional responses of predators to prey – “prey dependence” versus “ratio dependence”. We have in ecology many such either-or discussions that never seem to end. Consider the long-standing discussion of whether populations can be regulated by factors that are “density dependent” or “density independent”, a much-debated issue that is still with us even though it was incisively analyzed many years ago.  

Experimental ecology is not exempt from assumptions, as outlined in Kimmel et al. (2021) who provide an incisive review of cause and effect in ecological experiments. Pringle and Hutchinson (2020) discuss the failure of assumptions in food web analysis and how these might be resolved with new techniques of analysis. Drake et al. (2021) consider the role of connectivity in arriving at conservation evaluations of patch dynamics, and the importance of demographic contributions to connectivity via dispersal. The key point is that, as ecology progresses, the role of assumptions must be continually questioned in relation to our conclusions about population and community dynamics in relation to conservation and landscape management.

Long ago Peters (1991) wrote an extended critique of how ecology should operate to avoid some of these issues, but his 1991 book is not easily available to students (currently available on Amazon for about $90). To encourage more discussion of these questions from the older to the more current literature, I have copied Peters Chapter 4 to the bottom of my web page at https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~krebs/books.html for students to download if they wish to discuss these issues in more detail.

Perhaps a possible message in all this has been that ecology has always wished to be “physics-in-miniature” with grand generalizations like the laws we teach in the physical sciences. Over the last 60 years the battle in the ecology literature has been between this model of physics and the view that every population and community differ, and everything is continuing to change under the climate emergency so that we can have little general theory in ecology. There are certainly many current generalizations, but they are relatively useless for a transition from the general to the particular for the development of a predictive science. The consequence is that we now bounce from individual study to individual study, typically starting from different assumptions, with very limited predictability that is empirically testable. And the central issue for ecological science is how can we move from the present fragmentation in our knowledge to a more unified science. Perhaps starting to examine the assumptions of our current publications would be a start in this direction.  

Drake, J., Lambin, X., and Sutherland, C. (2021). The value of considering demographic contributions to connectivity: a review. Ecography 44, 1-18. doi: 10.1111/ecog.05552.

Ginzburg, L.R. and Damuth, J. (2022). The Issue Isn’t Which Model of Consumer Interference Is Right, but Which One Is Least Wrong. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 10, 860542. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.860542.

Kimmel, K., Dee, L.E., Avolio, M.L., and Ferraro, P.J. (2021). Causal assumptions and causal inference in ecological experiments. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 36, 1141-1152. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2021.08.008.

Peters, R.H. (1991) ‘A Critique for Ecology.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.) ISBN:0521400171 (Chapter 4 pdf available at https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~krebs/books.html)

Pringle, R.M. and Hutchinson, M.C. (2020). Resolving Food-Web Structure. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 51, 55-80. doi: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110218-024908.

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.