The Two Questions: So what? What next?

Assuming that these two questions are not copyright, I wanted to explore them as a convenient part of writing a scientific or popular paper in ecology, conservation, and wildlife and fisheries management. To protect the innocent, I will not identify which of many ecological colleagues has stimulated this blog.

The first question should be addressed in every scientific paper but clearly is not if you read a random sample of the articles in many ecological journals. So what? is the critical question of exactly what current problem this paper or book will contribute to. It is the microscopic and macroscopic focus of why we do science, and it does not matter at all if it addresses a minor problem or a major catastrophe like species loss in conservation. In writing one should assume that time is the critical limiting factor in our lives, and while it is fine to be entertained by watching a movie, scientists do not read scientific papers to be entertained. Some journals demand that the abstract of every paper ends with a statement of the importance of the research findings, captured by So what? Too often these statements are weak and editors as well as granting agencies should demand more incisive statements. Asking yourself So what? can be a useful guide as you progress in your research and evaluate others.

While most scientists should agree on the findings presented in a paper or lecture, not all of them will agree about the importance of the answer to So what? What is a major and important scientific finding for some may be of minor significance to others, but the key is to remember here that science is a broad church that should be progressing on a broad front, so that differences of opinion are to be expected, and we rely on evidence to evaluate these differences of opinion. Tests of ideas that turn out to be incorrect or only partly correct must not be considered as failures. If you doubt that, interview any senior scientist in your area and ask about progress and regress during their scientific career. If you find a scientist who insists that they were correct in all their ideas, you should probably request them to go into politics to improve decision making in the real world.

The second question is probably the most critical for all scientific research. Once research is completed, there are two paths. If the original question or problem is solved or answered, the question becomes what does this work suggest needs to be done to advance the general area of research. Most typically however a research project will end up with more questions than it solves. The growing end of science is the critical one, and by asking What next? we delve deeper into the area of research to fill in details that were not evident when it was started. Read Sutherland et al. (2013, 2022) for an excellent example of this approach in conservation science. A simple example of this approach comes from many conservation problems. A particular species of bird may be thought to be declining in numbers, so the first issue is whether this is correct, and so an investigation into the changes in abundance of the species becomes the first step. This could lead to an analysis of the demography of the species population, birth, death and movement rates could be determined to isolate more precisely why abundance is changing. Given these data, the next step might be (for example) why the death rate is increasing if indeed this is the case. The next step is what management methods can be applied to reduce the death rate, and does this situation apply to other closely related species. It is important that asking What next? does not imply a linear sequence in time, and a study could be designed to address more than one question at the same time. We finish the What next? approach with a web of information and conclusions that address a broader question than the original simple question. And What next? should not be answered with a broad set of statements like “climate change is the cause” but by suggestions of very specific experiments and studies to carry investigations forward.

The result in ecology is an increasing precision of thought into ecological interactions and the processes that link species, communities, and ecosystems to very large questions such as the environmental response to climate change. Not all questions need to be large-scale because there are important local questions about the adequacy of designated parks and protected areas to protect species, communities, and ecosystems. The key message is that ecological understanding is not static but grows incrementally by well-designed research programs that by themselves seem to address only small-scale issues.

Seemingly failed research programs are not to be scorned but rather to indicate what avenues of research have not led to good insights. In a sense ecological science is like an evolutionary tree in which some branches fade away with time and others blossom into a variety of forms that surprise us all. So, my advice is to carry on asking these two simple questions in science to help sharpen your research program.

Sutherland, W.J., Freckleton, R.P., Godfray, H.C.J., Beissinger, S.R., Benton, T., Cameron, D.D., Carmel, Y., Coomes, D.A., Coulson, T., Emmerson, M.C., Hails, R.S., Hays, G.C., Hodgson, D.J., Hutchings, M.J., Johnson, D., Jones, J.P.G., Keeling, M.J., Kokko, H., Kunin, W.E. & Lambin, X. (2013) Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology, 101, 58-67.doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J. & Jake M. Robinson, D.C.A., Tim Alamenciak, Matthew Armes, Nina Baranduin, Andrew J. Bladon, Martin F. Breed, Nicki Dyas, Chris S. Elphick, Richard A. Griffiths, Jonny Hughes, Beccy Middleton, Nick A. Littlewood, Roger Mitchell, William H. Morgan, Roy Mosley, Silviu O. Petrovan, Kit Prendergast, Euan G. Ritchie,Hugh Raven, Rebecca K. Smith, Sarah H. Watts, Ann Thornton (2022) Creating testable questions in practical conservation: a process and 100 questions. Conservation Evidence Journal, 19, 1-7.doi: 10.52201/CEJ19XIFF2753.

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