Whither the Big Questions in Ecology?

The science of ecology grows and grows and perhaps it is time to recognize the subcultures of the discipline which operate as nearly independent areas of science. Few people today would talk of the science of physics or the science of chemistry, but rather the subcultures of physics or chemistry in which critical problems are defined and tested. In a sense this has already been recognized in ecology by the increase in specific journals. No one goes to Conservation Biology to look up recent studies in insect pest control, and no one goes to Limnology and Oceanography to research progress in theoretical ecology. So, by default we ecologists have already subdivided the overall broad science of ecology into subcultures, and the problem then arises when we must consider major issues or big questions like the ecological impacts of climate change that encompass multiple subcultures, and the more specific issue of how we educate students of all ages about the broad problems of ecology and the environment.

The education issue ought to be the easiest part of this conundrum to deal with. The simple rule – Teach the Principles – is what textbook writers try to do. But this is easier said than done. Jim Hone et al. (2015) took on the problem of defining the principles of applied ecology and consolidated these into 22 prescriptive and 3 empirical principles that could serve as a starter for this area of general ecology. The same compilation could be done in many subdisciplines of ecology and there are many good examples of this (e.g., Lidicker, 2020, Ryo et al. 2019). A plethora of ecology textbooks exist to pull the broad subject together, and they are interesting themselves in what they emphasize.  

The larger problem is in the primary literature of ecology, and I pick here four big questions in ecology in which communication could be improved that would be useful both to educators and to the public.

  1. Sustainability of the Earth’s Ecosystems. This broad area covers human population dynamics, which can be generalized to many other species by the principles of population ecology. It would include agricultural issues and the consequences of soil erosion and degradation and cover the basics of atmospheric chemistry at least to question whether everyone going to Mars is particularly useful. Where relevant, every ecological publication should address how this research addresses the large issue of sustainability.
  2. Climate Change Effects. There is a general understanding of the geographic distribution of vegetation communities on Earth, how these have changed in geologic time and are changing now but projections for the future are vague. Much research is ongoing, but the ecological time frame of research is still too short (Hagerman and Pelai 2018). Teaching what we know now would include the essential physics and chemistry of sea level rise, changes in the distribution of good and bad species, including human diseases, and simple warnings about investing in real estate in Miami Beach. Every prediction about climate change effects should include a time frame at which the predictions could be accepted or rejected. If ecologists are to affect government policies, a testable action plan must be specified lest we keep barking up the wrong tree.
  3. Current conflicts in managing the Earth’s natural resources. The concern here is the social and economic drivers of why we continue overfishing and overharvesting resources that result in damage to local environments, and how we can manage conflicts over these resources. To manage intelligently we need to understand the interactions of the major species involved in the ecological community. Ecosystem dynamics will be the central set of concepts here, and the large topic of the resilience of our Earth’s ecosystems. Ecologists are clear that the resilience of ecosystems is limited but exactly where those limits are is far from clear at the present time.
  4. Conservation of Biodiversity. The ecological factors that limit biodiversity, and the consequences of biodiversity loss are major areas of current research and communication to the public. While the volume of concern is high in this subdiscipline, advances in understanding lag far behind. We operate now with only the vaguest of principles of how to achieve conservation results. The set of conservation principles (Prober et al. 2019) interacts strongly with the 3 big questions listed above and should cover advances in paleoecology and the methods of defining ancient environments as well as current conservation problems. Understanding how social conflict resolution can be achieved in many conservation controversies links across to the social sciences here. 

The key here is that all these big questions contain hundreds of scientific problems that need investigation, and the background of all these questions should include the principles by which ecological science advances, as well as the consequences of ignoring scientific advice. For educators, all these big questions can be analysed by examples from your favourite birds, or large mammals, or conifer trees, or fishes so that as scientific progress continues, we will have increased precision in our ecological understanding of the Earth. And more than enough material to keep David Attenborough busy.

For ecologists one recommendation of looking at ecology through the lens of big questions should be to include in your communications how your findings illuminate the road to improved understanding and further insights into how the Earth’s biodiversity supports us and how we need to support it. Ecology is not the science of the total environment, but it is an essential component of it.

Hagerman, S.M. and Pelai, R. (2018). Responding to climate change in forest management: two decades of recommendations. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16, 579-587. doi: 10.1002/fee.1974.

Hone, J., Drake, A., and Krebs, C.J. (2015). Prescriptive and empirical principles of applied ecology. Environmental Reviews 23, 170-176. doi: 10.1139/er-2014-0076.

Lidicker, W.Z. (2020). A Scientist’s Warning to humanity on human population growth. Global Ecology and Conservation 24, e01232. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01232.

Prober, S.M., Doerr, V.A.J., Broadhurst, L.M., Williams, K.J., and Dickson, F. (2019). Shifting the conservation paradigm: a synthesis of options for renovating nature under climate change. Ecological Monographs 89, e01333. doi: 10.1002/ecm.1333.

Ryo, M., Aguilar-Trigueros, C.A., Pinek, L., Muller, L.A.H., and Rillig, M.C. (2019). Basic Principles of Temporal Dynamics. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 34, 723-733. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.03.007.

2 thoughts on “Whither the Big Questions in Ecology?

  1. John

    My wife and I were just discussing the issue of studying the patient to death. Scientists around the world are collecting funding based on your 4 big issues by outright stating that their findings may help solve the issues, or worse, stating that to solve the issues we need this or that data/information. Yet everyday people have known the solutions for decades. Pop growth and rate of consumption growth and lack of implementing known more sustainable behaviors. Science in the 4 crisis areas you list is academically interesting. Go for it. Fun. Wonder at Earth’s systems. But please don’t placate the public or government actors or delay action by saying we NEED this research to reverse or slow the crises (like firemen saying they are coming, but in reality oh so so slowly…the nature of science). We don’t HAVE to have this info. What we really need is for you scientists to drop the self-soothing separateness act (telling yourselves you are helping in some scientific long-term, and that’s enough) and become activists in massive numbers and organizations. Now. Start yelling from the rooftops the solutions you know or feel in your ecologically educated guts need to be implemented. Thanks to you who have.

    1. Jonathan Wallace

      I agree with this up to a point – the ultimate solutions to the problems facing us are indeed obvious: massively reduce human pressure on the environmental, above all by reducing our levels of consumption and also by reducing and ultimately arresting population growth. Scientist can and should add their voices to campaigns to make these things happen. The problem is that no matter how effectively anyone campaigns about these things there is massive inertia in the system and it is unrealistic to expect any rapid reversal of consumption trends. Assuming you are not in favour of morally untenable solutions such as enforced sterilisation or worse, global population levels can only carry on increasing for some time to come and growth will only slow and reverse with increased affluence in the fastest growing populations. With the best will in the World things are going to continue to get worse before they start to get better.

      Against this background we do need scientific research to help us find the best ways to protect the environment now. If the human population continues to grow we need answers on how to continue feeding the growing numbers from terrestrial and marine environments in the most sustainable ways possible. If we are to protect biodiversity, while demands for land for human uses increase we need to know if we should be following land sparing or land sharing strategies and so on. If inertia in the Earth’s carbon balance mechanisms means we cannot reverse the warming now in progress with much rapidity we need science to help us identify the best ways to ensure that substantial levels of biodiversity can survive in a still-changing environment. There are of course many other examples of where practical answers are needed from researchers to help us deal with the problems caused by human profligacy that will not be solved quickly enough by simply seeking to persuade everyone to consume less.


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