Ecology Behind the Curtain

And a commentary on the existence of "curtains" in the first place
A major issue in the science of the 21st century is that, well, almost no one reads it. Science, hidden behind a hefty pay wall and big, esoteric words, remains too often in its Ivory Tower of inaccessibility.
I came across a Medium essay that pointedly remarked on this, except that it did so in what has become an even more inaccessible discipline: academic philosophy.

Two remarks in particular stood out to me. The first is:
"You're effectively writing to each other and a tiny self-selected choir rather than to the public at large."
Even in science that has exciting, save-the-world implications— like much of ecology with relation to climate change — there still remains to be a worryingly small audience to your average paper. Some number of scientists might read it, but the more specific the content, the more this number dwindles.

In this way, most publications are indeed, by virtue of their specific content, writing to a tiny, self-selected choir. It is tiny in that the vast majority of literate people will not be reading it — all is relative of course — and it is self-selected in that only people studying this particular system in this particular way to answer these particular questions are meant to read it.

As someone who has only ever perceived science from the lens of a non-scientist, repel the thought that my life's work will address such a tiny, self-selected audience. I don't want my life's work to be measured by academic impact factors alone. As a not-quite-yet-a-scientist, I see science as fascinating, relevant, and even beautiful. But when I've attained the knowledge base and technical skill being a 21st century scientist requires, will my work fall into the same folly? Will my work, which has had a great impact on me, and which I believe to be important, be ultimately inaccessible to those upon whom it could have an impact?

Before proceeding any further, what do I mean by this "accessibility," anyway? I think of accessibility as existing in two forms: intellectual and monetary accessibility. For someone to access the ideas in a scientific paper, the paper much be affordable to attain in the first place, which is to be monetarily accessible. The ideas must also be explained in a way in which the intellect of the reader can understand it, which is to be intellectually accessible. In short, the paper must be affordable and well-written, addressing technicalities without resorting to overly technical vocabulary just to save pages.

Now obviously, there are many scientific disciplines wherein the content really is so technical that most people could not understand it without expansive background. That aside, we currently have an exceedingly bizarre process:

  1. Scientists do research and publish the results, written in a way where most people could not understand them, in a journal where most people cannot afford to access them.
  2. Science journalists/communicators/writers, who are not themselves scientists and did not actually do the research, do the crucial task of disseminating research to the non-scientist public. Often, the scientist is uninvolved with this, and while most science writers do great work, sometimes results can be distorted, implications can be over- or under-emphasized, and the 'point' of the research can be all but lost in unconscious agendas.
  3. The public is led to look not to scientists, but to elsewhere in the media to learn about science.

I think many would agree that this disconnect between scientist and science dissemination is not the way we'd like it to be.

So why aren't the scientists themselves doing that crucial dissemination? It is here that the second remark from "Why We Need Philosophy Communication" comes about:
"[F]unding bodies that provide the lifeblood of academia don't tend to recognise popular writing in their metrics."
…i.e., institutions that hire academics often do not incentivize writing specifically for an audience outside of academia. This may or may not be the case for scientists depending on the institution. Either way, scientists often do not have the time to write a blog post, an article for The Atlantic, or The New York Times, in addition to doing research and writing academic papers about it. In the current system, we have a two step process of dissemination: 1) Disseminate to fellow scientists, and 2) Disseminate to the public (if you have time).

The system worth dreaming of, then, is one where scientists write up just one publication that is informative, impactful, and accessible to anyone above a certain level of education (say to all those who have been through college General Biology). We're not there yet, but many journals are taking steps in that direction. PeerJ and PLOS One only publish open access papers, removing the monetary inaccessibility of typically $35 papers. Science and Nature are making strides in the realm of intellectual accessibility, publishing papers where after the abstract is only the story of the research — from where the researcher picked up their research question to the implications of their results. The complex and technical methods proceed afterward, almost like an appendix only for those who are interested enough to look. By emphasizing that research is often about the telling of a story — a story in which something was learned that has never been learned before — the research paper becomes interesting to anyone curious enough to look.

Until we get to a point where the monetary accessibility of PLOS One and the intellectual accessibility of Nature are combined, and all the problems associated with getting there are resolved, there is still cause for excitement. I came across a gem of a paper recently wherein the current state of ecology was summarized: "Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions". Not strictly research, the paper set out instead to review the trials and triumphs of ecology, doing so by identifying 100 ecological questions to which we do not yet have answers. Divided into 7 sections — Evolution & Ecology, Populations, Disease & Micro-Organisms, Communities & Diversity, Ecosystems & Functioning, Human Impacts & Global Change, and Methods — the questions succinctly describe "where we're at" in ecology, doing so in only 10 pages. It is an admirable example of large-scale, synthesis kind of work made intellectually accessible to any reader. Props to Sutherland et al.

So, for all those interested in accessing ecology "behind the curtain," look no further than the paper cited below this essay. Below, I have a curated selection of my favorite questions, saving those that were of interest to me, an that could conceivably be examined using birds.

Evolution & Ecology:
  • How local is adaptation?
  • What are the relative contributions of different levels of selection (gene, individual, group) to life-history evolution and the resulting population dynamics?
  • What selective forces cause sex differences in life history and what are their consequences for population dynamics?
  • How does phenotypic plasticity influence evolutionary trajectories?
Populations:
  • What are the evolutionary and ecological mechanisms that govern species' range margins?
  • How can we upscale detailed processes at the level of individuals into patterns at the population scale?
  • How do species and population traits and landscape configuration interact to determine realized dispersal distances?
  • How does demographic and spatial structure modify the effects of environmental stochasticity on population dynamics?
  • What is the relative importance of direct (consumption, competition) vs. indirect (induced behavioural change) interactions in determining the effect of one species on others?
  • How important is individual variation to population, community and ecosystem dynamics?
  • What demographic traits determine the resilience of natural populations to disturbance and perturbation?
Disease & Micro-organisms:
  • What is the role of parasites and mutualists in generating and maintaining host species diversity?
  • How does below-ground biodiversity affect above-ground biodiversity, and vice versa?
  • In what ecological settings are parasites key regulators of population dynamics?
Communities & Diversity:
  • How can we use species' traits as proxies to predict trophic interaction strength?
  • How well can community properties and responses to environmental change be predicted from the distribution of simple synoptic traits, e.g. body size, leaf area?
  • How do species traits influence ecological network structure?
  • When, if ever, can the combined effect of many weak interactions, which are difficult to measure, be greater than the few strong ones we can easily measure?
  • How widespread and important are indirect interactions (e.g. apparent competition, apparent mutualism) in ecological communities?
  • How do spatial and temporal environmental heterogeneity influence diversity at different scales?
  • How does species loss affect the extinction risk of the remaining species?
  • What is the relative importance of stochastic vs. deterministic processes in controlling diversity and composition of communities, and how does this vary across ecosystem types?
  • How do we predict mechanistically how many species can coexist in a given area?
  • To what extent is local species composition and diversity controlled by dispersal limitation and the regional species pool?
  • What are the contributions of biogeographical factors and evolutionary history in determining present day ecological processes?
  • How important are dynamical extinction-recolonization equilibria to the persistence of species assemblages in fragmented landscapes?
  • How do resource pulses affect resource use and interactions between organisms?
  • How important are rare species in the functioning of ecological communities?
  • What is the feedback between diversity and diversification?
Ecosystems & Functioning:
  • Which ecosystems are susceptible to showing tipping points and why?
  • How can we tell when an ecosystem is near a tipping point?
  • Which factors and mechanisms determine the resilience of ecosystems to external perturbations and how do we measure resilience?
  • Which ecosystems and what properties are most sensitive to changes in community composition?
  • What is the relative contribution of biodiversity at different levels of organization (genes, species richness, species identity, functional identity, functional diversity) to ecosystem functioning?
  • How does the structure of ecological interaction networks affect ecosystem functioning and stability?
  • To what extent is biotic invasion and native species loss creating ecosystems with altered properties?
  • Which, if any, species are functionally redundant in the context of stochastic or directional environmental changes?
  • Is hysteresis the exception or the norm in ecological systems?
  • Can we predict the responses of ecosystems to environmental change based on the traits of species?
Human Impacts & Global Change:
  • What is the role of evolution in recovery from exploitation and responses to other forms of relaxed selection?
  • To what extent will climate change uncouple trophic links due to phenological change?
  • How do natural communities respond to increased frequencies of extreme weather events predicted under global climate change?
  • In the face of rapid environmental change, what determines whether species adapt, shift their ranges or go extinct?
  • What determines the rate at which species distributions respond to climate change?
  • To what extent can we extrapolate from palaeoecological range shifts to understand 21st-century change?
  • Under what circumstances do landscape structures such as corridors and stepping stones play important roles in the distribution and abundance of species?
  • To what extent will the breakdown of biogeographical barriers (e.g. the more permanent opening of the Northwest Passage) lead to sustained changes in local diversity?
Methods:
  • What unexploited theories used by other disciplines could inform ecology, and vice versa?
  • How do we combine multiple scales and types of monitoring (from field to earth observation) to make robust ecological inferences?
  • What are the most appropriate baselines for determining the magnitude and direction of ecological changes?
Of course, the issues presented above do not exist in a void. They are mixed in with many other academic issues, including the state of peer review, "open science," the "publish or perish" culture, and the battle for funding. Complex issues, but all worth solving in the name of understanding this universe of ours.

That's all for now, folks. Here's to the open doors.
Citation:
Sutherland, William J., et al. "Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions." Journal of Ecology 101.1 (2013): 58–67.

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