Ask us anything: is ecological theory practical?

Recently, we opened the floor so you could ask us anything. In the next few posts we’ll be answering!

I’ve paraphrased the questions for brevity; you can see the originals in the comments on the post linked above.

In passing, let me say that, if you find Brian’s answers way more insightful and useful than mine, well, so do I! And not only are Brian’s answers better than mine, he writes them faster. Maybe next time we should just let you ask Brian anything. 🙂

1. Is ecological theory being applied to solve practical problems? If not, why not, and is it even important that it be so applied? (Jim Bouldin)

Brian: Well there is ecological theory as it is and then there is theory as it should be. At its worst ecological theory could be cartooned as developing  ever subtler effects that need ever larger datasets just to detect them. I also don’t think topics near and dear to theoreticians like coexistence, population cycles, neutral theory, etc have necessarily had much impact in on-the-ground conservation (and not clear to me that they ever will/should, but that doesn’t mean the topics aren’t worth pursuing for other reasons). On the other hand, perhaps the single largest push of theoeretical ecology last 20-30 years has been spatial, ranging from the Theory of Island Biogeography up to Metapopulations and Metacommunities (and landscape ecology). I think this has had a major influence in conservation (reserve design, corridors, metapopulation based population viability analysis, and etc), and though I’m sure conservationists would have got some of this without theory, I think theory undoubtedly accelerated and improved the process. If theoreticians ever wanted to turn their attention away from the almighty population paradigm, they could make a real contribution to climate change and global change ecology which has gone from historical, empirical patterns to correlational models with barely a hint of theory.

Jeremy: Not doing any applied work myself, I’m not a great person to answer this question, but I’ll give it a go. In addition to the examples Brian cited, I’d note that the IUCN Red List criteria for identifying species at risk of extinction are based in part on results from theoretical stochastic population models by Russ Lande and others. And those criteria in turn provide much of the basis for (for instance) the Canadian Species At Risk Act, the Canadian equivalent of the Endangered Species Act in the US. As another example, it’s my impression that theoretical modeling has contributed a lot to the general argument for marine reserves, and also helped a lot in their design. And I’m sure there numerous other examples where models tailored to specific systems (specific populations, species, or ecosystems) have informed management decisions about those systems. Now, like Brian said, there’s all sorts of theory out there, developed for all sorts of different purposes. I’m sure modern coexistence theory, or neutral theory, or MaxEnt, or etc. haven’t done squat to solve practical problems–but that’s totally not the purpose of that sort of theory.

6 thoughts on “Ask us anything: is ecological theory practical?

  1. Nice responses, thanks Brian and Jeremy.

    Just to add to this: a good example of where theory is well developed but not applied is in river restoration. Up until recently, most river restoration was done on an ad-hoc patchy basis, when and where it suited with little thought to metacommunity and metapopulation ecology. Most restoration focused on physical habitat restoration following the ‘field of dreams’ approach: build it and they will come. However, this has been well recognised with several reviews and is changing rapidly.

  2. I would also add a plug for the indirect benefits of theory (or non-applied science, for that matter). Theory need not directly assess a practical problem to be of use in the real world. For example, although coexistence theory does not seemingly have any practical benefit, and to a large extent is purely academic, but on the other hand, it seems hard to understand say, invasive species, without understanding the basic nature of niches, competitive exclusion, and extinction risk. In fact, a lot of management strategies for invasive species rely on such basic theory, even though it’s may not be immediately obvious. The more we understand about the fundamental mechanisms behind how the world works, the better we will be at solving such applied problems.
    (Or at least this is the argument I use to avoid crying when my family asks why I’m not curing cancer or doing something similarly productive.)

    • Great answer Casey, I like that a lot. Actually good answers all around, thanks everyone.

      Just to be clear, though I am a strong advocate for the importance of solving applied problems, I am not “anti-theory”, far from it in fact. But the integration of theory, and application of said theory, is a big and important question to me. I think the point that such application can be diffuse, or less-than-obvious, is a very good one; indirect benefits and all that.

  3. Harvest models (e.g. fisheries)! Billion dollar industries are wound up in an unholy mix of politics, socioeconomics, and ecological theory.

  4. Pingback: Does theory in neuroscience have any empirical content? | neuroecology

  5. Pingback: On progress in ecology | Dynamic Ecology

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