“Gravitational waves: why it’s impossible not to be thrilled by this discovery”, announced the Guardian newspaper after last month’s discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Inferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). You had to admit that it was pretty thrilling. Even President Obama congratulated the LIGO team. Just like the detection of Higgs bosons by physicists in 2012, or the 1998 discovery of the universe’s accelerating expansion, physicists had somehow attracted massive attention to a scientific result that few members of the public can fully understand and that has little (or at least only indirect) practical significance.
It’s easy to justify basic research when the public celebrates a discovery like this as a pinnacle of cultural and intellectual achievement. Maybe this is the source of ecology’s often diagnosed physics envy: we wish our science sold itself this well. So why doesn’t basic ecological research attract LIGO-levels of public interest? What kinds of ecology stories do attract attention? Should the answers to these questions change how we justify our research—or maybe even the kind of research we do?
We believe that basic ecological research is rarely so newsworthy because identifying a “discovery” in ecology is difficult. Consider the lists of big discoveries in science here. Biology, physics, chemistry, geology and paleontology are represented, but not ecology (unless you claim Darwin).
Brian McGill lists these big ideas in ecology here. But how many of the concepts or methods on this list are exemplified by discoveries or breakthroughs? Succession? Competitive exclusion? Food webs? None of these concepts seem to arise from a single discovery, or even a series of discoveries. They are sets of questions to ask, or factors to consider, rather than a definitive accumulation of new knowledge. Almost all of them have some precedent in descriptive natural history. And unlike the case in physics, where the importance of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves are universally recognized, you’d be hard pressed to get a group of ecologists to agree on the importance of these concepts, or even their interpretation.
Even attempts to highlight progress in basic ecological research can fall flat. A recent perspective on the importance of basic research funding for ecology used the words “breakthrough” and “discovery” 18 times, but in only a few cases were these words tied to actual examples from ecology. And the importance of even these discoveries was in their utility for conservation and medicine rather than in the thrill of discovery itself. Which is no surprise: the ecological research that attracts the most public interest are stories about human impacts on the environment, not basic research discoveries.
The lack of obvious discoveries in ecology does not mean we aren’t doing good work, it may just reflect the nature of our field. The most thrilling scientific discoveries often involve the use of new technology that makes the invisible visible. More powerful and precise instruments give us new ways of seeing and new things to see–think of telescopes and distant stars, microscopes and cells, and magnetic resonance imaging of the brain. We rightly call this scientific discovery, not scientific creation or scientific testing, because scientists don’t create something out of nothing, nor do they simply test hypotheses; they reveal the hidden or invisible. By making the invisible visible, scientists make our reality richer. This is the kind of basic research that gets the public excited about science.
When ecological research uses new technologies to make the invisible visible, it often does attract public interest: chemical analyzers allow us to eavesdrop on plant communication, new GPS beacons allow us to track charismatic fauna, improvements in remote sensing allows us to map and quantify the vast scale of the world’s forests and advances in environmental DNA give us an almost magical ability to detect hidden species. But these examples may be exceptions. Much progress in ecology comes not from revealing the invisible, but from explaining the visible. Take one of our favorite topics: species coexistence. Anyone can go for a walk in a meadow and witness, firsthand, without any fancy instruments, the glory of biodiversity. In fact, we are so surrounded by it, we mostly take it for granted. Only the most exotic and colorful examples, like coral reefs, provoke a sense of wonder. To get the public excited about a breakthrough in our understanding of species coexistence, you first have to explain why it’s a mystery to begin with.
We are committed to conducting basic ecological research, but how should we advocate for it? Should we tailor our research towards grabbing headlines rather than making incremental progress? Should we appeal to the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or make utilitarian arguments about the importance of our science as a prerequisite for solving environmental problems?
A physics-like appeal to the value of pure knowledge seems risky if basic ecological research cannot generate front page headlines or identify definitive discoveries. But a recent NEON announcement made exactly that appeal when it drew a direct parallel to LIGO and stated that NEON will eventually have a “gravitational waves moment”. Why should we expect any ecological discovery on the level of LIGO if we have never seen one before? It seems especially far-fetched to expect such a discovery from a monitoring network that was not designed to test any particular theory.
On the other hand, society clearly cares about solving environmental problems. Instead of looking to LIGO as a model, perhaps NEON should stick closer to its original mission statement to “understand and forecast continental-scale environmental change.” It might not always be as exciting as finding colliding black holes, but our best strategy for selling basic research may be in explaining how it will help us solve environmental problems.
What do you think? Can basic research in ecology make waves? Is there another basic or applied scientific discipline that ecology could use as a model for galvanizing public interest? Or do we need to find our own way?