Making waves: can basic ecological research generate headlines? And does it matter?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Andrew Kleinhesselink, a PhD student at Utah State University, and Peter Adler.


“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?

15 thoughts on “Making waves: can basic ecological research generate headlines? And does it matter?

  1. Great post. And important.

    I quite agree that we will never have a LIGO moment in ecology. My take on why is multicausality: But regardless of whether you agree on why, the fact that we won’t is an important and fundamental fact that we all need to get our heads around. It drives any number of unfortunate trends in ecology. From trying to emulate Platt’s strong inference. To some of the issues with NEON. To how we approach trying to get press coverage.

    As you say biodiversity per se sells itself. Our studies of the details of how biodiversity works will always be complex specialist only stories. And that’s just fine (but important to accept and move on from).

  2. Great post.

    I agree that we’ll never have a LIGO moment in ecology. I am surprised and puzzled that the NEON folks (or at least, someone in their press office) would say otherwise. As you note, LIGO was theory- or hypothesis-driven and narrowly focused. It was specifically designed to look for a specific phenomenon that theory predicted would exist, and found it. Even if NEON stumbles across some momentous discovery by accident (analogous to how penicillin was discovered by accident), I don’t think that’s a good way to market NEON. After all, we might stumble across some momentous discovery doing any sort of research (I’m leaving aside here the point that ecology may just not be a discipline in which people discover stuff, accidentally or intentionally).

    Which raises the question, how should NEON be marketed? There’s the original rationale, which was about forecasting. I don’t find that totally convincing myself, but it’s definitely more plausible than the notion that NEON will have a “LIGO moment”. If you want to focus on the monitoring side, rather than the forecasting, what about NEON as “Fitbit for nature”? I’m *no* expert here, just tossing out ideas.

  3. I wonder if we might not flip the question around: is it really so impossible not to be excited by the discovery of gravitational waves? I am only n=1, but despite (i) being predisposed to getting excited about scientific advances, and (ii) actively trying to get excited while reading about this in the newspaper, I failed to actually get excited. I doubt I’m alone on that. So, why did it garner such massive attention and a congrats from the President? I’m not sure, but not all answers are a credit to the science itself.

    In ecology, (counter to Jeremy’s comments) I’d say we actually make discoveries all the time in the form of ecological surprises:

    None of them cost $100 million to make, and most are local, but they resonate with the general public (very often appearing in the news), and collectively make for a strong justification of our science. One example that comes to mind is the discovery that some very long-term dynamics of the entire Serengeti ecosystem track back to the eradication of rinderpest:

    So, in my opinion, we have lots of mini-LIGO moments that can be grasped fairly readily, which I find more interesting than one giant one that is hard to make sense of. Something like NEON is almost certain to generate a great many such moments – watch nature closely for a long enough, and something really interesting is bound to happen.

    • I was hoping you’d comment Mark, and you didn’t disappoint. Still not sure I entirely agree, but you brought me up short and I need to go away and think about it. One thing I’ll be thinking about is the collective marketability of many mini-LIGO moments vs. a few full-sized LIGO moments.

      Along those lines: I wonder if one reason many people are interested in physics discoveries like gravitational waves or the Higgs boson are that all the physicists working in those fields are. “This must be important/interesting/cool–everyone in physics is excited.” Fields like particle physics, astrophysics, and astronomy are very centrally-coordinated fields. At least, that’s my outsider’s impression. Progress depends on a relatively small number of very expensive instruments that everyone in the field shares. The entire field comes to agreement on what big ticket instrument they want. And so then when results from those instruments come in, everybody is really excited.

      The expense of those instruments maybe helps too? If your government spent billions of dollars on a satellite or a particle collider or whatever, you’re damn well going to trumpet the payoff of that investment, aren’t you? So maybe that’s one reason why NEON might have a LIGO moment, or might be marketed as having had one–it cost $454 million! I dunno, maybe that’s a ridiculous idea, just spitballin’.

      • Excellent point about central coordination and agreement on what’s important. For any given ecological study, some people will think it’s absolutely amazing, others ho-hum, and still others that it’s barely worth publishing – a clear sign that we lack broad consensus on what’s important. This seems relevant in the context of this post, but also many other contexts: what gets published where, what gets funded, how to choose a project in grad school, what counts as consensus knowledge in the field, etc.

    • A lot of good points.

      I think the general public loves stories about ecology that: a) show the intense interconnectedness of everything (e.g. rinderpest) or b) show amazing exquisite adaptation or co-adaptation. While these both certainly exist in ecology, neither are anything like universal laws. But they’re what the public loves.

      Surprises come in somewhere too. THe news that phenology didn’t shift with temperature in a few Western studies seemed obvious to ecologists (because water is more limiting there) but got much more coverage than the stories that phenology shifted predictably with climate, presumably because of the surprise or contrarian nature.

      I think its interesting to think about why the public loved LIGO (or at least the media assumed the public would love based on number of column inches). Because the whole point of LIGO is that it was NOT a surprise. It was predicted 100 years ago. That’s kind of cool – dead scientist rises from grave. I don’t think ecology will ever have many of those moments. I think the fact that Einstein was involved is big too – he’s one of a handful of scientist every person has heard of – and many of those press stories didn’t have a picture of LIGO they had one of those famous pictures of Einstein with crazy hair. Finally, I do think the size/cost of LIGO was part of it. It feels like scientists made a giant bet and won. Who doesn’t like those kind of stories (I mean that’s a Hollywood trope).

    • Hi Mark, I think you raise a very good point: not everyone finds the discoveries of physics all that exciting. The excitement about gravity waves is not necessarily a credit to the science itself. I’m sure that the cultural context surrounding physics and the tradition of notable physicist celebrities (Einstein, Feynman, Hawking, etc.) makes getting press for esoteric physics easier. On the other hand ecology, broadly speaking, also commands a big audience and has it’s own tradition of public champions (Attenborough, EO Wilson, Rachel Carson etc.).

      I found your comparison with ecological surprises useful. In many ways the discovery of gravitational waves was not all that surprising– Einsteins predictions about general relativity have been born out time and again. Why all the fuss about finding yet another example? Same could be said for the Higgs particle. The fact that anyone can get excited about gravity waves tells us that discovery is not always about surprise. Our contention is that discovery in physics is often about observing new entities or forces through better technology. Even if these entities have the qualities predicted by theory our first glimpse of them remains exciting for some reason.

      In comparison to discoveries in physics, I think the ecological surprises in the Doak et al. paper, present a couple of problems for attracting public attention. Many of the examples of surprises either don’t really require ecologists or they are only surprises to ecologists invested in a particular theory. The examples of smooth lumpsuckers showing up on the Alaskan coast, a massive die-off of fir trees, finding ecosystems surrounding deep sea vents, or more recently the surprise discovery of “fairy circles” in Australia,, could have been made by observant non-ecologists. On the other hand only an ecologists would be surprised by some of the examples, such as the discovery that populations of tropical insects are just as variable as populations of temperate insects. For many of our theories in ecology the general public just has no expectation to overturn. To get the public excited about new research in basic ecology you often have to do a lot of work to convince them that it’s even a problem worth studying. For instance, I thought the recent finding by Lyons et al. on fundamental changes in species co-occurrence during the Holocene ( was pretty surprising. Yet this paper has not picked up much press. I would guess it has to do with the fact that the surprise depends on explaining the analysis.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for commenting. For me, the key outcome of working through these ideas with Andy was the realization that public interest in ecology is typically related to interest in conservation. I agree with you that people are VERY interested in the dynamics of the Serengeti, or Yellowstone (wolves and trophic cascades have gotten a lot of recent press there), but I think that interest reflects the value our society places on conserving the charismatic megafauna in those crown jewel reserves. We need to understand the drivers of the wildebeest (or elk) population fluctuations in order to manage the resource. I don’t think it’s a purely “gee whiz, those population dynamics are fascinating” kind of interest, which is what LIGO is. The discovery of ecological surprises seems to just highlight the difference between physics and our field: they confirm predictions, we get surprised.

    We didn’t mean to suggest that the public is not interested in ecology, we just wanted to try to understand what aspects of our field do manage to capture the public’s interest. That seems like important information to have if we want to successfully fight for limited science funding.

    • Good points. Definitely charismatic megafauna is so named for a reason! When I taught intro bio I always started out with a picture of a mosquito and asked students to raise hands to see how many cared about preserving that creature and not many went up. Point is that ecologists may love all organisms equally but the general public definitely does not.

      I do think the wolf and Serengeti animals also fit the “life is amazingly interconnected” template that I raised above. Not sure why that appeals to humans, but I think it does. Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics make a lot of money off of this in non-ecological realms as well. And Rube Goldberg did in a different way 50 years ago.

      • Excellent points, everyone. They prompted two other thoughts:

        (1) Behavioural ecologists do pretty well on the “ghee whiz” stories that garner media attention. The angle isn’t conservation, but often how it relates to human behaviour (e.g., birds are really promiscuous, hmmm…). Other natural history bits (e.g., “talking plants”) do well too.

        (2) Darwin is kind of like our Einstein. Interesting anecdote: with a recent invitation to write something for American Scientist, the editor attached three example articles (popularization of scientific topics). Literally all three mentioned Darwin in paragraph 1, and they were totally different topics (living fossils, phytoliths, evolution of cooperation). Proving Darwin right (once again) on any specific point is a common sales strategy.

      • (Responding to Mark)

        I got media attention for a behavioral ecology story that did not relate to human behavior or conservation, by proactively promoting my article. I contacted the science person in my university’s press office, and since I was publishing in a good journal (Current Biology) they were happy to help write up and distribute a press release. They also helped me best explain my research for a general audience. (It probably didn’t hurt that my study was on bees, but it was very much basic science and not about pollination.)

        Moral of my story: If you have something you think the public might be interested in, contact your university’s press office.

  5. Great post. I think the discovery stories from the physical/technological sciences have one-up on natural sciences because the mind-blowing ‘wow’ factor is often visible or tangible, even if the technicalities of the research or underlying knowledge are harder to understand. That wow factor is still there in basic ecological/natural science research, but I think the challenge is that people have to connect with a system before they can have their mind blown by it – and it’s harder to make that connection when our lives are increasingly embedded in technology and artificial environments (e.g.
    And, at the end of the day, not everyone will be interested in ecology, however amazing it is. So I don’t think tailoring our research to grab headlines, or focusing on utilitarian arguments will change anything…and will actually do more harm than good in the long run. Basic ecological research is fascinating and headline-worthy, but (as you say) you first have to explain why it’s a mystery to begin with, and help the audience understand why it’s of interest to them…and that may not be directly evident from the research in question. You may need to delve into the story and history to show that.

    • Exactly, and well put. Any aspect of science can have Wow! factors if the general public (and other scientists) feel a connection. But tailoring scientific pursuits around ‘sexy science’ sometimes has an embedded risk of driving a car into a train wreck.

  6. I think that the basis for basic ecological science not being as headline producing as in other fields is probably from a plurality of reasons, but here are two major ones I can think of off the top of my head. First, the scale at which biological interactions occur are around the same scale as social interactions, and so people are more likely to write off discoveries as intuitive. I’m imagining that much of the public interest in large scale discoveries in physics comes about because they don’t understand the discoveries but perceive them as important-sort of like peoples interest in classic art-pieces like the Mona Lisa while having disdain for the splashes of Jackson Pollock “because anyone could have made that”.
    Secondly, I think because of the earths current ecological crises, the media/public who care about the environment are more likely to be interested in stories of conservation success or newfound risks to certain habitats/species than in interpreting the composition of meadows as a function of stabilizing and equalizing mechanisms.

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