Is fundamental research a young ecologist’s game?

Anecdotal observation: ecologists tend to switch from fundamental to applied research as they age. Marc Cadotte used to ask fundamental questions in protist microcosms; now he’s the editor of an applied journal who blogs about the importance of “ecosystem health”. Dave Tilman started out developing resource competition theory and testing it with algae in chemostats; these days he writes a lot about sustainable agriculture. Will Wilson used to do stuff like model Lotka-Volterra species-abundance distributions; now he’s writing a book on stormwater science. Brian started out working on how to test neutral theory, but these days he thinks a lot about how to do policy-relevant science. Meg once said that she was most interested in basic research questions, and she still is, but lately she’s been devoting increasing amounts of time to public education and outreach. Many more examples could be given.

Obviously, many junior people do applied work. Many senior people do fundamental work. And many people do a mix of both. But when somebody switches from doing one to the other, or changes the mix of work they do, it seems like it’s almost always in the direction of more applied work and less fundamental work. I can’t think of anyone who’s gone in the other direction in a big way.

Why is that?

Is it because applied work is easier to justify? Certainly, people who do fundamental work often find it difficult to justify to anyone who’s not also a fundamental researcher, except via some appeal to its purported applications.* But that’s an explanation for why there should be more applied researchers than fundamental researchers, not necessarily an explanation for why people switch from fundamental to applied research as their careers proceed. I mean, why couldn’t most people start out doing applied work, only for some of them to switch to doing fundamental work in their later years? How come nobody ever says, “I’ve spent my entire career to this point helping to save the planet. I’ve done my bit. Now I’m going to work on something just because it’s interesting.”?

Will Wilson says his own change of direction was dictated by the available funding. The need to obtain funding is presumably why many people doing fundamental work pretend that it’s actually applied. But again, that doesn’t necessarily explain why people who do choose to do fundamental work early in their careers would tend to switch away from it later in their careers.

Maybe it’s because senior people have more opportunities to engage in the political process, broadly defined? Early career researchers don’t get invited to testify before Congress, or serve on National Academy panels addressing policy issues, or etc.

Here’s my pet hypothesis: as you progress in your career as a fundamental researcher, it becomes harder to carve out large blocks of time to read and think, and so harder to stay fresh and come up with new fundamental ideas that you and your colleagues are excited about pursuing. As a corollary, your accumulated past reading makes you tend to see the “new” ideas of others as old wine in new bottles. You get frustrated and bored with the apparent lack of fundamental progress in the field, and/or with your own ability to contribute to fundamental progress. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve done what you set out to do in terms of fundamental work. And so applied work starts to seem more attractive.

A corollary of my pet hypothesis is that switches from applied to fundamental work might be hard. If coming up with good interesting fundamental ideas depends on having a lot of time to read and think, well, mid- and late-career applied researchers lack that time just as mid- and late-career fundamental researchers do. So you only ever see people switching from fundamental to applied work, not the reverse.

Or maybe the premise of my question is false. For instance, maybe people at all career stages are shifting towards doing more applied work for whatever reason(s), but I only happen to have noticed the shifts by senior people with whose past fundamental work I happen to be familiar. So I’m overgeneralizing from a small and biased sample.

None of these hypotheses are mutually exclusive, obviously. Different ones could be at work in different individual cases. And I have no idea which ones are most commonly at work.

Not criticizing anyone’s research choices here. Just musing on the reasons for them.

*In an old linkfest (which I can’t find just now), I linked to a very nice post from an economist who’d done a mixture of fundamental and applied work. He looked back to find that none of his applied work had turned out to be of any lasting value, because the applied issues had changed. Whereas much of his old fundamental work was still widely cited today. He interpreted this as an argument in favor of fundamental work over applied work. I’m sorely tempted by this interpretation, since it would justify my life, but I can imagine other interpretations. Perhaps it just shows that fundamental research is conservative or slow-moving, so that the longer citation half-life of fundamental work just reflects the slow pace of change in the field.

48 thoughts on “Is fundamental research a young ecologist’s game?

  1. Interesting post! My first reaction was “oh, that’s nonsense”. Then I realized I’m another data point. I’ve always insisted I’m a fundamental researcher; but right now I have 5 grad students working on various aspects of forest entomology (spruce budworm, invasive forest pests, etc.) and none working on “pure” fundamental science (I plan to change that). I don’t think of myself as having “switched”, just broadened; but that pretense is getting more difficult.

    So why? I’d have argued it’s just situational. A combination of falling in with some excellent collaborators (with with Canadian Forest Service), plus a source of funding (spruce budworm, an outbreaking species, is breaking out again as expected, and with the outbreak comes $$). But you’ve made me wonder if there’s more to it than that. I’m skeptical of your “fundamental science is hard for busy old coots” theory, but I don’t have a better one 🙂

    • It’s hilarious that you forgot that you were a case in point. It’ll be even more hilarious when a bunch of other commenters roll in who’ve switched from applied to fundamental research, thereby showing that you should’ve stuck with your first instinct despite your own personal experience. 🙂

      ” I’m skeptical of your “fundamental science is hard for busy old coots” theory”

      Thanks for illustrating my theory that any hypothesis can be made to sound stupid by summarizing it sufficiently briefly and badly. “So, Mr. Darwin, you’ve shown that things change. Surely we knew that already?” 🙂

  2. Yeas, like Stephen I’m sceptical of the “FSIHFBOC” hypothesis. I’ll offer two different ones:

    1. There are usually pressures on senior ecologists to bring in X amount of money, where X could be an explicit annual target or an implied expectation of a certain level of external funding. Those pressures get greater as one becomes more senior. As you say, “applied” funding can be easier to obtain, ergo people apply for more of that type of money as they get older.

    2. As senior ecologists see their own families growing up there’s a desire to do something about leaving the world in a better state before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Call it guilt, or whatever.

    Certainly, both of these factors have influenced my shift from purely fundamental to more applied research, though I’ll never completely give up “really” fundamental research.

    • “2. As senior ecologists see their own families growing up there’s a desire to do something about leaving the world in a better state before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Call it guilt, or whatever.”

      I actually had that hypothesis in an early draft of this post, but deleted it because of a vague fear that it would offend young ecologists. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was fearful on that front.

      “Yes, like Stephen I’m sceptical of the “FSIHFBOC” hypothesis.”

      Well, everyone’s going to be skeptical of it if you give it an unpronounceable acronym! If we can find a way to call it the AWESOME hypothesis, everyone will believe it. 🙂

      • Cool, now I can afford all of those virtual Christmas presents I was going to not buy. In other news, emails from this site are appearing in my Inbox with French text:

        “Jeremy Fox a répondu sur Is fundamental research a young ecologist’s game?”

        “Nouveau commentaire sur Dynamic Ecology”

        Is that a WordPress issue at your end or mine? DE is the only site that’s doing this. Is it happening to anyone else?

      • No idea what’s up with the French WordPress notifications. I’m still getting the usual English notifications from WordPress. And we haven’t changed any settings on our site.

    • “2. As senior ecologists see their own families growing up there’s a desire to do something about leaving the world in a better state before they shuffle off this mortal coil.”

      I’m a younger ecologist, and decided to add applied aspects to my research after getting my PhD for basically this reason (minus the family part). I want to use my research to both answer fundamental questions and leave the world in a better state.

      I wonder whether how the job market works contributes somewhat to younger ecologists doing more fundamental research. At least in the US, there tend to be more faculty positions in biology departments than in departments with a more applied focus (e.g., forestry, entomology). I have been advised to play up the basic questions my research addresses when applying to biology departments, and to use language such as “environmental change” rather than “land use change” because the latter may come across as too applied. (If you disagree with that advice, I’d love to hear your perspective!) Do biology departments tend to prefer people asking fundamental rather than applied questions?

      • “At least in the US, there tend to be more faculty positions in biology departments than in departments with a more applied focus (e.g., forestry, entomology).”

        I dunno about that. You could check easily enough with the annual ecology job spreadsheet. This year’s is at ecoevojobs.net.

        “Do biology departments tend to prefer people asking fundamental rather than applied questions?”

        Depends on the department, I think, and this is something you should be able to figure out from looking at the job ad and the dept. website (look and see what sort of research the faculty do). But yes, as a rule of thumb biology departments (and EEB departments) tend to emphasize fundamental research more than entomology/forestry/NatRes/fisheries/etc. depts.

      • “Do biology departments tend to prefer people asking fundamental rather than applied questions?”

        Certainly in the UK they like people asking questions that generates research funding! And as discussed above that can mean more applied work.

  3. Is it possible that people are moving on to studying the applications of the fundamental theory they developed earlier in their career? I am not remotely familiar enough with enough people’s career trajectories to assess the validity of that explanation, but, speaking as a grad student currently doing fundamental work, my long-term career goal is to eventually switch over to putting it to practical use (assuming I manage to get a job, and tenure, and that my research actually ends up having the practical applications that I hope it will, etc.). I guess that kind of fits into your “limited time left to fix the world” hypothesis.

  4. You already outed me as a data point (although I wasn’t sure if you were implying I should go buy a cane to help me totter along). But I do share your general sense – I remembering interviewing at Stanford as a grad student at a point in time (1997) when it seemed like every faculty member was senior, highly respected for fundamental research, and more interested in applied research at the time I was there. I believe I have even referred to this phenomenon as “old ecologist syndrome” in past comments (so probably I should go buy a cane by my own prejudices).

    That said, as I slide to the other side of career stage, it doesn’t feel that surprising. I also roundly reject FSIHFBOC (there is a little bit of snobbery in there that fundamental is harder than applied …fresh ideas and being on top of the literature are needed for good applied work too!). But I think most of your other hypotheses are on target. I definitely no longer have illusions that I am going to (or that it is possible to) make a fundamental earth changing discovery in basic research and feeling like there is a lot of recycling going on in “fundamental advances”. But that is not about not having time; that is about understanding better the nature of ecology and advances in ecology. But it does tip the balance of where I choose to devote my time. The funding issue is real (and pretending you’re applied only works at NSF, not a lot of other sources). But mostly as I get more experienced, the line between fundamental and applied seems much more blurry than it used to. And as I get more senior I more able to apply my own internal compass for what is important and less prone to follow fads in the literature, and I increasingly see at least the potential for application as a pretty reliable touchstone for valuable research (if fundamental research is really supposed to significantly enlighten us about how the natural world works how could it not have potential applications for applied questions, and conversely, if it has no potential for applied applications, how much has it really enlightened us about the natural world?). And my research portfolio is about 5 times more diverse than it was early in my career, so why wouldn’t it be more likely to span that divide?

    • “if fundamental research is really supposed to significantly enlighten us about how the natural world works how could it not have potential applications for applied questions, and conversely, if it has no potential for applied applications, how much has it really enlightened us about the natural world?”

      Hmm. It occurs to me that you could use that famous anecdote about G. H. Hardy to argue this either way. Hardy famously was proud that his work in number theory had no application whatsoever–only it later turned out to have applications in cryptography. You could take that as support for your claim, obviously. OTOH, the fact that the application wasn’t foreseen at the time, and perhaps couldn’t have been, argues against trying to use potential applications as a justification for any particular bit of fundamental research. That is, the “linear model” linking fundamental research to applications is false; the applications (or lack thereof) of any particular bit of fundamental research are unpredictable, and so can’t be used to justify any particular bit of fundamental research.

      “feeling like there is a lot of recycling going on in “fundamental advances”. But that is not about not having time; that is about understanding better the nature of ecology and advances in ecology.”

      So, fundamental research is what you do until you’re old enough to realize it’s already been done? That raises a question: do we need to change how we train and mentor students? So that more of them can skip over the “putting old wine in new bottles” stage and go straight to the “the only work worth doing is either applied, or is one of the very rare bits of work that truly represents a fundamental advance” stage? Or is that not possible? Maybe the only way to get to the second stage is to pass through the first? This kind of gets back to this old post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/evaluating-science-in-retrospect-vs-prospect/

      • The number theory example crossed my mind too as I was writing that. To me number theory was a fundamental advance in how we understand the world of numbers, which makes it unlikely it would never have applied uses. I was careful not to say you had to know the uses in advance. Just that if it is truly fundamental and informative it will have applied uses. Aside from cryptography (and crystals and Rubik’s cubes) that everybody always cites, number theory has become a bit like the plumbing for the rest of math. All areas of math have been informed by number theory including some pretty applied areas like calculus.

        Personally I am not sure we can (or should) try to circumvent the first stage of thinking things are really new. And I certainly wouldn’t agree with “the only work worth doing is either applied, or is one of the very rare bits of work that truly represents a fundamental advance” . There is value to recycling. It keeps knowledge fresh. It updates itself every loop around the spiral with more rigor and modern language. It just becomes less interesting to me personally as I see it in a new (or should I say old) light.

      • “There is value to recycling. It keeps knowledge fresh. It updates itself every loop around the spiral with more rigor and modern language. It just becomes less interesting to me personally as I see it in a new (or should I say old) light.”

        That’s a very good way of putting it.

  5. My reading of the history of science suggests an alternative to the ‘too busy, too lazy’ hypothesis: ‘Fundamental’ problems are identified as those issues that come up again and again when trying to understand (and attend to) important phenomena in actual systems. ‘Fundamental’ issues are not defined as ‘hypothetical phenomena person X finds interesting’ (i.e. not applied != fundamental). Once identified, ‘fundamental’ advances are, most often, made by synthesis from which the specific cases can be derived.
    It could be that older researchers have developed the wisdom to understand that the key to identifying the most important fundamental problems, and being a position to address them, is found by working toward applied ends. In addition, to the efficiency of this approach to identifying important ‘fundamental’ problems, this approach also allows one’s work to be more immediately useful for addressing some issue of concern in an system of concern (they can be a ‘good’ scientist and useful in their lifetime!). Finally, if applied work is the (quickest) road to fundamental advancements, and one feels that it is important to use the (limiting) resources bestowed to them by the public (including the opportunity costs of that public investment) wisely and efficiently, it may seem to the wise, older researcher immoral to chase one’s interests independent of a clear tangible contributions (i.e. they become morally exhausted of exaggerating to NSF what good their ‘following my interest’ work might, someday, in the distant future, do, when they know that those funds would be more efficiently spent on science trying to understand and solve the actual applied problem).

    tl;dr
    1) chasing one’s own tail is only fun for pups and doesn’t lead anywhere
    2) experience and wisdom teach efficiency in identifying an solving ‘fundamental’ problems
    3) Older scientists feel pressure to leave a measurable positive impact on the world
    4) It’s immoral, and thus personally unsatisfying, to gain funding by exaggerating (lying) about how useful you work will be when you know that it is unlikely to be useful.

    Just an idea. I know there are exceptions to both the ‘mechanism of fundamental advancement’ and reasons for shifting to more applied work.

    • I agree with the suggestions that “fundamental” != “not applied” (because it’s quite possible for work to be both), and “fundamental” != “of interest to me personally”. Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

      I don’t agree that applied work is the quickest route to fundamental insight. It may be in some cases, but in many cases not.

      As an aside I personally wouldn’t summarize my pet hypothesis as “too busy, too lazy”. I *definitely* don’t think that anyone switches from fundamental to applied work out of laziness!

      • I read Don as making a slightly stronger point, that it is not true that everything that could be called basic research is equally worth doing (“‘Fundamental’ issues are not defined as ‘hypothetical phenomena person X finds interesting’”). Nor of course is all applied research equally worth doing. But I think one frustration people sometimes have with the defense of basic research is it quickly turns into a license to research anything my heart desires. And we ought not expect society to necessarily fund that (no matter how much I think society should fund much basic research). Basic research CAN be boring and uninteresting, and not worth funding or doing. And I like Don’s notion of “fundamental” basic research as a qualifier on the type of basic research we should be funding.

      • And clearly I shouldn’t have dropped from my early draft the sentence reading “And some people do work that can’t be neatly classified as fundamental or applied”. I dropped it purely for brevity, but in retrospect I should’ve kept it. 🙂

  6. Are you sure that it isn’t a change in ecology through time irrespective of career stage? (ie, is the proportion of young people doing fundamental research now as high it was 20+ years ago?). Here in Australia we’re regularly told that we have a moral obligation to do applied research and that fundamental research is a luxury we can no longer afford 😦

    • I do think that graduate students in basic ecology (e.g. EEB programs) are much more interested in doing applied research immediately upon graduation than they were 20 years ago (when they were happy to wait 20 years and fulfill the old ecologist syndrome of your post, Jeremy). I think you Angela also bring up a good point about how this varies from country to country. I think of China and Australia as two countries where there is an especially strong push to do applied research (which of course is not to say that a lot of great basic research doesn’t come out of those countries).

  7. How about this is a hypothesis (although I’m not sure I believe it myself)? That the vast majority of creative people (scientists and artists are who I think of here) would be considered fortunate to have one real good original idea in them – if you are enormously lucky you get your Born To Run or Theory of Island Biogeography. And it need not happen when you’re young except that if it doesn’t happen when you’re young you may never establish yourself in your chosen career and get the opportunity to have it later in life. So, successful scientists and artists have an early success that allows them to establish themselves and after that they apply the technical skills they acquire along the way to do good but unexceptional work. And the geniuses just keep on having great ideas – Jack Szostak comes to mind. Jeff.

  8. Simple answer, I’d say. The sciences in general are not at all welcoming of the “late bloomers” you speak of. Without the requisite publication and grant record expected by someone in their age bracket, they are simply dismissed as being a day late and a dollar short. This attitude is, in my experience across many sciences, ubiquitous.

    • Well, depends what you mean by “late bloomer”. The comments on my old post (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/is-research-a-young-persons-game/) include suggestions of ecologists who did solid but not-especially-influential work for many years before eventually “blooming” and doing very important, highly-influential work.

      But yes, there is probably a degree of survivorship bias in available data on scientist’s productivity as a function of their ages.

      • ahh- I should have clarified my thought. what I meant to say was, there exists a definitive bias in academia as it concerns the early beginnings of a research career. i think the overwhelming view in academia is that nowadays not only do you need the PhD, but a couple of post-docs and a decade or so of publications to land that first tenure-track position. so, if you are beginning that process, let’s say mid to late 40s, it is viewed largely as a waste of time because of the relatively low return on the investment the employer would realize. so i would argue there is a real age-discrimination occurring in academia that prevents people from transitioning to a research career later in life. more than likely, the emphasis on publication record becomes impossible to overcome at some point.

      • Re: age discrimination, Brian might be able to speak to that. He spent something like 10 years in the private sector before going back to grad school.

        Re: the time it takes to land a tenure-track faculty position, in ecology, the median time from PhD to first faculty position has *dropped* since the 90s, according to a big survey conducted by ASLO. (I know, it surprised me too when I learned that.) The median time as a postdoc for people who go on to asst prof positions in ecology is now <4 years, if memory serves.

        I wouldn't generalize from those data to other fields. And those ASLO data may have some survivor bias, in the sense that it may be more common than it used to be for people to do multiple postdocs and then leave academia.

  9. I’m enjoying this comment thread–nothing as fun as wild speculation about processes underlying a pattern we are not sure even exists. So here is another hypothesis to throw around: youthful ignorance/hubris/chutzpah. it’s easier to make bold claims about fundamental problems when you are young, because you don’t yet understand how much you don’t know. I look at some of the things I did as a post-doc, and I think I got lucky. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t try those things again without much better theorists and statisticians to hold my hand. I’ve recently met other mid-career people who shared this experience. I guess this doesn’t explain a drift towards more applied topics, just a drift towards a more cautious, collaborative approach.

    • Re-order the description of this hypothesis to chutzpah/hubris/ignorance, and we get a nice acronym: CHI. My gut tells me it must be right.

    • “I’m enjoying this comment thread–nothing as fun as wild speculation about processes underlying a pattern we are not sure even exists.”

      “Assume for the sake of argument that…” is an essential phrase in any blogger’s vocabulary. 🙂

      Interesting comments re: youthful hubris. I’ve been known to joke (fondly, admiringly) that certain projects are so crazy they could only have been done by grad students. Any interest in expanding your thoughts on this into a guest post on the pluses and minuses of “youthful ambition/hubris” in ecology?

  10. I suggest an elaboration of the greater funding availability idea. As Jeff Ollerton says, senior ecologists tend to be under greater pressure to bring in more money. Part of the reason for that is that they usually have larger labs and more people to support. Thus one reaches for the RFPs that are most plentiful and perhaps easiest to address. I’ve watched this phenomenon with countless colleagues and mentors.

    That said, I’d be shocked if the pressures on up-and-coming ecologists haven’t changed over time, as angela moles alludes. After all, environment ought to affect behavior.

    If one quantified “hot topics” (by # pubs per year, for example), and if “appliedness” could be quantified, would the appliedness of hot topics increase over the years?

  11. There is an alternative approach I was recently informed about: in a review of more than 60 studies of what makes a “dream job” it was found that having a MEANINGFUL job is one major factor of importance towards job satisfaction (check https://80000hours.org/). Being a free-lance ecologist myself, I have often doubted how much of theoretical ecology actually has any MEANING at all. When I am required to provide clear-cut MEANINGFUL answers to an engineer and policy maker on issues such as “how much a population of species A will be impacted by road fragmentation” or “how much the wetland vegetation is expected to change because of tertiary treatment waste poured in the marsh?”…does theoretical ecology provide answers or tools to help me? I am not aware of any major publication on this issus but I intuitively believe “no” and I would be glad to have my mind changed on this. It The much acclaimed link between theoretical and applied facts may be strong in other sciences but in ecology it does not generally show…..I am sure there are objections to this (i.e. population viability analysis or the epidemiological aspects of the biodiversity as in the Lyme disease eg http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/15-0122) but the every-day ecologists feel abandoned from the theoreticians…A proof of this is clearly the scientific inadequacy of most ESIAs (e.g. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.07.083) ……
    Twenty-five (25) years after its publication in 1991, the “Critique of Ecology” by Peters seems to be as realistic as ever….how many of the things he prophetically critisized on the practise of ecology are still so real and so wrong today?? It is a question though why this book that shows the flaws of ecologists remains expelled from the world academic curricula…… Maybe we ecologists hesitate to admit our own incapacities and weaknesses especially in the theoretical framework of ecology. Maybe this is the reason that we secretly turn our backs to it and choose another more practical direction where questions are more trivial yet more MEANINGFUL after all……

    • There’s certainly some truth in what you say, Kelly, however I didn’t read Jeremy’s idea of “fundamental” research to equate with “theoretical” research. It’s possible to do non-applied, fundamental ecology that is empirical rather than theoretical.

      • Kelly, I for one also strongly disagree with the idea that theory in ecology doesn’t have much relevance to applied topics. Granted I take a somewhat broad view of what constitutes theoretical ecology, and some of what I consider to be theory another person might just call modelling. But see the literature on Allee effects (for a topical example) or the work of Dean Urban (for a specific career) for examples of what I think are cases where theory informs our understanding of issues with clear applications. Now, what I do think is often the case, and where my opinion moves closer to yours, is that there are often “translational” steps between origination of a theory (e.g., writing down a conceptual/mathematical model that describes a phenomenon of interest) and direct applications, that place the theory in relevant context for the issue at hand. Perhaps this translation doesn’t happen as well or as often as it should–and perhaps ecologists need to work harder and smarter at this. But I for one see theory as being very relevant to applied ecology.

    • This is an interesting comment. I agree with the push back, that a) not all fundamental work is theoretical, and b) that not all theory is useless.

      But I also pretty strongly agree with Kelly’s core point. Take a look at the questions she poses. These are indeed the exact real-world kinds of questions that applied practitioners expect ecology to have built theory to help answer. And I’d be pretty hard pressed to identify any theory ecologists have developed that help to answer these questions to any real degree.

      It is more than just a translational problem to move from Lotka-Volterra equations and coexistence theory to predict population loss due to road fragmentation or etc. One could argue we haven’t been doing the kind of theory that would help answer these questions. One problem is so much of ecology is focused on equilibrial theory. Yet the questions Kelly highlights are all press questions (predict a new equilbrium – if an equilibrium at all – under a permanent change to the system). What theory would people point to help answer these questions?

      • Brian, I think you’ve hit on a great point about equilibrial theory and a need for more and better work addressing transient dynamics and shifts between equilibria. I wholeheartedly agree, and I think that this would lead to much better connections between ecological theory and practice.

        I suppose I think of theory as offering frameworks within which we might be able to begin to search for answers. I agree that Lotka-Volterra equations or coexistence theory don’t have much if anything to say about population loss due to road fragmentation, but that’s not to say that other theoretical frameworks don’t. Going back to Kelly’s questions on population loss due to road fragmentation and pollution effects on marsh vegetation, these questions bring to mind, metapopulations and regime shifts, respectively, but those are just first impressions and of course details of those questions/systems could mean that those frameworks are actually imperfect or inappropriate fits. It’s not my intention to debate whether whose frameworks actually are appropriate, but rather to make the point that theory does provide frameworks for examining a variety of applied questions. Should connections between theory and application be strengthened? Absolutely. A framework for thinking about a problem is a long way from providing practical solutions to a problem, and I acknowledge that the gulf between those things is generally deep.

        Finally, I hope I didn’t make what I called “translation” seem like an easy process. I think it’s actually quite complex and rarely straightforward, beginning with identifying the theory/theories that seem to best apply to the situation, ways in which the real system fails to meet theoretical assumptions, and possibly developing new theory or mechanistic models.

    • This is an intriguing array of comments and I thank you all for providing such elaborated responses! Nevertheless, to go back to the initial question posed by this blog and combine it with the sociological aspect of a “meaningful job” discussed by Benjamin Todd in his “80000 hours” book (www.80000hours.org)…… I still wonder if there are any ecologists working on fundamental research (either in theoretical or applied subjects) who felt that they should move to a more hands-on approach because they did not find “meaningful” enough their initial choice…..

      Thank you !!

  12. Pingback: Is basic vs applied research a single dimension? | Dynamic Ecology

  13. For me, interests have definitely gone in the opposite direction. I’ve always been primarily interested in applied research, but I’m more interested in theoretical/fundamental topics than I used to be, particularly with respect to statistical theory. For example right now I’m spending all of my time trying to understand the mathematical basis of distance sampling in aggregated populations–wouldn’t have done that when younger. But In addition to being interesting,there are direct applications to practical problems that I and others work on, i.e. trying to estimate density from distance data in non-random situations. It has taught me a lot that I would never otherwise have really understood.

    • Adding to what you say Jim, it seems that almost anything that has to do with statistical theory and sampling methodologies is fundamental research of immense interest for applied ecology. I would thus not consider it exactly as “going to the opposite direction”. Good luck in your work!

      • Thanks Kelly. I guess it depends on what we think of as “fundamental”–I consider accurate (and efficient!) quantification to be at or near #1 on the list of “fundamentally” important things to get right, and not just in ecology but in all of science.

        By the way, I agree with your point above–ecological theorizing has been of little or no help to most real world, practical ecology. Statistical theory conversely, is of enormous and constant importance thereto, because the vast majority of what practical ecology entails involves quantifying and comparing things of sort of “here and now” importance. Those things are of more immediate importance–and this equates to being more meaningful, as you state.

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