A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Eric Charnov asks: Which of the concepts/methods/questions/approaches/theories ecologists currently talk about will still be part of the discipline in 50 yrs?
Is it cheating for me to just link back to this old post of Brian’s?
If it is cheating, then here are my mostly-boring and obvious predictions. All of which simply assume that current trends will continue. But at no extra charge, I threw in some predictions that aren’t about concepts/methods/questions/approaches/theories. 🙂
- Ecology will continue to become more of an applied field, continuing to focus more and more on description and forecasting of global change and responses to global change.
- Ecologists will continue to seek generality primarily through meta-analysis and other empirical comparative methods rather than via theoretical/conceptual routes. That is, roads to generality #1 and #6 on my list will remain the most prominent.
- The theoretical work that does become prominent and influential will be based on computational approaches rather than analytically-tractable models, and will concern problems/questions with close connections to applied issues. For instance, ecology and evolution of range limits and range shifts along environmental gradients.
- The increasing availability and decreasing expense of remotely-sensed data and tracking of individual animals will increasingly shape the sorts of questions ecologists ask and how they go about answering them.
- Ecological research coming out of Asia, especially China, will continue to grow in importance.
- The percentage of women among academic ecology faculty in N. America will continue to grow steadily, until stabilizing around 59% women in 20-40 years.
- The IDH will no longer be included in ecology textbooks.
- Mistaken or confused ideas about “limiting similarity” will continue to plague ecologists’ collective thinking forever.
Like Jeremy, my first instinct is to point to my previous 100th anniversary of ESA post. But lets see if I can add to that.
- New all over again – Ecology (like all sciences) has as much spiral as trendline. So I predict now underappreciated fields like optimal foraging and succession will be rediscovered. I’m curious what other fields people think will be rediscovered.
- Temporal ecology – The 1980s-2010s have been all about adding space to ecology in a deep way. Metapopulations and communities, environmental gradients, landscape ecology, etc were all part of this. Coming decades will see an equal emphasis on time. We will move well beyond simplistic differential equation equilibrial models to studies that embrace whole time series and exogenous forcing. How often do black swans happen and do they cause abrupt or gradual changes in communities. What kind of communities are more prone to abrupt or gradual change? Can we compare the strength of current exogenous forcing (aka the Anthropogenic change) with pre-human exogenous forcing (e.g. natural climate change) And etc.
- Spatial temporal change – Closely paralleling the last point, in an applied world, it seems to me that if you wear a macroecological lens (i.e. many species rather than single species of concern) we don’t so much face a biodiversity loss crisis as a biodiversity reshuffling crisis. How can quantify and compare spatial and temporal turnover in composition? What causes these? How have these accelerated (if they have)? What management practices address these?
- Traits – There will be a well established theory of traits that is built on a multidimensional interaction between traits and environment. The genotype-phenotype program will not fulfill the promise of its name, but will add to our understanding of traits.
- Latitudinal gradient of diversity – better described as why does species richness vary around the globe – will finally see a cohesive first order theory that explains a non-trivial fraction of the variability.
- Niche theory will continue to remain a realm of muddy thinking – not because we couldn’t make it precise, but because sociologically this has become our parking garage where we park our concepts we can’t make more precise, and that’s OK, we probably need such a place.
- Methodology – Remote sensing, automated image processing and barcoding/eDNA will fundamentally change the data we collect. This will be very beneficial to the filed, although all of these changes will be overhyped and experience the bandwagon phenomenon. Statistics will continue to get more and more complicated, and the only benefit will be allowing us to extract ever smaller signals out of noisy data which is of dubious benefit, all while statistics becomes so complicated and specialized that we no longer have any idea what are best practices and ultimately until nobody is qualified to review or judge anybody else’s papers because every statistical method will be a one-off.
- Sociology of doing science – Collaborative science will only continue to increase in frequency and importance. We will continue to see slow but real progress in leveling the playing field for women and I hope we will start to see detectable progress for other minority groups. Ecology will see more “big instrument” efforts (like NEON).
- Publishing – Peer review will still be important. Journals will likely still exist. Beyond that, no clue. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. it will look totally different in terms of who owns journals (and they may not exist), who pays to publish, etc. But I don’t know how. I would be willing to shorten my time frame for this prediction to 20 years. China, Latin America and Africa will all increase in importance and proportion of contribution relative to North America and Europe.
- Scientific method – I will still be trying, unsuccessfully, to convince ecologists that reductionism, differential equations, and experimentation are only a small subset of the good ways to do science and that we are limiting ourselves. Field work and field collection of new data will remain the dominant modality of doing ecology, despite worries to the contrary.