Recently ran across an interesting remark from Dan Davies: the question “Does the MMR vaccine cause autism?” is one of the few on which scientists have concluded that no further research is needed.
Which got me thinking: what ecological questions or topics require no further research?
There are many boringly obvious answers. For instance, we don’t need any further research to know if species richness tends to be higher in the tropics, or tends to increase with area. Ok, maybe we need more research into why those patterns are observed, or the precise quantitative shape of the richness-latitude or richness-area relationship, or etc. But we don’t need any more research merely documenting the existence of those qualitative patterns. They’re already well-established facts. “Is anthropogenic climate change occurring?” is another boringly obvious answer. There are many topics related to climate change that require further research. But the basic fact that the climate is changing because of human activities doesn’t need any further research to establish it.
So what are the less obvious answers? What ecological question has only recently been answered so definitively that further research isn’t needed? You tell me! The more interesting/important the question, and the more recently it’s been definitively answered, the better. You get bonus points for boldness if you can make a good argument for cessation of research on a question that’s still actively being researched. (As opposed to a question on which active research has already ceased because everyone agrees that the question has been definitively answered.)
The first (slightly) less obvious answer that occurs to me is “the shape of the biodiversity-ecosystem function relationship”, in experiments manipulating species diversity within a single trophic level, in which the function of interest is the total productivity or biomass of those species. But that’s still a fairly boring answer; I think most ecologists would agree that issue was resolved years ago. But other people have more interesting answers. Over at Ideas For Sustainability, Joern Fischer suggests that there’s nothing really new to learn about conservation and sustainability. He argues that what’s needed is action, not adding unimportant nuances to existing knowledge. And here’s a related old post in which I asked “What ecological controversies are now settled?”
It’s perhaps worth noting that the question “Does the MMR vaccine cause autism?” is one that few scientists thought needed any research in the first place, as far as I know. Which if so would explain why nobody now thinks any further research is needed. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any similar cases in ecology. Though I bet there are some that I’m just not aware of.
A final thought: are there ecological questions that don’t require further research because we already have a definitive answer, and that definitive answer is “it depends” or “it’s complicated” or “it varies idiosyncratically”? In an old post, I argued that we don’t need any more research on whether the local-regional richness relationship is linear or saturating, because we now know the answer is “it varies idiosyncratically” and because there’s good theoretical reason to expect idiosyncrasy.
Note that I’m not looking for cases in which no further research is needed because the question is ill-posed or unanswerable. Nor am I looking for cases in which no further research is needed because nobody cares about the question any more, even though it has yet to be answered.
Looking forward to your comments, as always.