The Changing Face of Ecology: ASFB Edition

I speak to another group of influential researchers on how ecology has changed over the recent decades

I speak to another group of influential researchers on how ecology has changed over the recent decades (Image Credits: Jarod Lyon, Gretta Pecl, CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m 29. It’s not like that makes me uniquely qualified to give me the youth’s perspective on ecology today. But it does make me 100% unqualified to talk about how ecology has changed in recent decades. So when I was at the recent Australian Society for Fish Biology Conference (a line you’ll surely be sick of if you’ve been keeping up with my recent interviews), I decided to get some uniquely fishy perspectives on how our discipline has changed over the last 20-30 years.

The following commentaries are naturally from fish biologists. If you’d like a broader perspective on the changing face of ecology, check out Part One and Part Two of this series. You can also find the full interview with all the scientists below by clicking on their names.

Gretta Pecl, Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania

Marine Climate Change Ecology & Socioecology

It’s much more important now to have an awareness of interdisciplinary work. I don’t just mean for example mixing oceanography and ecology, I mean in terms of sociology and anthropology, because the people aspect of what we do is so important. Back in the mid 90s when I did my honours, lots of people were doing projects on their own, they might have a single author paper, perhaps two, that was really common. Now, a lot of science is team science. And I think that is a good thing in general, because all the big themes in science we have are not going to be solved by one researcher on their own. We’ve got some pretty massive issues that the world has to deal with, and the more minds that we have on those kinds of big problems the better.

A lot of the data that we use has changed too, the spatial and temporal scale of the data that people use is so massive now, it’s not one person collecting it. It’ll be a team of ten people processing, uploading and analysing it and then passing it on to the ecologist. The scale of the science we do has absolutely changed. The days of being locked away in your lab looking at the genetics of a single species are all but over. You can still be curiosity driven, but for a long-term sustainable career, your research has to have some kind of impact.

Eva Plaganyi, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

Applied Marine Ecology

Ecology has shifted from an initially narrow focus to a much broader, multi-disciplinary approach. This is not only in terms of from ecological to social and economic factors, but also from single species to multiple species and ecosystem considerations, and then expanding to the human dimension as well. I think that’s happened at the same time that climate change started ramping up. Broader ecosystem approaches to ecology and the growing recognition that the climate is changing, both required people to start looking at the broader ecosystem and human factors impacting it.

But one needs to also acknowledge technology. Most of us didn’t predict the changes due to computers and the internet. Even during my Honours thesis I was still manually pasting in figures and going to the library to copy articles that I needed. Then within a few years, one could download everything, Google information, communicate much more rapidly, and researchers stopped receiving a postcard that took two months to reach you asking for a reprint of a paper. It sped up all the scientific exchange, and it was easier to be connected to what people were thinking elsewhere in the world.

Technology also meant that as a mathematical modeller we could just do so much more, for example, we could do management strategy evaluation with countless simulations, which led to more sophisticated analyses. We could also do much broader science that took into account more uncertainties. If you’ve got limited computational capacity, you can only work out one answer, but if you can rapidly run 1000 simulations you can ask questions such as about regime changes, predator-prey interactions and the like.

At the same time, I will add that we’ve tended to run before we can walk. I often say that we probably haven’t done the groundwork from an ecological perspective in terms of a theoretical understanding before using some of this new computing power. People have just run with it without seeing what theoretically makes sense, what can be validated, and checked. I think that’s a challenge now, to couple that computing power with good theoretical underpinning.

Peter Unmack, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra

Freshwater Conservation & Evolutionary Biology

In the area that I’m work in, genomics has been the fundamental change. When I started, people were just getting beyond sequencing 500 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA, to now for not much more effort or difference in cost, getting thousands of SNPs from across the genome. It’s a completely different world of data that we’re living in now. The amount of information you get is so much more. There’s a lot more clarity. But on the flipside, it has massively complicated things. Obviously we know now that life’s more complicated than 500 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA. So in one respect you lose clarity, because things are more complex. There’s more evidence of genes mixing around and swapping alleles, and more complex processes going on, but you can see that with greater clarity.

Over the last 20-30 years, the call for more applied science has increased, genomics has revolutionised our understanding of population dynamics, and attitudes to restoration have become more complex

Over the last 20-30 years, the call for more applied science has increased, genomics has revolutionised our understanding of population dynamics, and attitudes to restoration have become more complex (Image Credit: Bruno de Giusti, CC BY-SA 2.5 IT)

John Morrongiello, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne

Evolutionary Ecology

I think that there’s a really strong push now for science that matters. We need to justify our existence more than we ever have before. What’s the tangible public good, what’s the economic good of research being done these days. Moreso than just having research and trusting that it will invariably lead to advancements, that advancement has to be more explicitly spelled out within the research. It means we’re solving real world problems now, but that potentially limits our capacity to deal with new emerging problems in the future. We’re doing more applied research, which is a good thing, but it’s also a bit of a drawback I suppose.

We’re also more and more engaging with the public. The public has expectations around what we’re doing with public funds. But I also think it comes from an appreciation that science can potentially be a bit tenuous in terms of funding, and so when we engage with the public we need to shore up good will. If we can actually communicate, then people will find value in what we do.

In terms of where we’ve gone as a field, there’s certainly been a strong movement away from experimentation to direct observation of natural phenomena. Through that, we’re now dealing with big datasets from the environment itself, whereas previously we’ve only looked at data in quite simplistic ways. Now we’ve got a whole cottage industry of quantitative science, which is ecological modelling. The problem is though that we’re moving into a modelling world where actual understanding of mechanisms is brushed over. We need to go back and understand mechanisms behind our assumptions, which we can feed into our complex models. So we’re asking bigger scale questions than ever before, but we need to make sure we’re getting the biological understanding to make those results robust.

Jarod Lyon, Manager Applied Aquatic Ecology, Arthur Rylah Institute

Applied Aquatic Ecology

The biggest one I’ve seen is the whole environmental movement in Australia. My lecturers at University were people who did their Bachelors in the 70s, when there were movements like Save Franklin Dam, that sort of stuff. It was very cut and dry, green versus brown. And you did need that, because at the time environmental damage was getting out of hand, people needed to stand up and push back. Those people are getting towards the end of their careers now, and have been passing on those ideologies to students for the last 20-40 years. But I think now there’s a space in ecology and restoration, which is my field, for students to learn more about the economic and environmental arguments. When I went to Uni I pretty much only learned the environmental side. And now I’ve seen how the world works and how decisions are made, how you get positive environmental change. I think that people coming through the system can look to be teaching negotiation skills, getting outcomes, rather than just ending up locked in a constant fight over what’s bad and what’s good. So that’s one of the main shifts I can see happening at the moment, that people are getting taught about how best to get an outcome. I think it’s gone from chaining people to trees to a partnership approach.​

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