Image Credit: Lahiru Prabudda Fernando, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped
In a year like 2020, when everything short-term seems disastrous, it’s hard to focus on long-term change. How everything from ecology’s relationship with the public, to the health of freshwater ecosystems, to just our general sanity seems to be in flux at the moment.
But we’ve been reading about that ad nauseam recently, and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. So instead, let’s return to an ongoing segment, and have a look at some of the ways that ecology has changed over the last few decades, according to some of the intriguing and prominent researchers we’ve had the chance to speak to over the last few months.
As usual, full interviews with each ecologist can be found by clicking on their names.
Dan Baldassarre, Associate Professsor at the State University of New York, Oswego
I think for me probably the biggest thing has been the “-omics” explosion. Genomics, transcriptomics, microbiomics, the incorporation of genetic data into anything that anybody does. It has gotten cheaper and the software has gotten better, so it has just sort of exploded. When I started my dissertation I was really a behavioural ecologist, I didn’t know anything about genetics or wetlab work at all. I started dabbling a little bit with genetic techniques that when I started were pretty rudimentary compared to what people do now. What we can do now was completely unheard of back then. So I would say those types of technologies, and the expectations to have those types of data in a lot of ecology projects, that’s the biggest change for me.
Vigdis Vandvik, Centre Director for bioCEED, University of Bergen
Community & Global Change Ecology
The availability of big data, which has made global biogeography scale down and local experiments scale up. It’s meant that these two aspects of ecology on very different scales have started to meet.
But also, especially in the last few years, a big change has been the talk of ecology and sustainability as a global threat to the world economy in reports by organisations like IPBES and the World Economic Forum. In 2011 when climate change appeared on the WEF’s list of global economic threats I remember I felt the hairs rise on my neck. And even then, if someone had told me then that in 2020 almost all of the top ten threats to the world economy would just be biology-related, I would have bet half my house against that. If organisations like the WEF are recognising the severity of the climate crisis, it gives me hope.
David Lusseau, Professor at the Technical University of Denmark
I think the biggest change has been that we now take the human element in ecology more seriously. Simply because it’s a more pressing need. During my undergraduate as an ecologist, I was working in population ecology, we were concerned about population growth rates, understanding the role of vital rates in population ecology. And we would process the data, create some models, and as far as conservation went, we would give the results to the managers and let them deal with it. And now we’re realising how important it is for ecologists to understand the human element in ecology. And not just from a conservation perspective, but as an interesting ecological topic in its own right. From the natural research perspective it’s an interesting subject to ask questions about. So I think that’s been the biggest change.
Cecilia Medupin, University of Manchester
Although my academic and work experience has been in industry, environmental regulation and academia, I have an overview of the social, technological, core biological and regulatory application of environmental management including river monitoring and assessment. In order to have a holistic understanding of environmental challenges, it is important to have a broader mind-set to informing solutions/decisions. For example, when I started my PhD, I wanted to understand the cause of pollution on an urban river. To do this effectively, I needed to relate with the regulators to acquire long term data for that location, connect with the water companies who manage the water infrastructure for that location, relate with members of the public and then relate with the researchers who were my supervisors. Ecology provides you with that type of opportunity. I have seen an increase in awareness of the need for this sort of integration, and funders are keen. We’re heading towards a future where environmental challenges to our rivers, our lakes can only be resolved through broader and effective interactions of disciplines and people. This way, we would make informed decisions and provide solutions that are stronger and more sustainable for all.
Jane Reid, International Chair Professor, Norwegian university of Science and Technology
The increase in quantitative skills has been enormous because. When I did my PhD, I hadn’t really gotten any training in statistics, and certainly not in any form of statistical programming. An equivalent to R did not even exist yet. The level of my experience with statistical analysis coming out of my undergraduate were along the lines of doing a t-test or possibly a linear regression. That was all we had. And then even during my PhD, people were trying to run a mixed model, like a really simple Gaussian mixed model, and there was one person in the department that had some kind of software package that could just about do it, but only he knew how to do it. So anyone who wanted to use that approach had to talk to him and he had to battle with a programming language that could barely be said to have a user interface. So just the transformation in how we can now all implement really complicated statistical analyses has revolutionized things I think.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is just hoping that ecology doesn’t change too much more before he finishes his PhD. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.