Competing visions among ecologists?

By Tibor Hartel

It is widely recognized that our perceptions about the world depend on, among others, our value systems, knowledge, and cultural and social constrains. In turn, our perceptions, beliefs and attitudes toward the ‘world’ may influence others.

One may think that researchers are exceptions from this general rule. A recent study by Mark Neff, published in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment suggest that it is not the case. He evaluated the various considerations of ecologists (professionals and students) about the ‘purpose of ecological research’ using the Q method (for more details type ‘Q methodology’ on Wikipedia).

Based on the evaluations, he grouped ecologists in four broad categories.

1)    Those who perceived ecology as a tool for solving what they considered as ‘pressing environmental problems’. Some of them, but not all, considered that ‘climate change’ was the most pressing environmental problem. Therefore the relationship between climate and ecosystems should be a priority in ecological research. These participants thought that the ‘power of science’ would enrich people and decision makers, ultimately ‘forcing’ them to change (e.g. behavior, attitude, policy).

2)    This group of participants agreed that science should inform people and policy makers. This group of ecologists also emphasized the need for engaging more strongly with the social sciences in order to better understand social-ecological systems. For them, the term ‘ecosystem services’ was important because it was perceived as an efficient way for communicate ecology to non-scientists.

3)    This group also agreed that ecology needs to advance our understanding on ecosystem structure and function. Developing the ecological theory is the way to inform policy and public. They were, however, more skeptics about the idea of direct engagement with non-scientist people e.g. because ‘research shouldn’t be a lobbyist industry’. There was little or no openness from these participants toward social and economic sciences.

4)    This group considered that ecological knowledge was important to help professionals involved in managing and / or restoring ecological systems. For them, creating scientific principles for restoring ecosystem functions based on ‘clear ecological understanding’ was a priority.

These results suggest that ecologists perceive the mission of their discipline in a diverse way. With all these, Neff noted that ‘most participants felt they knew what the most pressing problems were, and many were confident that they knew both the solutions and what ecologists should do to ensure the implementation of their preferred solutions. Most did not perceive these things as personal policy preferences, but rather as following directly from their science’. Diversity of opinions would not be necessarily bad, but it may create problems when projects are evaluated and judged: while some ecologists may favor a certain project, others may disagree with it and find it completely useless. Neff’s suggestion is to involve various disciplines and non-academic persons in order to identify an ecological research agenda and be more efficient with the policy implications of the research.

I found this study interesting and relevant.

From my Romanian experience with herpetologist colleagues (i.e. those interested in amphibians and reptiles) I see two groups of researchers in this country: one well represented group who consider that faunistic records are the first priority for understanding the distribution and conservation status of species. A second, less represented group is convinced that in depth ecological research, carried out at habitat and landscape scales is the best way to identify and address conservation problems. Both groups seem to be equally concerned about the need for understanding ecology and conservation status of species to develop better management strategies. However, they sharply differ in the preferred way in which to inform decision makers and managers to achieve this.

It would be worth exploring the perceptions and attitudes of ecologists about inter- and trans-disciplinary research in this country as well. For example, when one of my colleagues found out that I am more and more interested on the social aspects of biodiversity conservation in farmlands, he expressed that ‘Ah, working with people is so difficult, I don’t like it. I suggest you to continue with your amphibian ecology research’. My answer was: ‘Yes, I agree that working with people may be difficult but can we really address biological conservation in traditional farmlands if we avoid the social component of the system? People are difficult or is it just us how are unable to deal with the challenge of social research?’ He smiled and didn’t disagree.

I would be interested in your perceptions about ‘what is the mission of the ecological science’?


Neff, M.W. 2011. What research should be done and why? Four competing visions among ecologists. Front Ecol Environ 9(8): 462-469.

One thought on “Competing visions among ecologists?

  1. Pingback: Evidence based conservation: an always actual issue? | Ideas for Sustainability

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