What is a research discipline? We need collaboration, not segregation

I’ve read two new papers this week that got me thinking about how and why we define ourselves as researchers.

One was this excellent paper led by Brian McGill on why macroecology and macroevolution, once essentially part of a single discipline, need to reconverge as they both have complementary goals. As the authors note, macroecology tends to focus on spatial processes, while macroevolution tends to focus on temporal processes. In reality, both types of processes are linked across scales and influence each other. To address fundamental questions about biodiversity and ecosystem function, we need to consider both together.

This segregation across related disciplines is a real problem that we need to address – we’ve seen it with agricultural science and ecology, freshwater & terrestrial ecology and more…

McGill et al. describe how (macro)ecology & (macro)evolution diverged, explain why they need to get back together, and present some pressing research questions as a path forward. It’s a really good paper and I highly recommend it if you work even remotely close to these disciplines.

The second was this paper led by Rogier Hintzen, which I found underwhelming. From my reading, I felt that its aim was to drive a wedge between ecology and conservation biology, which are both closely-related disciplines with common goals. The language throughout the paper is overtly condescending, and consistently implies that ecology is a less relevant discipline to solve today’s environmental problems, compared to conservation biology.

Disclaimer: I’m an ecologist and I work on conservation-relevant problems. I’m here because I care about nature. Sounds trite, but I think that’s what most ecologists are here for.

And as far as I know, there is no pressing knowledge gap that requires a delineation between ecology and conservation biology. But this is the authors’ hypothesis:

“We hypothesize that ecology’s role in conservation biology has waned and that the vision of a science that applies the latest ecological ideas to solving its pressing problems has faded too.”

‘Waned’ and ‘faded’ both connote derogatory declines in ecology’s relevance to solve our ‘pressing problems’. The paper’s discussion continues on this theme. Ecologists are painted as desperate scientists trying to be relevant to conservation “only to discover that they are not that useful after all” and recent developments “are no more promising”.

This is news to me, as I thought both disciplines essentially had common goals and conservation success stories are essentially based on ecological knowledge. Ecosystem services (disclaimer: one of my main research disciplines) is a fundamentally ecological concept with fundamentally applied conservation goals.

If this paper was an opinion piece, I’d be less critical. But this is a data paper and the methods simply aren’t suitable to test the hypothesis. A text-mining content analysis of a select group of journals, subjectively chosen as representative of each discipline, is not appropriate to claim that ecological knowledge is not useful to solve conservation problems. The journals chosen aren’t even representative of each discipline*, and it’s simply wrong to conflate a journal’s scope & subjective publication process with the relevance of a whole discipline for solving environmental problems. The authors also seem to think that ‘Ecology’, the discipline, is all about theory and models. It’s not (see here and here) – these are parts of ecology, but not the whole.

I’ve written about the research niche before. Career success depends on finding a niche, but that niche is built on a combination of substrates. Most researchers work across multiple disciplines and publish across multiple journals. Journals are a publication medium – they have a scope and a subjective editorial process that simply cannot define a discipline’s goals or success rate (whatever that means). I call myself an ecologist, but I work and publish across multiple ‘disciplines’*: ecology, entomology, conservation biology, agricultural science, communication, social science. Does it matter?

Pitting disciplines against each other is not helpful or constructive. We are in unprecedented territory with climate change. The environmental problems we face require collaboration across disciplines, not segregation.


*The authors choose these journals as representative of each discipline:
Ecology (Trends in Ecology & Evolution; American Naturalist; Ecology Letters; Ecology; Oikos; Methods in Ecology & Evolution; Ecography; Biological Conservation; Ecological Applications)
Conservation Biology (Conservation Evidence; Oryx; Conservation Biology; Conservation Letters; AMBIO; Conservation & Society; Ecology & Society)
I’m an ecologist & I’ve barely published in the ‘ecology’ journals (a book review and a natural history note), but I’ve published two of my key ‘research niche’ papers in Cons Biol and AMBIO.


© Manu Saunders 2019

3 thoughts on “What is a research discipline? We need collaboration, not segregation

  1. Jeremy Fox November 13, 2019 / 1:10 PM

    Hmm. To the extent that the content of conservation journals has moved away from that of ecology journals, wasn’t that kind of inevitable given that conservation biology started out as a very ecology-focused discipline? The amount of focus the discipline gives to sociological and political factors (which are very important to conservation!) had nowhere to go but up, right? Please do correct me if I’ve got the history wrong here, I’m not a conservation biologist…

    Another thought: isn’t the story here one of increasing interdisciplinarity of conservation biology, incorporating more of the sociological and political considerations that aren’t traditionally considered part of ecology? That is, the reason why conservation biology appears to be splitting off from ecology “sensu stricto” (at least by the measures considered in the linked paper) is precisely that conservation biology is becoming more interdisciplinary than it used to be? Which if so isn’t quite a story about increasingly-narrow niche specialization and increasingly-separated disciplinary silos, is it?

    Just offhand thoughts, which may well reflect lack of background knowledge on my part. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders November 13, 2019 / 2:09 PM

      Yes, some fields of conservation biology are becoming more interdisciplinary – and so are some fields of ecology. Many of things that the authors claim separate conservation biology as a ‘more relevant’ discipline, like social/political considerations, are already being addressed by some ecologists and have been inherent to some fields of ecology for years – hence why many ecologists publish in many of the journals they assign as representing cons biol. I think it sounds like they are trying to specifically take aim at theoretical ecology, but don’t specifiy this – sure theoretical ecology may be treated as quite distinct from modern applied conservation biology. But it would be pretty hard to prove that ecological theory has never been useful to conservation success. And there are many conservation biologists that use highly theoretical methods, eg decision theory. Just too many confounding factors to make any of these claims!

      Liked by 1 person

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