Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

What constitutes a 'substantial' contribution to ecological science?

Good dress sense only gets
 you so far in science!
I've been musing about how one decides whether they've made  a contribution to ecological science. This thought process arose because I was asked the other day, for an educational video being developed for high school students: "what is your most important contribution to plant ecology?" Wow! Condense 20 years of work down to one key finding or breakthrough. No pressure!

I'm not bold enough to nominate what that contribution might be (others can do that), although I do suspect that rather than one key contribution, my work probably needs to be seen as a series of inter-related studies that have enhanced ecological understanding of herbaceous ecosystems at a range of spatial and temporal scales. I've been interested in population processes, competitive interactions, species coexistence concepts, outcomes of disturbance regimes such as fire and, more recently, controls on species distributions and how plant traits help us both understand and predict vegetation responses. But how does this contribute to ecological science.

There are many ways one could assess this.

Are my scientific papers being read and cited. The short answer is "yes". This is good for ones ego. But it also says the work you do - be that the hypotheses you're testing, the experiments you're conducting, or the conclusions you are drawing - are legitimate in the eyes of your peers. This is a pretty crucial starting point for making a contribution to the discipline.

Am I getting asked to collaborate with others. Thankfully, "yes". Some of the most interesting work that I've contributed to recently has been as part of Working Groups that come together to develop new ideas on a current topic, or to analyse big datasets in meta-analyses such as the one I was recently involved in with Margie Mayfield (UQ) and others. I'm also a network contributor to projects such as the global NutNet project. This, I'm really pleased to say, has been a real eye opener about collaboration and excellent science. I think we will leave some really important legacies from such work.

Is my work (which is primarily of an applied nature, but based on sound ecological theory) being adopted by managers. The short answer is "yes". Recently it has been very satisfying to find that grassland managers around Melbourne have been trying to implement many of the recommendations my research has made over the years. This includes implementing fire regimes to advantage preservation of grassland vigour and diversity, a challenging task in urban environments.

But I think the real acid test of how your work is perceived really plays out in a wider forum. Much of my work probably hasn't had such an impact at this level (although I've got time to remedy this). But real, long-lasting contributions play out when you speak to the core of the discipline. This is hard (impossible) for most of us, but that should not stop us from thinking about making these types of contributions. 

The debates that have persisted over 20-30 years now about how plant communities are structured in calcareous pasture (Phil Grime's study system in England) versus the Minnesota sand plain (where Dave Tilman has worked most of his life) have had a profound impact on me as a plant ecologist. And probably shaped the type of ecology I do. No. They have shaped my ecology. Why? Because at their heart, both ecologists (with very different views of the world) have made me think. How do these divergent ideas apply to grasslands in Australia? Do I understand their core concepts? Why do I find such work fascinating? How is this relevant to management? How do I make managers / Post-Grads/ under-grads appreciate such theory?

In many respects, these ecologists from half way around the world epitomize what it means to have a career that matters ‐ both have forced others to have an opinion about their work, to take a side, to test claims with their own experiments and decide for themselves whether the world is structured according to resource ratios and local niches (Tilman) or CSR theory and infrequent disturbance (Grime).

The lesson to young ecologists is both inspiring and clear: at the end of the day, have you stuck your neck out enough? Both careers have involved a series of (sometimes heated) debates. At their core,  however, both ecologists - whose work is steeped in theory - have made important observations about, and given importance guidance to,  the field of environmental sustainability. Indeed, as others better versed in such matters have stated, "Dave Tilman has brought what were once academic disagreements into the forefront of the modern environmental movement. I can think of no higher achievement for an ecologist in our era."

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