A Watermelon for the Aquanauts

I just saw this video from the Pawlik lab doing work done in the Aquarius habitat in the Caribbean. I just adore it. There’s something about the lighthearted sense of fund and enjoyment behind the soundtrack that syncs up with the work that’s being done that captures some of the essence of what subtidal work can be (even for those of us in colder temperate climes). Enjoy this research pastiche!

Does Synthesis Ecology Exist as a Scientific Discipline?

Does Synthesis Ecology exist? Is it a discipline? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

As a part of the Trends in Ecological Analysis and Synthesis symposium here at NCEAS, several postdocs past and present organized by Jennifer “Firestarter” Balch got together and sent this survey to the last 15 years of NCEAS postdocs. The survey asks what current and former NCEAS postdocs thought were the most important contributions in Synthesis Ecology and what they thought were the most exciting future directions in Synthesis Ecology.

And then a small storm erupted.

While Jennifer modified a definition of Synthesis Ecology from the NCEAS mission statement (“Synthesis Ecology is the integration and analysis of existing data, concepts, or theories to find emergent patterns and principles that address major fundamental questions in ecology and allied fields. “), even amongst the postdocs, no one could agree whether or not Synthesis Ecology existed as a Thing. Was it a discipline? Was it a technique? Would you feel comfortable calling yourself a Synthesis Ecologist? What is it?

Even amongst the authors on the analysis of the survey, there was little agreement. We sat down one morning, a group of current and former NCEAS postdocs, and tried to hash this issue out. Amusingly, the room was divided, largely along generational lines, as to whether it was or was not a field. We argued it around for a while, posing different definitions and finding little agreement.

Really, there are more questions and points of reflection than answers. Here are some relevant points that I pulled from our conversation. They’re what I latched on to, and are even argued amongst the participants in the group, so, no answers here.

  • What is a Field Of Science? The definition I threw out that everyone seemed comfortable with was that a field is a unique way of asking and answering questions about the world. The confluence of Asking and Answering is key. A methodology is just a way of answering.
  • Does a Field need to have a unique theory associated with it? Or not?
  • By analogy, how is Genomics a field? Why is Genomics not just a technique or methodology within Genetics? Similarly, Geography has had this debate about Geographic Information Science and, indeed, has emerged as its own field. Also on the same line, Molecular Biology – a field we are all well familiar with has gone through the same set of questioning.
  • One objection was that Synthesis Ecology doesn’t have a single field system – it is a collection of techniques that answer larger questions. And yet, is that not similar to Theoretical Ecology? How is one a discipline and the other not?
  • If it is a field, a defining emergent characteristic MUST be the crossing of disciplinary boundaries – either within ecology or outside of ecology

So, I wish I could say I had an answer for you.

OK, that’s a cop-out – I do have my own answer (Not reflective of the group! In fact, I hope they have some pointed answers and counterpoints to this!). Yes, I do think Synthesis Ecology is a field. Synthesis Ecology is the field in ecology defined by the combination heterogeneous streams of data & concepts to ask and answer questions underpinned by either ecological theory and/or application that cannot be addressed by any single investigation or dataset.

OK, after pondering THAT and the above points and thinking about the pieces you’ve read over the last 15 years, I open this discussion to you: Is Synthesis Ecology in and of itself a field? And please, be polite!

Update: See also Karen McLeod’s excellent post, Beyond crunching data: The power of ideas