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

13 thoughts on “Does Synthesis Ecology Exist as a Scientific Discipline?

  1. Since the 1995 paper by R.E. Slavin, it is called meta-analysis in biostatistics. Following this trend of meta-analyses, some scholars specialised in meta-analyses started to focus on synthetic/big pictures ecology: see the Lab of Dr. Angela Moles. However, some scholars like R.J. Whittaker said that the risk of meta-analyses (if it’s not well done) is to make mega-mistakes. It is a bit radical, and the full special issue of Ecology on meta-analyses is a long debate with pros and cons. I acknowledge them. My opinion is that if it’s well done, it can be useful. But we have to acknowledge that more and more scholars are tempted to publish synthetic ecological stuff, for the sake of High impact factor publications and grant applications. However, without precise knowledge of the underlying reality of the system/data … more and more scholars become the Jack of all trades (JT) of all the possible synthetic ecological questions (invasion, conservation, ecosystem functioning, community ecology …). But the problem is that JT are masters of none. To do that in a short time scale (the time offered by current short funding), many shortcuts are made, inducing aggregation errors that are accumulated from synthesis to synthesis. This is a big problem. I do no see a synthesis as a particular field of research, but more a synthetic work by one researcher based on his full understanding of the system he is working on. Pretending we can synthesize every thing in ecology is, in my opinion, at best a lie, at worst dangerous. Who will trust us outside science if we do massively that.


    – Slavin, R. E. 1995. Best evidence synthesis: an intelligent alternative to meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 48:9–18.
    – Whittaker, R.J. (2010). Meta-analyses and mega-mistakes: calling time on meta-analysis of the species richness-productivity relationship. Ecology, 91, 2522–2533.

    Of course the biostatistical angle is not the only one, as synthetic modelling studies can be integrated.

    • I will go even beyond. This is called applied and testable ecology at a global scale. All that cannot be applied and pass the falsification process at a global scale is synthetically bullshiting the discipline.

  2. Jo – I would disagree. Restoration ecology is, broadly, the study of how to restore and renew degraded lands. Synthesis Ecology is much broader than that.

  3. Final comment: how do you actively “restore and renew degraded lands” if you aren’t synthesizing ecological knowledge? In fact Restoration Ecology is much broader than Synthesis Ecology because it includes components of physical science as well. An interesting debate.

    • I agree that Synthesis Ecology and Restoration Ecology play very well together. But one is not the other. For example, where do papers like Costanza et al. 1997 or Grenfell et al. 2001 fit in the RE framework? Any piece of work draws on multiple disciplines by necessity. But Synthesis Ecology has a unique was of asking and answering questions that I would argue is different from the core of Restoration Ecology. Or any other subfield.

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  5. I would argue what marks Synthesis Ecology are: i) the scale (and pace) of the datasets and questions brought together to answer questions in ecology; ii) broad networks of data, ideas, and people, with an intent to bring disparate pieces together to inform classic or novel questions; iii) an open science culture of data sharing and ease of creating bridges across disciplines; iv) potential for inversion of the classic scientific process, with themes, questions, or data-availability driving inquiry, rather than hypotheses; and v) focus on a set of broad-scale and broad-scope questions that often seek parsimonious explanation and identification of pervasive drivers of ecological patterns and processes.

  6. Do you mind if I ask why we care if it’s a field or not? I mean that as an honest question, not a rhetorical one. I can imagine various answers. One is ‘it’s handy in conversation to have a shorthand label for what sort of ecology I do’. Another (perhaps not so different from the first) is, ‘I want the name of my field to reflect what I see as the most important aspect of whatever it is that I and my colleagues do.’ A third is ‘if enough people agree that it’s a field, that confers a certain legitimacy on people in that field, which might make it easier to do things like argue to my Head of Department that we should hire someone in that field, or argue that NSF should fund more research in this field.’ But I’m sure there are other possible answers here. I can also imagine that ‘I don’t care if it’s a field or not’ might be a defensible answer.

    As to whether it is a field, if it is I suppose it’s an emerging and therefore ill-defined one, since otherwise everyone would agree that it is a field, and on what defines it.

    If it is a field, it would seem to be some sort of methodologically-, or perhaps even culturally-defined one. Of course, methodology and culture need not go together: if I compile a bunch of data from the literature, say by scanning figures, and then use those data to do a meta-analysis, but I do this on my own and don’t share the data, am I a “synthetic ecologist” or not?

    Further, I note that lots of people do synthetic work now, lots of people collaborate widely, lots of people let the available data dictate the questions they ask rather than taking a question-first approach, lots of people share their data, lots of people develop open-source tools to make it easier for others to share and analyze data…But they do all that (in many cases) without considering themselves as part of a distinct “field” of synthetic ecology, but rather consider themselves to be doing population ecology, or community ecology, or ecosystem ecology, or etc. Put another way: if all fields of ecology now go about their business in more synthetic ways (i.e. their methodology and their culture has changed), is it really that helpful to redefine all of (or a goodly chunk of) ecology as the new field of ‘synthetic ecology’? And if not, is the alternative to define the field of ‘synthetic ecology’ in some much narrower way so that it actually excludes a lot of the ‘synthetic’ activity going on within other fields of ecology?

    As you note, there are some fields of science which seem to be more-or-less methodologically defined, but others that clearly aren’t. Worth noting that different sorts of people tend to be attracted to different sorts of fields. I have a grad student with an MSc in geography. He switched to ecology because he wanted to “do science” (his words) rather than “do GIS”. At some level, whether or not you think geography is a field of science, or even science at all, is just semantics. But it’s clearly a different sort of activity than, say, population ecology, and those differences are widely recognized even if we might argue about what labels we use to mark those differences.

  7. When I first “synthesized” what I knew and came up with what I wanted to do, I was on one of my many “walkabouts” in the Mojave Desert of California, USA. That point of synthesis came in a rush—“To reconcile the needs and works of humankind with those of the earth and its life.” That was 58 years ago, and I was an adolescent of fifteen.

    I cannot say that I have accomplished that job, and I can’t say I haven’t. I always thought that ecosystems were synthesis and that ecology required synthesis in the mind. Now, nearer to some end that to my beginning, I find that a special term, “synthesis ecology” is needed to clarify that kind of focus. So be it.

    I am heartened that there are different expressions of this exploration of Nature and its nature of synthesis. They need not come together, but they do need to be honest.

    At some point they have to be specific. I have come almost full circle from my first lecture and lab when I barely knew the word, from large-scale integration to the lessons to be learned from the smallest-scale ones.

    I have found myself at a new beginning after all, and I stand at a threshold where I can see a yet larger gulf of ignorance lying in front of me. I have projects in mind, but they are beyond my own capacities. I hope that they are within the capacities of those who will learn more from their decades of life than I have from mine.

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