Global networks in ecology

This is a bit of an aside to comment on a topic that is becoming increasingly relevant not only to my graduate career, but I think to ecology in general: large-scale collaborations. The days when an ecologist could just throw some tools and some PVC in a rucksack and head down to the ol’ rocky intertidal are slowly being usurped by complex and sophisticated national and international networks (even though we still use a heck of a lot of PVC).

While some might lament the death of the “backyard ecologist,” I for one welcome the change. Large-scale networks generally preserve the inference gained from local-scale experiments–after all, many are simply conglomerates of the same experiments done in a bunch of different locations–with the added benefit of being able to investigate the generality of patterns and processes in nature as a whole. And isn’t generality kind of the goal of all science? As humans, we would like to think that the natural world obeys some base set of laws that apply regardless of where you’re working or what you’re working with (even though on some dark and rainy days, I think that may not be the case).

I’m thinking a lot about this because I recently returned from a 3-day retreat in the mountains of Washington state to participate just such a collaborative network, but with a twist. This network is primarily composed of graduate students interested in evaluating the frontiers of biodiversity research, particularly the integration of the three dimensions of biodiversity: taxonomic, functional, and (phylo)genetic. This model, funded by the NSF under their Dimensions of Biodiversity initiative, advances on previous distributed graduate seminars (such as those at NCEAS) by focusing more on primary research undertaken by each of the participating universities, and incorporating a variety of viewpoints from different research groups (read more about the model here: http://www.dbdgs.org).

We were fortunate to have with us at this meeting groups from Fudan University in China, Moi university in Kenya, Oregon State University, University of Washington, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, University of California Berkeley and Santa Barbara, University of Connecticut, University of North Carolina, and of course, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary.

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I could focus on the breadth of research accomplished by this group (if you were at ESA in Portland this year, you probably witnessed at least one talk from this group–with 17 separate presentations, we kind of took over) but I think that will speak for itself as it begins to trickle out over the next year. What I would like to focus on are the benefits of bringing together such a diverse group of people (no pun intended). Our local effort focused on evaluating the dimensions of biodiversity across spatial and temporal gradients using fish communities in the Chesapeake Bay, a goal that was very similar to that of several other groups working in different systems (forests in North Carolina or grasslands in Brazil, for example). But collectively, our approaches were very different. There were evident biases not only in the statistical techniques employed, but also the way people think about biodiversity. Certain groups described diversity in terms of community-by-species matrices, whereas others tallied a single index. Some considered humans as intricately linked with the system, others considered their systems independently of any anthropogenic influence. Some of this might be system- or organism-specific (after all we tend to impose human influence on systems dominated by a particularly useful resource or service more than those that are not), but I definitely observed a larger trend relating to country of origin operating here as well.

The point of highlighting these differences is that I would otherwise be unaware of them if not for the chance to interact with the researchers directly. We find ourselves constantly gravitating towards some ideas over others. A lot of it is a product of upbringing, some of it (especially for older researchers) is entrenchment, to a smaller degree it might be due to how you were feeling when you read a particular publication (I find that some papers really give me a headache, even if they end up being incredibly useful) or even how connected you are to the literature (from what I hear, no one reads as much as they should). It’s also a bit self-perpetuating: once you start investing time in certain ideas, the harder it becomes to tear yourself away from them (especially as a graduate student working on limited time and sleep). Having the opportunity to engage in a discourse about the similarities and differences of different approaches to exploring biodiversity–nay, having that be the entire purpose of a meeting–goes a long way in putting one’s research into perspective. My approach to these questions have certainly changed as a result of late night discussions and head-scratching white board moments.

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This is one of several networks that I have had the privilege to be a part of, but I think it deserves special mention because its focus is on communication and interaction as much as it is products (papers). Communication and interaction is part of the reason I started this blog, so I could formulate thoughts and engage in discourse (even if it ends up being with myself). I think it would be important for everyone to, at one point or another, to have such an experience. I’m not sure how one would go about orchestrating it, given the focus on deliverables (especially through government-funded agencies), but it will certainly be something on my mind as I continue to tread deeper into the wilds of ecology.

(Stay tuned for more news from this group…)

2 thoughts on “Global networks in ecology

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