Ecology Under Threat?

In “Will NEON Kill Ecology?” (Issues, Summer 2019), Mark Sagoff’s critiques of the National Ecological Observatory Network’s management are indisputable. (Two authors of this note made similar points in a 2015 article, “Big Questions, Big Science: Meeting the Challenges of Global Ecology,” in the journal Oecologia.) But Sagoff’s perspective on NEON’s intellectual role is not. As John Magnusson, one of the deans of limnology, has noted, a “lack of historical perspective can place … studies in the invisible present, where a lack of … perspective can produce misleading conclusions.”

Sagoff’s perspective on NEON’s science is drawn from the dawn of ecology, and based on the views of a small selection of senior ecologists. One of us (Gram) conducted a survey in 2009 that found that mid-career ecologists were only “somewhat likely” to use NEON, but “un-ecologists” (undergraduate through untenured) were “very likely” to use NEON. In 2018, Gram and her team repeated this survey and found similar results, with “uninterested” respondents being older and later in their careers. In contrast to Sagoff’s opinion that “if you took the same amount of money, and used it to enhance … grants to young people, we’d get (better) science,” young ecologists look to NEON as a way to do new science.

Place-based science plays a crucial role in understanding the living world. But ecologists are also concerned with larger-scale patterns, to reveal how ecosystems are shaped and to provide principles to guide management more generally. This requires strategies of what to measure and where to measure across places and diverse systems. What to measure? In another NEON survey, and at a critical early workshop in NEON’s implementation, scientists stated that standard, tested, published methods were crucial and that the main reason for variants on basic measurements was simply the lack of standard methods. NEON and the National Science Foundation (NSF) invested in this need.

Where to measure? NEON’s analysis showed that many US ecosystems were un- or under-sampled, including the nation’s most productive and diverse systems. In 2016, one of us (Schimel) and colleagues published a paper showing that most ecological studies were in the less diverse, lower carbon storage, and less productive regions globally. Lacking an overarching strategy, ecologists work where it is convenient, close to home and inexpensive. NEON’s sampling strategy addressed this failure of ecological, geographical, intellectual, and social equity.

Ecological breakthroughs now often result from analyses of Big Data. Martin Jung led an effort using machine learning to estimate global primary productivity and disproved a number of concepts entrenched in the literature. Ethan Butler and colleagues used a massive data compilation to map global diversity of plant function. Patricia Soranno and colleagues argued that managers are responsible for vast landscapes and that case studies are of limited use: they applied Big Data to the multiple causes of lake eutrophication. Many other examples where Big Data were used to test theory or inform management can be cited.

Sagoff presents an incomplete view of how the discipline of ecology tests theory, and a one-sided view of NSF’s decision-making, which, though often flawed, has moved ecology from a collection of just-so stories to a systematic field, paralleling developments in other sciences that study the earth.

Senior Research Scientist
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
Founding CEO and first Principal Investigator for NEON

US Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry
First Chief of Science for NEON

First Chief of Education and Engagement for NEON
Independent ecologist and science educator
COMET Program Implementation Manager
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Mark Sagoff described the National Ecological Observatory Network as a project to “turn ecology into large-scale Big Data science whether it wants to be transformed or not.” In his account, the idea for a major observatory to detect long-term ecological change at the continental scale was generated and promoted by National Science Foundation staff, who foisted an infrastructure project devoid of scientific questions on the ecological community. As a community participant in many early NEON workshops and working groups, and much later a rotating NSF program officer (2014–2015), I feel that this narrative neglects to mention the many, many scientists who have strongly advocated for a national facility to test hypotheses about the effects of environmental change on ecological processes at multiple scales. Although there a number of mischaracterizations in Sagoff’s historical account, here I will focus on only two issues: the scientific rationale for an ecological observatory, and the role of ecologists in formulating a hypothesis-driven research agenda.

First, NEON was developed to answer specific questions about ecological change that could affect society, as described in NEON’s Integrated Science and Education Plan, published in 2006. Questions included, for example: how will ecosystems and their components respond to changes in natural- and human-induced forcings such as climate, land use, and invasive species across a range of spatial and temporal scales? There are numerous hypotheses in ecology about how terrestrial and aquatic systems will respond to changing atmospheric composition, climate, urbanization, and biodiversity loss. Early versions of NEON’s design were closely tied to testing these hypotheses. To evaluate the effects of climate change, many proponents favored large-scale experimental manipulations of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide, increased temperature, and altered rainfall patterns. To address land use change, the design discussed around 2005 (and one I personally favored, long before I worked at NSF) included replicated urban-to-rural land use gradients across the continent.

These early designs were not ultimately implemented for two reasons. First and foremost was cost. Over the years, as Sagoff noted, the scope of the observatory was resized to the meet budgetary constraints. Second, I would argue that ecologists themselves have become more reluctant in recent years to prioritize particular environmental research questions and grand challenges. This has focused NEON on general change detection and ecological forecasting across levels of biological organization, rather than a potentially narrower set of questions.

Yet the ecological community has in the past come to consensus on urgent environmental research questions that required large-scale collaborations. For example, the Ecological Society of America’s Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (SBI) outlined a detailed list of prioritized questions that set the research agenda for decades afterward, and indeed, is reflected in the subsequent proposals for a national ecological observatory. This initiative is now three decades old, and in the interim I do not think there has been a comparable, comprehensive effort to identify research questions and goals across ecology. The reasons for this are numerous, but are likely related, at least in part, to the increasingly heated political discourse about environmental biology outside the scientific discipline. That said, there are a few notable exceptions, such as the 2001 National Research Council report Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences, which is tied to NEON’s research agenda.

As a result, I don’t find it accurate to characterize either the rise of “big data” or an external set of priorities imposed by NSF as the main impetus for NEON. It was strongly driven by past scientific efforts such as the SBI. Can and should NEON operations be more hypothesis or question-driven in the future, as some researchers have proposed? Possibly so. I concur that in the past several years, its question-driven focus has become secondary to building out a facility that will meet the needs of a wide cross section of the scientific community.

In the coming months and years it is entirely possible to revive community-based efforts such as the SBI, in which ecologists and stakeholders come together to develop ambitious, high-priority research objectives that serve both science and society. This is not the role of NSF alone—it is a joint responsibility of scientists and diverse stakeholders—and it will not “kill ecology” but move it forward through an era of rapid environmental and social change.

Professor of Biological Sciences

University of Utah

Cite this Article

“Ecology Under Threat?” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 1 (Fall 2019).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall 2019