I recently returned from a week or so in Colorado with what I am now calling my “old lab,” a.k.a. the Sanders-Classen lab group. I’m still certainly very much a part of what’s going on in that lab group, but nevertheless it was strange to be deposited back in the midst of the lab dynamic after a couple of months elsewhere. It resembled nothing so much as briefly visiting family and taking a detached, objective look at drama that was once a daily part of your life. An academic lab is like a family, though: while we only jokingly refer to Aimée and Nate as “Mom and Dad,” the German dictionary word for a PhD supervisor is Doktorvater or Doktormutter depending on gender. Of course, the Germans invented that paternalistic, hierarchical relationship. I really enjoyed catching up with the lab and chatting about the projects we have been working on.
Being out there and working on our field projects again inspired me to think about my philosophy of science. At the time that I began grad school, I was a convinced experimentalist who believed that the best means of ecological inquiry is to determine the mechanisms underlying patterns in nature using experiments. By manipulating organisms’ environment, we can figure out how they will respond to changing environments, and more importantly, why. While I still think this type of inquiry is extremely important, I am not sure that my personal niche as an ecologist is to carry out these types of experiments. To me, the main benefit of experiments is that you can use them to infer why things happen instead of just looking at the relationships between phenomena. Observational studies can only suggest causal relationships However, I think that ecological field experiments are so prone to artifacts, limitations of scale, and caveats that often their results are little better than a suggestion either. To find a good counterexample to this, you have to refer to one of the few classic and elegant ecological experiments—their rarity attests to the difficulty of getting good inference about mechanism from the complicated, contingent reality of the ecological world. I was reminded of this by reading Bob Paine’s obituary. Paine was an ecologist who conducted a path-breaking experiment that showed how a single keystone species (a predatory starfish) could structure an entire natural system, with consequences for all the organisms and cycles of matter and energy in it. See the original paper here.
While the “Big Data” revolution is totally overhyped, I think that there is some truth to the idea that individual investigators acting on their own curiosity to test a hypothesis, gathering all the data from the ground up, cannot do as much world-changing science as a huge collaborative enterprise in which data are shared and the individual scale is transcended. With the increasing availability of global data that span huge scales of space and time, we really do seem to be entering a new paradigm of scientific inquiry, if we haven’t already entered it a few decades ago. Of course, it is tougher for individual scientists to get individual acclaim and recognition in such a socialistic, top-down system, Too much cooperation, if it overshadows individual achievement, is anathema in the market-driven way science is currently being done. I think that ultimately, that perspective may impede science. The solutions that will drive policy and that will make a positive impact on the problems facing society can only come out of large cooperative enterprises. There is still a place for manipulative experiments within this framework. In fact, the Sanders-Classen lab group is working on an experiment that is exploring the effect of global change and changes to plant species communities, replicated identically across many sites with the help of collaborators around the world. I admit this isn’t perfect, and it still has its problems, but those are the types of experiments that can make a real contribution.
A disclaimer to what I’ve just written: I am speaking from a very early-career perspective, and I still haven’t figured out the best way for me to use my skills and knowledge in a way that will benefit society (which is my ultimate goal). I don’t think my future is in doing fieldwork or in manipulative experiments, but working on them in grad school has taught me a lot and I would not give that experience up. For now, I will just end this by saying that fieldwork makes for much better photo opportunities than me sitting here at my computer desk analyzing data . . . so I’ve provided you, dear readers, with some fun pictures from this past week.