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When I started my PhD, I also started a folder of what I called “thought papers”.  These weren’t related to my research, but were papers that made me stop for a minute and think about an issue.  Mostly, they were editorials or commentaries (many in BioScience, Nature, or Science, but also in the Journal of Wildlife Management, or Avian Conservation and Ecology*).  Should scientists be advocates? Is there a double standard among conservation biologists (the old “do as I say, not as I do” argument)?  How can we improve the process of peer-review?

These “thought papers” will form the basis of many of my posts, so let’s get started.

Last month, physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a commentary in Science comparing the current state of research in the physical sciences to the 1950s where two camps sought to lead the way: those driven by ideas, and those driven by post-war technology and tools.  Dyson concluded that, at the end of 2012, the two camps were neck and neck in terms of the exciting discoveries they produce.

The same can be said of the biological sciences in general, and ecology in particular.  In the Kuhnian camp of ideas, we have the great luminaries: Hutchinson, Lotka, Volterra, Hubbell, and Reznick, to name a few.  Their ideas (and experiments) on competition, biogeography, and evolution are foundational to population and community ecology.  In the Galisonian camp of technologies, we have everything from Mullis, and Hebert (PCR and DNA “barcoding”) to the continued miniaturization of biologgers that can now be used on small songbirds.

There’s no doubt that these tools have been great advances in ecological research, and the same could be said for the ideas.  But which should drive research?

In the early days of a new technique or tool (e.g., small biologgers, stable-isotope analysis, to name a couple), the number of studies that are basically “Technique/tool X on species Y in location Z” can be high.  These early days (perhaps we could call them “academic puberty”?) can last a long time – up to 15-20 years in my experience.

The first few times these tools are used, it’s new and exciting.  But as costs decrease and the tools become more available, late adopters begin where the field began, not where the field is now.  As a concrete example, the decrease in price and increased availability of inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), an instrument that can simultaneously measure concentrations of dozens of elements from vanadium to toxic elements like lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium has resulted in a proliferation of studies that simply document the concentrations of these elements in a given tissue of a given species at a given site.  Are these studies without merit?  Of course not.  But can we, as a community, make better use of research dollars and equipment time?  Absolutely.  How?  By shifting from these descriptive (and mostly local interest) studies to hypothesis testing, meta-analyses, and comparative work.

Since this blog is titled “The Lab and Field” (which sort of sounds like an old English pub), do we see the same phenomenon in field studies?  I think so.  But instead of the ideas/tools dichotomy (which is, itself, perhaps a false one), we have the ideas/field site or ideas/focal species conflict.  Though this is not entirely separable from the application of tools, since in many cases, researchers working at a particular site or with a particular species or group of species will often use these systems to apply the new and exciting tools, irrespective of whether their system is necessarily a good one in which to use these tools.

By now, you’ve probably realised that I’m more of a Kuhnian than a Galisonian, preferring ideas to tools.  But like most things, I think there’s a Kuhn-Galison spectrum, not two absolute “camps”.  I do use lab tools to advance my understanding of natural systems, but I’m predisposed to use the tools I know (stable-isotope analysis, for example).  So I probably look for questions or ideas that can be developed using these tools.

And like Freeman Dyson, I recognize the need for the development of both tools and ideas – one without the other leads to an incomplete understanding of natural systems. The trick is finding the right balance.


*Full disclosure: I’m on the ACE editorial board.  Check us out! www.ace-eco.org