Posted by: Jeremy Fox | April 20, 2012

Is ‘synthesis ecology’ a distinct scientific discipline?

Over at I’m a Chordata! Urochordata!, Jarrett Byrnes asks whether ‘synthesis ecology’ is a distinct scientific discipline. Interesting question, on which even current and former NCEAS postdocs can’t agree on an answer (not surprisingly, since if it is a discipline it’s presumably an emerging and therefore ill-defined one). I don’t have an answer either, but in lieu of an answer here are some random thoughts:

  • Why does it matter if ‘synthesis ecology’ is a distinct discipline or not? Is it so that people who consider themselves ‘synthesis ecologists’ can have a convenient shorthand to summarize what it is that they do? (I can certainly understand that) Or to make it easier to do things like say to your Head of Department “‘Synthesis ecology’ is a hot field and we should hire someone working in that area.” Some other reason(s)? I ask because I have a bit of a sense that some folks would really like synthesis ecology to be a field, and want to figure out how to make it come into being. Which raises the question of why you’d want to do that. I emphasize that I do mean that as an honest question, which I don’t know how to answer. I’m not asking the question because I think the answer is “it actually doesn’t matter.”
  • The entire culture of ecology has changed since the mid-90s. Data sharing is now much more common and valued, many more of us work in much more collaborative ways, meta-analyses and other syntheses of existing data are more common, and more people are choosing what questions to ask based on the available data rather than the other way around. Perhaps there’s no distinct discipline of ‘synthesis ecology’ because we’re all ‘synthetic ecologists’ now?
  • Following on from the previous thought: To the extent that the entire culture of ecology is quite ‘synthetic’ now, that may actually make it more difficult to establish ‘synthetic ecology’ as a distinct discipline. For instance, it can be difficult to argue for hiring a ‘synthesis ecologist’ if your Head of Department (or equivalent) can respond “But half the ecologists in the department already do meta-analyses, participate in working groups, and use sophisticated quantitative methods to analyze big datasets. Why do we need to hire another person who does those things? Especially someone who doesn’t have a strong grounding in any established ecological discipline?”
  • If ‘synthesis ecology’ is a distinct discipline, presumably it’s a methodologically-defined one. Which would mean it presumably shares some features in common with other methodologically-defined fields of science, and contrasts in some ways with fields of science defined by subject matter. It’s perhaps worth noting that different sorts of people tend to be attracted to these two kinds of disciplines. (I’m definitely a ‘subject matter’ guy myself)
  • How are ‘synthesis ecologists’ different from statisticians (or ‘data scientists’, as some statisticians have taken to calling themselves lately)? Because when I think of a methodologically-defined discipline that focuses on extracting information from existing data, I think of statistics. Maybe the answer is, “Synthesis ecologists also have the ecological grounding to choose the questions as well as do the analyses to answer them.” But if that’s the answer, that raises again the question of whether synthesis ecology is a distinct discipline, or just regular ol’ ecology that happens to be pursued via certain methods.
  • I’ve read some suggestions to the effect that the discipline of ‘synthesis ecology’ is culturally defined–synthesis ecologists are committed to collaboration and data sharing, for instance. Which strikes me as a slightly odd way to define a discipline. So if I pull together a big dataset and perform a meta-analysis on it without collaborators, I’m not doing ‘synthesis ecology’?
  • If it is a field, is it ok if we call it ‘synthetic ecology’ instead? Because ‘synthesis ecology’ just sounds awkward to me. ;-)
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Responses

  1. Easy. The answer is ‘no’. Is The Origin of Species “synthesis ecology” or “synthesis biology”? Good ecological Science is good ecological Science no matter if it is using other people’s data or data that one collected. Why the need to draw a distinction?

    • I sympathize with that response Brian, but I do know there are some sharp folks like Jarrett who think differently and so I want to hear them out.

      Certainly, those who want to define a new discipline of ‘synthesis ecology’ are going to need to reckon with reactions like yours, because I suspect that will be a very common reaction. You may think what you’re doing falls into a new and distinct discipline–but if lots of other people don’t think so, your putative new discipline and its members could be in for some rough sledding…

      • Indeed, the logical extension of Brian’s argument is why make any disciplinary distinctions at all. So, before the reflexive ‘no’ stop and consider why theoretical ecology, community ecology, ecological stoichiometry, or any other subfield are more than just Good Ecological Science. If that’s the bar you want to set. The fact is, folk need to be able to define who they are, what they do, and how they ask and answer questions. Far from being a stricture, a disciplinary box frees one up to pursue science in the way they feel they are best able to do so.

      • Well, ecological stoichiometry is pretty narrow to be called a subfield, although I suppose you could call it a subfield of a subfield. But leaving that aside, both ecological stoichiometry and community ecology are defined in terms of subject matter, and so are poor comparisons for any putative discipline or subfield of synthesis ecology.

        And while theoretical ecology is methodologically defined, most theoreticians don’t just model *anything*, but rather have some narrower subject matter on which they focus. That is, they mostly tend to have “second homes” in some subject-matter defined subfield. Further, theoretical ecologists can plausibly claim to have special expertise in the application of a particular set of techniques (namely, mathematics) to ecology. Which of course doesn’t mean that non-theoreticians never use those techniques, of course.

        Look, as I said in the post, I can certainly see why people want a name for what they do that’s more specific than “ecology”. But it’s not as if, say, “community ecology” is a very precise description of what I do (indeed, “community ecology” includes a lot of activities that I don’t even like!) And further, when I call myself a community ecologist, it doesn’t look to anyone else like I’m trying to claim “ownership” of certain techniques, or certain scientific virtues. Whereas when someone says something like “I’m a synthetic ecologist, which means I think about a broad range of questions, which I address by integrating different datasets using sophisticated quantitative techniques”, it tends to sound to others like an attempt to claim “ownership” of “thinking broadly” and “integrating of different datasets using sophisticated quantitative techniques”. Which are things that lots of ecologists quite rightly see themselves as doing.

        Further, I guess I still don’t see why ‘synthesis ecologists’ don’t consider themselves ‘statistical ecologists’. If you’re not collecting your own data or doing your own theory, but instead are just analyzing data collected by others, aren’t you doing statistics?

        Not sure I follow your remarks about disciplinary boxes. Are you saying that people who see themselves as doing synthesis ecology somehow won’t be able to do it unless we all agree that synthesis ecology is a distinct discipline?

      • I guess I am coming from the expectation that thinking synthetically in science should be taught and emphasized all along. Separating it out as something separate would minimize that synthesis is just another word for doing good Science. What made NCEAS great is that it reinvigorated synthesis thinking into ecological subdisciplines.

  2. Uhh – this is a sarcastic thought popping up. Theoretical ecologists have defined their ‘field’ such that they don’t need to leave their ‘lab’ anymore (though many still do), They can study models instead of nature. Now a new wave of that with synthesis ecologists studying others’ studies? The generalist who can do meta-analysis, modelling, and dirty field work will probably out-compete the specialists in the competition for jobs, grants, etc.

    • Ok, you’re being sarcastic, but no, I don’t think the sarcasm really has any grounding in reality. In practice, nobody who does theory, or meta-analysis, or whatever, does so for such cynical reasons. People who do theory, or meta-analysis, or whatever, are different people with different talents, interests, and skills than field ecologists (and of course many people do all three, switching back and forth depending on the demands of the science they’re trying to do). And in terms of competing for jobs and grants, it’s hardly ever so simple as “person with the most publications wins”, especially when number of publications covaries with the type of publication (e.g., modeling work vs. meta-analyses vs. field experiments; sole-authored vs. group-authored; analysis of others’ data vs. paper based on data the author collected…). And as for generalism vs. specialism, someone who only does math, or who only does meta-analyses, or whatever, is in their own way just as ‘specialized’ as someone who only does experiments in one field system.

      I do think it’s true that people are increasingly on the lookout for collaborative opportunities, in part because it’s seen as a way to get a paper without having to do as much work yourself. But that’s true of everyone, including field ecologists. Remember, most NCEAS working groups are mostly comprised of people who clearly aren’t ‘synthetic ecologists’, however that putative discipline might be defined.

      • Okay, but shouldn’t a discipline be self-sustaining? That is, as a discipline, it would need to create its own data not depend on published data of others. At least that seems to be how disciplines like biochemistry work.

        Concerning terminology, how about meta-ecology? That seems unequivocal.

      • Not sure why a discipline should be “self-sustaining” in the way that you define it. Literary critics don’t write literature (at least, there’s no expectation that they do so), but literary criticism is a discipline. Statisticians don’t collect their own data (though some of them–but only some–develop new statistical methods), but statistics is a discipline.

      • I think the difference is that the fields of statistics and critical theory both have quite a bit of what Don Gillies would call “explanatory surplus” (i.e., phenomenological insight beyond a myopic task). I think that if your main concern as an ecologist is with the development or deployment of quantitative analytical methods to gain new insight from others’ data, you should brand yourself a “statistical ecologist” or “quantitative ecologist” and be done with it!

  3. 1000x yes to the last point, although ‘integrative’ might be better.

    ‘synthesis’ and even ‘synthetic’ invite confusion with restoration, which can involve designing/redesigning ecosystems. the confusion is warranted, given the way ‘synthetic biology’ has been used lately to refer to designing organisms from scratch.

    • Yes, a commenter over on Jarrett’s blog insists that ‘synthesis ecology’ is just restoration ecology–which of course isn’t really what Jarrett and his NCEAS colleagues mean by ‘synthesis ecology’ at all.

    • And the potential for confusion with synthetic biology is one that hadn’t occurred to me. That’s a funny thought, because if ‘synthetic ecology’ means something like what ‘synthetic biology’ means, then it’s me and my fellow microcosmologists who are the ‘synthetic ecologists’! ;-)

  4. Hmm. Just musing, but does anyone have a sense of what threshold must be passed for a science to become a distinct field of inquiry? I often think of the relationship between taxonomy and phylogeny in these terms – taxonomy being the “ground” for the newer strategies, which have some distinct approaches.

  5. Even if synthesis ecology does exist as a sub-discipline, does that existence extend beyond Santa Barbara?

    • Presumably, since former NCEAS postdocs have jobs all over the place.


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