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. ;-)