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Science Challenges and Opps

Science Subgroup Discussion

We feel there are four primary categories under which ecological science in the 21st century will provide challenges and opportunities for practicing ecologists. These categories are ordered here based on novelty/impact for the way ecologists will do science in the 21st century, with the most important category, data, listed first.

1. Data

The challenges and opportunities arising from data and big data in particular are expected to be central to the work of ecologists in the 21st century. While large multidimensional data sets are likely to allow ecologists to answer questions they were previously unable to, such data sets will also pose important challenges in terms of access and quality. Separate issues within “data” include the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data.


  • Large data sets are unlikely to have the same structure/methodology for all values, or may have missing values
    • Such data is not question driven
    • Data sets are not linked together
    • Potential difficulty in accessing big data/ lack of university training on how to handle large data sets
  • Quality control of data
    • How can researchers ensure that big data sets are up to standard without spending a large amount of time on any particular data set?
    • Automated tools to check large data sets for consistency/quality may be useful.


  • Big data (in terms of community outreach, citizen science, and remote sensing)
  • Utilization of super computers
  • Increased collaboration
  • Reproducible research

Case studies/ additional information:

Further reading: Schimel, David, and Michael Keller. “Big Questions, Big Science: Meeting the Challenges of Global Ecology.” Oecologia 177.4 (2015): 925-34.

2. Integrating disciplines

Significant to 21st century ecologists, integrating disciplines can allow the faster development of tools to conduct ecological research as well as the more thorough application of ecological findings by other professionals. However, ecologists may overlook the potential for collaboration with complementary disciplines.


  • Current isolated structure of academic systems
    • Siloed disciplinary study at universities 
  • Collaboration with disciplines ecologists tend to ignore (such as physics)
    • Unfamiliarity with complementary disciplines may cause hesitancy/avoidance towards collaboration,
    • Further, unfamiliarity may retard progress in ecological science which otherwise would have occurred with greater inter-disciplinary collaboration.


  • There are some good examples of cross-disciplinary ecological work
    • These include working groups in the private sector
    • Universities lumping departments
    • Inherently interdisciplinary fields (such as urban ecology)
  • Communication with other scientists
    • Modern technology has made sharing science and communicating with professionals from other disciplines easier. Examples include the utilization of scientists of tools such as Twitter and ResearchGate. 

Case studies/ additional information

Recommended Reading: Wiens, J. A., and R. J. Hobbs. “Integrating Conservation and Restoration in a Changing World.” BioScience 65.3 (2015): 302-12.


3. Ecological Science and Climate Change

Climate change and advancements in the understanding of the functioning of ecological systems in the 21st century will play important roles for ecologists. However, these challenges/opportunities are not unique to the 21st century and have already been covered in various publications.


  • Shifting baselines
  • Rapid global environmental change
    • Ecosystems switching to new stable states, non-linear change of ecosystems
  • Potential lack of attention paid to those ecosystems with less utility for humans


  • Profound environmental change can potentially bring more stakeholders to the table to support ecological science
  • Further, such change can highlight underlying mechanisms of how ecological systems work in ways which would be more challenging to ascertain in the absence of such profound change
  • Generate the knowledge to allow:
    • More applied ecological science
      • An applied urban ecology towards making cities more sustainable
      • The restoration of ecosystems which have crossed tipping points into new stable states
    • The ability for real-time ecological prediction similar to weather forecasting today


Recommended Readings:

Mouquet, Nicolas. “Predictive Ecology in a Changing World.” Journal of Applied Ecology 52 (2015): 1293-310.
Steiner, Frederick. “Frontiers in Urban Ecological Design and Planning Research.” Landscape and Urban Planning 125 (2014): 304-11
Pataki, Diane E. “Grand Challenges in Urban Ecology.” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution  3.57 (2015): n. pag.

4. Social-ecological conflict

The topics under social-ecological conflict are important for 21st century ecologists to consider. For instance, how can social barriers be overcome to make applied ecology more relevant to the average citizen? However, this category appears to be more closely related to environmental conservation than to ecological science.


  • Land sharing vs. land-sparing
  • The overpopulation issue (See: Life on the Brink)
  • Trust of science/scientists by the public
  • Integrating science with wants/needs.
    • Potential challenges: gathering data/doing science on private property, conflict with developers, incorporating the findings from urban ecology towards making cities more sustainable


  • Agro-forestry
  • Empowering local citizens to care for the region in which they live and to support science to better understand it. As well, citizens could become part of citizen science campaigns.

Case studies/ additional information

Recommended Readings

  • Cafaro, Philip, and Eileen Crist. Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation. Athens: U of Georgia, 2012. Print
  • Soga, Masashi, Yuichi Yamaura, Shinsuke Koike, and Kevin J. Gaston. “Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: Does the Compact City Reconcile Urban Development and Biodiversity Conservation?” Journal of Applied Ecology 51.5 (2014): 1378-386.