New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2006) 30(1): 3- 11

Ecology after 100 years: Progress and pseudo-progress

Research Article
Charles J. Krebs  
  1. Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z4, Canada

Has the science of ecology fulfilled the promises made by the originators of ecological science at the start of the last century? What should ecology achieve? Have good policies for environmental management flowed out of ecological science? These important questions are rarely discussed by ecologists working on detailed studies of individual systems. Until we decide what we wish to achieve as ecologists we cannot define progress toward those goals. Ecologists desire to achieve an understanding of how the natural world operates, how humans have modified the natural world, and how to alleviate problems arising from human actions. Ecologists have made impressive gains over the past century in achieving these goals, but this progress has been uneven. Some sub-disciplines of ecology are well developed empirically and theoretically, while others languish for reasons that are not always clear. Fundamental problems can be lost to view as ecologists fiddle with unimportant pseudo-problems. Bandwagons develop and disappear with limited success in addressing problems. The public demands progress from all the sciences, and as time moves along and problems get worse, more rapid progress is demanded. The result for ecology has too often been poor, short-term science and poor management decisions. But since the science is rarely repeated and the management results may be a generation or two down the line, it is difficult for the public or for scientists to decide how good or bad the scientific advice has been. In ecology over the past 100 years we have made solid achievements in behavioural ecology, population dynamics, and ecological methods, we have made some progress in understanding community and ecosystem dynamics, but we have made less useful progress in developing theoretical ecology, landscape ecology, and natural resource management. The key to increasing progress is to adopt a systems approach with explicit hypotheses, theoretical models, and field experiments on a scale defined by the problem. With continuous feedback between problems, possible solutions, relevant theory and experimental data we can achieve our scientific goals.