Seeking a Middle Way in Ecological Research

Plenary 2: On Maintaining Cycles and Feedbacks in Tropical Forest Ecosystems: Some Thoughts from Basic Research


David Newbery calls for a return to basic science at the 2014 IUFRO World Congress.
David Newbery calls for a return to basic science at the 2014 IUFRO World Congress.

David Newbery has been searching for a better way of doing science for years.

“It is time to return to basic science in forestry,” he said. “It is time to be more reflective and modest.”

Newbery, who is professor for vegetative ecology at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the University of Bern in Switzerland, delivered the second plenary session at the 2014 IUFRO World Congress. His research over the past three decades in the tropical forests of Borneo and Cameroon has served as inspiration for developing a middle ground – what he calls an “Aristotelian middle way” – for ecology-based research.

Because ecosystems are dynamic, that middle ground lies somewhere between only studying individual species on the one hand and trying to study too many species on the other.

As to where the optimal middle ground is located, Newbery noted that the overriding goal should be to find the structure that captures the main properties of the ecosystem.

“The middle ground approach could be different for different systems. In Cameroon we used three main species,” he said. “If we want to study ecosystems, it is not going to work if we try to examine each species we find.”

According to Newbery, trying to translate research findings across different sites, different use patterns, or from earlier research also might lead to inaccurate or inappropriate conclusions. After decades at both the Borneo and Cameroon sites, he feels as if he is only just beginning to understand what is going on and noted the danger in assuming that current conditions represent stability or equilibrium.

“Single causes, linear effects, and repeatability are okay, but when we step up to multiple causes, a changing landscape, and non-repeatable conditions, it all becomes difficult,” he said.

“The real world is multi-causal and non-linear. Any laws that may be discovered are going to be more complex than is presently admitted by science.”

He also noted that ecology should make better use of the history of the particular ecosystem being studied, especially if that ecosystem has been affected by natural perturbations that did not rise to the level of a large-scale disturbance, but which impacted species nevertheless.

“History,” he said, “tries to understand the past intelligibly and is highly context-dependent. How can we make sense of the present without strong historical insight? Is what is in front of you right now what you should be preserving if it is just one part of a long-term cycle?”

Newbery believes that more ecologists should study simpler systems. Not all ecosystems are, and have to be, complex and diverse. “There are dull tropical forests that are still interesting to study,” he said.

The current model of forest management often carries with it a built-in shortcoming because economic and social timeframes do not recognize the timeframes involved in the growth and maturation of forests.

We are learning, he said, but we are not learning fast enough. Forestry often fails to adopt the latest findings of ecology. Ecological management suggestions are often at variance with other goals and are impractical to implement.

“There is the tendency to make decisions based on information over a short time period without realizing that a long-term cycle that may be in effect. It may be a mistake to interfere with that natural dynamic. We need far more recognition of long-term processes that happen in a forest, even though I know that can be at odds with economic concerns.”

“However, short term considerations may mislead us,” he said. “How we handle forests will have far-reaching effects on mankind.”


Written by: Pete Gomben

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