Open Ecology

The Tewksbury lab believes that the relevance of ecology in today’s society hinges on its capacity to become more transparent, collaborative, and expansive. Our vision of Open Ecology is similar to many elements in the Open Science movement, but we believe that each scientific discipline has its own particular demons (as well as a lot of common ones) and thus emphasis will vary across the sciences. In the Tewksbury lab, we are focused on increasing transparency and collaboration. We are also interested in a general flattening, democratization of ecology.

A more transparent ecology is an ecology that curates as much data as it collects, an ecology that concentrates information by actively working to create and maintain an ecological data-web, so that detailed local natural history and ecology can be aggregated and scaled to address problems at multiple scales. This is a challenge for ecology, as we are a “long-tailed” discipline, where most work is done by individual investigator programs and local-level collaboration through small grants. Incentive structures from fields dominated by small grants do not currently favor sufficient emphasis on data curation and data sharing, and thus most of the data in our field never gets out of the lab that collects it. Opening ecology will require much greater emphasis on the curation and maintenance of data, much greater emphasis on establishing metadata frameworks, and stronger incentive structures for this work.

A more collaborative ecology is an ecology that recognizes the power of collective knowledge, and works to create community within the field of ecology, and that not only works to stitch together existing data, but actively works to build information webs through large-scale collaborative efforts that involve significant parts of the ecological community. Projects such as the Nutrient Network are great examples of bottom up collaborations that help definitively address important issues in our field at a scale that allows strong inference in the face of significant local contingency. A more collaborative ecology is also an ecology that looks beyond its disciplines for collaboration, one that recognizes that most environmental challenges we face today are well served through the integration of ecological knowledge, but few require ecologists to sit at the head of the table.

A more expansive ecology is an ecology that recognizes that there are too few professional ecologists and too many species, too many interactions, for us to possibly tackle the major challenges in environmental sciences relying only on our professional community. An expansive ecology emphasizes science as civics, recognizes that the democratization of our field is one of the most powerful trends we can embrace, and that professionalization is the enemy of progress in ecology. We will continue to work in highly trained teams, but we will also need to nurture a wall-to-wall vision of ecology that sees the 500 million people with smart phones as a field crew, that works to build observation networks that include the 5 billion people with cell phones.

The Tewksbury lab is exploring and actively participating in all of these ideas, and we are excited to move the conversation forward.