Debriefing after the Ecological Society of America’s Centennial Meeting

In lieu of my weekly reading list, I am summarizing the broad take-home messages I picked up at the centennial meeting of the Ecological Society of America last week in Baltimore. You can check out the conversation on Twitter at #ESA100, although the sharing policy kept the live-tweeting from being as active as some other conferences.

1. Ecologists are processing their history, identity, and legacy, which calls for the work of historians of science and social scientists. For the centennial, a gathering of historians of science studying ecology convened for an afternoon’s worth of talks on 100 years of ecology. Over the course of this session, I was fascinated by all of the questions and conversations that I thought were relatively new to ecology but turn out to be ones we’ve been having periodically since the field’s inception. Laura Jane Martin of Harvard talked about the development of ecology out of fields like limnology and paleobotany. Alistair Sponsel of Vanderbilt discussed how ecosystems now seen as fragile were once seen as resilient and even dangerous. Megan Raby and Stephen Bocking both talked about how field stations have shaped ecology, especially how ecologists chose sites for field stations, and how those choices have legacy effects on the field. Zoe Nyssa talked about how “lumping” and “splitting” of societies with missions related to ecological research resulted in many societies with somewhat similar aims. The ESA is just one out of several choices for ecologists. Sometimes these divisions are helpful, but often they keep people from working together for common conservation and research goals. Robert C. Gardner talked about trends in ecology over the decades–the 1960s were characterized by the “design with nature” movement, the 1970s and 80s by restoration ecology’s development, the 1990s by ecological engineering, and the 2000s by the concept of sustainability. The idea of sustainability is not new, however. Renowned and revered ecologist Howard Odum believed that organisms within an ecosystem all do jobs for that system, because of positive feedback loops. He felt that people should apply positive feedback loops to our own society, which is the idea behind sustainability. Another session focused on historical ecology.

2. Science communication is a big point of discussion right now, which is exciting for me as a scientist-turned-journalist. ESA has a new science communication section, thanks to Holly Menninger of NC State, freelance artist/writer Bethann Merkle, Clarisse Hart of Harvard, and Molly Mehler of Chatham Uni. The popularity of science communication within ecology seems to come from a few sources (though I’d love to hear what others think): First, ecologists are concerned about the public’s perception of important concepts like climate change and biodiversity conservation and are realizing that studying science communication can provide solutions. Second, there is a dearth of jobs in ecology right now, and a growing number of grad students see science communication as a more viable career route than academia. Third, the environmental movement really needs to get beyond the rhetoric that characterized it at its beginnings. The new ESA section provided a list of all sessions related to science communication at the meeting, and discussion topics included: Censorship at government agencies, the relationship between religion and ecology following the Pope’s encyclical, what to do if one’s science comes under attack, and nonacademic career paths for ecologists. More broadly, the new scicomm section discussed the many ways ecologists can use science communication expertise, from better awareness of how to communicate their research, what they need to know to interface with journalists, and how to improve citizen science and outreach endeavors.

3. Fire is a big discussion topic, especially in light of the recent wildfires in the western U.S.–according to Chris Mooney in the Washington Post, this is the earliest in more than 50 years that so much land (upwards of 7 million acres) in the United States has been burned in a single year, indicating that by year-end 2015 will stand out as superlative in wildfire history. Predicting fire and its effects, along with the confounding effects of drought and climate change, is of particular concern. I counted more than 65 talks at ESA with “fire” or “wildfire” in the title, although only one session of talks specifically addressed fire–not particularly surprising considering how interdisciplinary fire research tends to be, crossing over into disturbance ecology, forest ecology, plant ecology, conservation biology, and climate change studies. There were also many talks on drought and related water issues.

4. Urban ecology is on the rise and all the rage. With the subject addressed in two organized oral sessions, a whopping five contributed talk sessions, a special session, and two poster sessions, it seems to be one of the fastest growing new subfields in ecology right now. By contrast, at the 2014 meeting, there were only one symposium and one poster session addressing urban ecology as a discrete subject area.

5. Citizen science is beginning to mature and lose buzzword status. Having moved beyond the excitement of crowdsourcing, the field is starting to settle on some best practices for maintaining quality of data and the quality of participant experience. A search through the program showed citizen science matching 69 titles or abstracts, but there wasn’t a single session that overtly addressed it as a field. Last year, there was one talk session that did so.

6. With some crazy new diseases or epidemics having emerged in the last year–for example, sea star wasting disease infection in the ecologically emblematic Pisaster starfish, a whole new type of chytrid disease, and the historic Ebola outbreak–disease ecology was addressed in four contributed talk sessions, a symposium, two organized talk sessions, and two poster sessions.

7. The Anthropocene is a term that’s here to stay. It showed up in the title of 13 talks, and a set of organized talks addressed the subject. In contrast, there were only two talks that mentioned the term in 2014.

8. This list could go on and on. There are lots of conversations trending in a field as broad as ecology. The above are the ones that came across my radar most prominently, which is filtered by my own interests. Blogger and ecologist Jacquelyn Gill also wrote about her thoughts about the social trends of the meeting and the society here. If you have some additional observations about trends in ecology you noticed at the ESA meeting, please share them in the comments section.

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