What Do Applied Ecologists Do

Applied ecologists engage in their profession at a broader level than commonly recognized. On the spectrum of esoteric research (of no identifiable immediate relevance), through strategic research (of broad relevance) to tactical research (of immediate relevance), applied ecologists vary in their level of engagement. Some are practitioners at the coalface of application undertaking research in the immediate context of management problems, and addressing the immediate concerns of management. Their work is typically funded directly by resource management agencies or industry.

Others address research questions of more fundamental strategic value, in areas where improved knowledge, understanding, and techniques are likely to be of service in addressing contemporary problems as well as problems of the future, many of which are currently unforeseen. Their work is typically funded by research and development (R&D) organizations or by government agencies such as the US National Science Foundation, the Australian Research Council, the UK Natural Environment Research Council, or the NZ Marsden Scheme.

Application often draws support from unexpected quarters, and an important element of the development of the discipline of'applied ecology' is the need to provide tertiary education and research funding in a broad strategic context. There must not be too great a focus on immediate needs in funding applied ecological research, lest we risk passing by many opportunities to build the knowledge base from which solutions for the future can be drawn. At an individual level, it can be argued that to be a good applied ecologist, one must be a good ecologist with a broad research agenda, but also with a keen eye out for application and a willingness to engage in those applications when opportunities arise.

Applied ecologists use one or more of the following approaches in conducting their science - observation, experimentation, and modeling. Any one study or topic may be studied and resolved using combinations of the approaches. For example, conservation of large kangaroos in Australia involves observational studies of kangaroo ecology - knowledge of reproductive cycles, diet, and behavior are all important to managing kangaroo populations. Experiments may be undertaken to explore causal relationships, perhaps involving exclosures and population manipulation to determine responses of vegetation, or to fine-tune survey and monitoring approaches. Modeling may be applied outside the scope of feasible experimentation to investigate the combined effects of environmental changes and human intervention on kangaroo populations as a tool to guide decision making. Some topics, such as large-scale climate change, can initially be studied by observation to quantify the changes that are or not occurring. Field experiments may be impossible, especially at large spatial scales, but small plot or laboratory experiments can provide useful information. Modeling provides a framework for integrating these observations and results of the limited experimentation that is possible to estimate likely changes in environmental conditions and responses by organisms to such changes. Future observations can be used to evaluate the accuracy of predictions of the modeling.

The mix of approaches that are used by applied ecol-ogists is determined by their experience with each, the advantages and disadvantages of each including the costs, practicality, and the quality ofdata and hence the strength of conclusions obtained by each approach. For example, on the latter point, observations allow clear conclusions to be made about patterns in ecology. However experiments allow clearer conclusions about cause and effect in ecology; that is, about what causes changes in distribution and abundance of organisms compared with what changes have occurred. Modeling allows a great range ofpossible management actions or scenarios to be examined and a greater range than that can be examined by experiments. However the modeling results are hypothetical and require evaluation oftheir practical relevance.

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