Fundamental research in ecology forms the foundation of understanding for applied research, including conservation biology, ecosystem restoration, and environmental management. In the current issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution (TREE), SFI External Professor Michael Hochberg and co-authors argue for more and less-constrained support of basic ecological research. 

As “the study of organismal diversity and of the interactions between organisms and their abiotic and biotic environments,” fundamental ecology seeks to understand the complex natural world, the authors write. Like the childhood question "what makes the sky blue?" basic research is motivated by curiosity rather than by immediate applications. It is open-ended, and as such faces a challenging and competitive funding environment, particularly in ecology where applications tend to be emphasized. 

In the TREE paper, the authors demonstrate the intrinsic value of fundamental ecology, as well as its potential to spark innovations in other fields. They also present several ways to promote fundamental research in the future.

The paper emerged from a symposium at the 2013 INTECOL (International Society for Ecology) Conference in London, and its co-authors include Jennifer Dunne (SFI Professor and Vice President for Science) and Robert May (SFI Science Board). 

“We should focus less on short-term, objective-driven research and more on creativity and exploratory analyses,” the authors write, and we should also “quantitatively estimate the benefits of fundamental research for society and better explain the nature and importance of fundamental ecology to students, politicians, decision makers, and the general public.”

Read the paper in TREE (December 2014)