On the heels of a manifesto on the nature of ecological theory, SFI researchers and their collaborators met in Chile in October to discuss its future.

Co-organized by SFI External Professor Pablo Marquet and VP for Science Jennifer Dunne, the working group was the first formal meeting of NETI, the Network for Ecological Theory Integration. 

Marquet, Dunne, and their NETI colleagues recently coauthored a paper on their vision for what they call “efficient theory”
in ecology: mathematical theories that economize on assumptions and maximize predictive power. Now, says Dunne, the team has turned its attention to the problem of integration; that is, how to build more broadly applicable theories from less comprehensive ones.

“Our recent article in Bioscience took on the task of defining what theory is in ecology and what it should ideally look like and do,” Dunne says. Among other things, Marquet and co-authors argued that ecological theory should be mathematical, based on first principles with few additional assumptions, and broadly predictive. Furthermore, they wrote, theory should be understood as an easily testable approximation of nature – in other words, it is critically important to compare theory with real-world data.

This framework makes it easier to build unified theories of ecology. “We now want to get back to the ‘integration’ part of the equation,” Dunne says.

A variety of efficient theories, such as metabolic scaling, neutral theory, and MaxEnt, address and predict overlapping ecological questions using various approaches. “The synthesis of these diverse lines of research, as well as other lines of inquiry pushing toward theory status, like work on ecological networks, hold the promise of a more general theory that can address a broader range of ecological questions and phenomena,” she says.

Marquet, Dunne, and colleagues have already planned two more meetings, one at SFI in 2015 or 2016, with a third to follow in Prague.