The Journal of Applied Ecology has just published a list of the Top 100 unanswered questions in the field. It was assembled for the benefit of UK ecologists, but most of the items deal with issues of global interest. If nothing else, it's a timely and humbling reminder of how little we know about the world that sustains us.
The list is divided up into topics like climate change, farming and forestry. No. 1, under "ecosystem services" is:
What are the benefits of protected habitats in terms of water resources, carbon sequestration and other goods and services, relative to non-protected land?
Can't argue with the priority of that. The last question on the list, meanwhile, may be particular interest to US ecologists, given recent events in the South:
How can flood control be assisted by appropriate habitat management and restoration, and what are the impacts on biodiversity?
The list is also a forthright declaration of the imortance of scientific participation in policy development (Roger Pielke Jr. take note).
The role of the scientist in the developing policy arena is in part to provide the best evidence available to inform the development of policy, to help monitor how successful current policies are working, and to provide solutions to unexpected events and policy failures. Inevitably there is scientific uncertainty in all of these areas. Communication of that uncertainty is critical ... but dealing with that uncertainty falls within the remit of policy. It is also clear that the scientist cannot remain distinct from the policy process in providing the evidence base.... in that little emphasis is generally placed on correct problem formulation in the policy-decision process.
I've never been a big fan of arbitrary rankings, but as a journalist, I know how popular lists can be in generating discussion. After all, can you think of a better way to provoke debate over funding priorities?
I can already see the effect of grant proposals. When justifying the need for the research, applicants (at least in the UK) can now tailor their research proposals to "answer one of the top 100 questions identified by 654 leading ecologists..."
If the list was much shorter, I'd say that was a bad thing, leading to unwarranted narrowing of research activities. But at 100 items, many of which are broadly stated, I think we're safe.
Thanks for the notice. Both the first and last are important for more than just ecologists - the first part of #100 is more in the domain of the engineer/hydrologist. One question though: When will "ecosystem services" lose the quotation marks?
Maybe an alternate title for the list would be, "100 Reasons To Get Serious About The Precautionary Principle"...?