Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Divide: a survey about interactions between theoretical and empirical researchers

What is the proper role of theoretical versus empirical work in biology?  I self-identify as a theorist, and I do pretty much all of my work sitting at my Mac Pro.  However, I did my Ph.D. in Andrew Hendry’s lab, surrounded by empirical biologists working on stickleback, guppies, salmon, and other slimy real-world critters.  This was somewhat of an accident; initially, I was interested in doing an empirical Ph.D., but my past as a software engineer meant that I soon shifted into modeling.  (An early attempt at doing fieldwork on stickleback in British Columbia also convinced me that perhaps that was not my strongest suit.)  My position as the “token theorist” in the Hendry Lab worked out really well; I got a lot of exposure to empirical concerns and perspectives that informed my modeling work, both in what I chose to study and how I wrote about it.  At the same time, I provided a theoretical perspective that I hope was interesting and useful to the others in the lab.

This situation meant that I was often thinking about the way that theoretical and empirical approaches interact in ecology and evolutionary biology.  Should theoretical ideas drive new empirical work to look for the patterns and outcomes predicted by theoretical models?  Or should pure “natural history” observations of the real world drive new theoretical work to explain the patterns and outcomes observed?  Or is the ideal perhaps for the two perspectives to mutually drive each other, in a sort of ongoing feedback?  Do empiricists and theorists interact too little, too much, or just the right amount, in today’s world?  Which aspects of the interactions between these groups work, and which aspects are perhaps dysfunctional?  How do institutions such as journals, funding agencies, conferences, and universities influence (and perhaps hinder) such interactions?

My interest in such questions was whetted by discussions with Dan Bolnick, Andrew Hendry, Kiyoko Gotanda, Maria Servedio, and others too numerous to name, and the further along I got in my Ph.D., the more important these questions came to seem.  Some fascinating (and disturbing) papers came out on related topics, such as Fawcett & Higginson’s paper on the negative citation impact of equations in a paper, and Scheiner’s paper on the dearth of theoretical grounding in ecological research.  Eventually, I decided to conduct a survey of ecologists and evolutionary biologists to see what others thought about such questions.

And so that’s what I did, and the results of that survey are now published in BioScience.  I think the paper is quite accessible (it doesn’t contain a single equation!), so I won’t go into detail here about what I found.  In short, though, my results underscore three themes.  To quote from my abstract:

One theme is a widespread and mutual lack of trust, understanding, and interaction between empiricists and theorists. Another is a general desire, among almost all of the respondents, for greater understanding, more collaboration, and closer interactions between empirical and theoretical work. The final theme is that institutions, such as journals, funding agencies, and universities, are often seen as hindering such interactions. These results provide a clear mandate for institutional changes to improve interactions between theorists and empiricists in ecology and evolutionary biology.

That mention of a “clear mandate for institutional changes” in the last sentence is intended as a sort of clarion call, and although I didn’t devote much space in the article to my own personal opinions, this here is a blog post, so I will write a bit more frankly.

In the present institutional structure of science, attempts to collaborate and interact strongly across the theoretical–empirical divide generally go unrewarded; indeed, respondents to my survey often felt that such efforts were effectively punished, since such research is both harder to fund and harder to publish.  For this reason, it would be both unfair and unrealistic to ask individual researchers in the present climate to increase their interactions across the divide.  Instead, I think what we need are institutional reforms that provide incentives for greater interaction: funding programs specifically devoted to cross-divide research, editorial policies that encourage cross-divide publications, hiring policies in university biology departments that encourage the hiring of people with cross-divide publication records, and so forth.  Once the institutional incentives are in place, individual researchers will adjust their behavior; until then, individuals will continue to respond to the incentives as they presently exist.

So rather than suggesting that you ask “what can I, as an individual researcher, do to interact more across the divide?”, I suggest that you ask instead “What can I, as a faculty member, a journal editor, a manuscript reviewer, a conference organizer, a grant evaluator, a professor, a member of a professional society – a participant in creating the institutional structure of science – do to encourage everyone to interact more across the divide?”  And then please discuss this with others, and take action!


B.C. Haller.  (2014).  Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives in Ecology and Evolution: A survey.  BioScience (advance access).  DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu131

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