Executive Director, Rocky Mountain Biological LaboratoryView Slides
Field biologists face the daunting task of generating fundamental truths based upon scarce data from complex systems that are idiosyncratic in time and location. How do field biologists make progress and are there lessons to be learned? Drawing upon my experience with the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the Organization of Biological Field Stations, I briefly describe what it is like to be a field biologist and where field biology is headed. The challenge of studying complex and idiosyncratic systems, which include individuals and particular ecosystems, is that the number of relevant factors and their interrelationships (the dimensionality of a system) overwhelms our capacity to measure the system. Field biologists escape this paradox by “looking around corners.” They combine a mechanistic understanding of complex systems with contextual information in order to generalize and predict. For example, a study of fish and mayflies can provide insight into the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone and how governments should respond to terrorism. Finally, I argue that a greater emphasis on juxtaposing fundamental research with predictions and/or decision-making within the context of Bayesian statistics provides opportunities for accelerating fundamental discoveries in the field sciences. In keeping with the theme of this Symposium, I will attest to our capacity to make progress understanding complex systems, from Charles Darwin’s efforts to understand the “tangled web” of nature, to the work of clinical researchers to improve human health.