Deakin University

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Framework to improve the application of theory in ecology and conservation

journal contribution
posted on 2012-02-01, 00:00 authored by Don DriscollDon Driscoll, D B Lindenmayer
Ecological theory often fails applied ecologists in three ways: (1) Theory has little predictive value but is nevertheless applied in conservation with a risk of perverse outcomes, (2) individual theories have limited heuristic value for planning and framing research because they are narrowly focused, and (3) theory can lead to poor communication among scientists and hinder scientific progress through inconsistent use of terms and widespread redundancy. New approaches are therefore needed that improve the distillation, communication, and application of ecological theory. We advocate three approaches to resolve these problems: (1) improve prediction by reviewing theory across case studies to develop contingent theory where possible, (2) plan new research using a checklist of phenomena to avoid the narrow heuristic value of individual theories, and (3) improve communication among scientists by rationalizing theory associated with particular phenomena to purge redundancy and by developing definitions for key terms. We explored the extent to which these problems and solutions have been featured in two case studies of long-term ecological research programs in forests and plantations of southeastern Australia. We found that our main contentions were supported regarding the prediction, planning, and communication limitations of ecological theory. We illustrate how inappropriate application of theory can be overcome or avoided by investment in boundary-spanning actions. The case studies also demonstrate how some of our proposed solutions could work, particularly the use of theory in secondary case studies after developing primary case studies without theory. When properly coordinated and implemented through a widely agreed upon and broadly respected international collaboration, the framework that we present will help to speed the progress of ecological research and lead to better conservation decisions.



Ecological monographs






129 - 147




Hoboken, N.J.







Publication classification

C1.1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal; C Journal article

Copyright notice

2012, Ecological Society of America