North Central Washington

What is an ecologist?

The following review is a compilation of replies to the question, "What is an ecologist?", posed on the ecology mailing list of the Forest Service internal email service. The replies were both numerous and provocative; they are summarized here with the total number of responses to an issue following the phrase in parentheses.

A Given: Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environment (4).

In the Forest Service, a professional ecologist must meet OPM qualifications for a job description that typically ranges from entry level to GS 12/13 positions. Some respondents felt that a person from any background could fill the position (2), while others felt the OPM standards are too low, allowing unqualified people to play the role of ecologist (6).

Most felt that specialists, e.g., botanists, silviculturists, wildlife biologists, range cons, etc., shouldn't automatically qualify as ecologists (7), partly because of their bias, or advocacy for a particular resource (4), however those specialists, or "reductionists", have an equally important role to play in other areas of the Forest Service (3). On the other hand, ecologists may be specialists (functional ecologists), and job qualifications should reflect the needs of the employer (4).

A good ecologist must draw upon academic training in the natural sciences, experience and field work. Botany, hydrology, soils and analytical skills were often mentioned in respondents' descriptions of themselves.

Ecologists must be able to integrate (6) a broad view (2) in both spatial or landscape perspectives (2) as well as temporal scales (3). Their knowledge is holistic (8) and synthetic (2), and results in new concepts such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, [synergistic (2)], i.e., they are not generalists (8). They must be conscious of the microscopic realm as well as the macroscopic (1), and they should be balanced in their world view (1).

Ecologists are scientists, generating and managing data to prove or disprove their hypotheses, interpreting results and developing theories (8). This requires analytical skills such as statistics and computer analysis to quantify data (3) and technical knowledge of sampling, inventory and monitoring of vegetation (5). Ecologists must be systems specialists (1), and must be able to coordinate, connect, inter-relate and understand both the data as well as their colleagues (5).

The primary goal of the Forest Service [vegetation] ecologist is seen as developing an ecosystem classification scheme to aid in the study and understanding of plant communities, populations and relationships (synecology) (6). The results are applications of vegetation management and practical tools for the management of ecosystems (5). Some feel that ecologists should be proactive in treating vegetation as a resource (3), while others feel that they should study and define the natural limits of (1), but not implement decisions concerning (1) ecosystems. Finally ecologists are a valuable asset to interdisciplinary teams, and can contribute to planning and reviewing legal documents (3).

It is interesting to note that many felt the real issue here was empowerment of individuals, but that "turf jealousy" had shifted the issue to one of ecologist job qualifications (4).

My own comment is that the synthesis of knowledge and the process of induction does not develop from being taught about subjects, but rather from learning about the nature of relationships. Ecology can be divided into pure and applied branches, and methods can be primarily metric or descriptive. It is not the goal of scientists to be unbiased, but to compensate for their biases with good methods.

What employers should expect from workers is not mechanistic, "pure truths", but reliability, accountability, and professionalism. While ecologists may rightly feel that their ranks and professional standards are being diluted by low OPM standards, there should be no rigid requirement for academic credit that excludes qualified people from job consideration. Academics who think they have an edge on insight need to get a little fresh air; the open inquisitiveness of youth and the common sense of age, for example, are also valuable qualifications too subtle for incorporation into institutionalized standards.