Long-term ecological research threatened by short-term thinking

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  • Long-term ecological research (LTER) is carried out through a worldwide network of biological field stations and related monitoring programs.
  • Information gathered by these programs helps scientists understand the present and make predictions for the future, which is especially important at this time of increasing global ecological change, researchers argue.
  • However, funding to continue this research is continually threatened by short-term fiscal considerations: the U.S. president’s 2020 budget has proposed cuts that would affect the programs, for example.
  • “If we want to know what we are doing to ourselves as well as the rest of life on Earth, we must engage in long term ecological research,” conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy told Mongabay.

When pioneering ecologist Alton Lindsey founded the Ross Biological Reserve at Purdue University in 1949, he envisioned a “living laboratory” where time-extensive ecological studies could be carried out and flourish. Every decade since then, researchers at the 37-hectare (92-acre) reserve in Indiana diligently measured tree growth and mortality to study changing forest dynamics.

That continued until 2019, when the departure of faculty member Kerry Rabenold left the study’s future in jeopardy. Gordon McNickel, an assistant professor of plant ecology, took it upon himself to maintain the 70-year study. After an unsuccessful attempt at a grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF), McNickel decided to try a distinctly 21st-century model to raise capital: crowdfunding.

Abisko LTER studies how changing soil fungal communities effect carbon storage in the Arctic. Image courtesy of Umeå University, Sweden.

“Certain politicians will say that all taxes are bad, and that people should choose what [science] they want [to fund] rather than government choosing for them,” McNickel wrote in a post at Experiment.com, a crowdfunding platform for science-based research projects. “Crowdfunding would certainly be one way to fund basic science, and let people directly choose the science they care about.”

But the crowdfunding attempt failed; the campaign only raised $3,224 out of $46,000 necessary to continue the study past 2019. While McNickel was eventually able to find funding sources through the university, the experience helped him recognize the difficulties that can arise when trying to raise funds for long-term ecological research, or LTER.

“While I was able to add a few hundred followers on Twitter through the campaign, I don’t think private crowdfunding is an effective way to maintain long term ecological studies,” he told Mongabay. “My experience leads me to believe that some form of public, government funding is often necessary to keep these studies going.”

Map of Organization of Biological Field Stations members, courtesy of OBFS.

Long-term thinking

Long-term environmental monitoring and ecological research is carried out through a worldwide network of biological field stations. At the stations, researchers observe and study biodiversity and ecosystem processes in all biomes — terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems — in oftentimes remote areas of the planet.

The information gathered in long-term studies helps scientists better understand the present and make predictions for the future, which researchers say is especially important given that so many natural systems are bordering on meltdown as a colossal human handprint stretches across the planet.

The Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS) was founded a half-century ago to provide a network to support biological field stations and LTERs, but does not provide funding to field stations, which are often affiliated with universities, governmental institutions, nonprofits, or private foundations.

Bird banding is a regular activity at field stations doing long term research. Here a green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) is assessed, Las Cruces Field Station, Costa Rica. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

OBFS president Stacy McNulty told Mongabay that securing long-term funding for ecological research presents a challenge. “It’s tough to convince the public that we should be doing a study that lasts for over 50 years. It’s a hard sell because people want to go after the next fun, exciting discovery,” McNulty said.

Despite their pivotal role in understanding and protecting natural ecosystems, and although funding situations differ in each circumstance, McNulty said a significant number of U.S.-based LTER studies and field stations are at risk of closure because of financial insecurity and lack of public support.

“The field stations provide a fantastic record of change in a relatively stable space, which can be used as comparisons to other ecosystems that have undergone more serious changes,” she said. “If we really want to go ask the big questions like [the] impact of pesticides on pollinators, atmospheric pollution on forest ecosystems, or climate change on the world, it’s critical that we keep these field stations going.”

Niwot Ridge LTER is where University of Colorado-Boulder researchers study the air, snow, water, soil, microbes, lakes, trees, flowers, and animals in the high Rocky Mountains. Photo by E Zambello/LTER-NCO CC BY 4.0

In addition to OBFS, McNulty has spent 20 years in field research at the Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC). One study that took place there provided evidence of acid rain and pollution-related tree die-off in upstate New York’s montane forests, underscoring the importance of such programs.

Lawmakers drew upon the data to pass the Clean Air Act of 1990  through Congress; years later, AEC’s monitoring showed the air quality regulations had their intended effect, with fewer trees dying than in previous years.

Although McNulty said that both public and private entities are important sources when it comes to financing long-term ecological research, one major funding source for it in the U.S. comes from the NSF, the country’s leading backer of non-medical research.

Moorea Coral Reef LTER site encompasses the coral reef complex that surrounds the island of Moorea, French Polynesia. Image via University of California-Santa Barbara.

Research under pressure

In 1980, the NSF established its LTER Program to “address ecological questions that cannot be resolved with short-term observations or experiments.” The program now supports 28 field stations — some of which are also affiliated with the OBFS network — in a diversity of habitats across continental North America, the Caribbean, Pacific Ocean, Arctic, and the Antarctic, including ecosystems such as coral reefs, arid grasslands, estuaries, lakes, prairies, forests, alpine and Arctic tundra, urban areas, and agroecosystems.

But U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget has proposed a $1 billion cut — hacking off 14 percent of the annual budget — to the NSF. Cuts would be distributed through NSF’s seven research directorates, including the LTER Program. In 2018, the NSF paid $29.46 million to maintain 28 long-term research studies, but in the NSF’s 2020 budget request based on the president’s orders, they would only receive $28.43 million, a 3.5 percent cut.

Additionally, three federal budget shutdowns since 2013 have caused headaches at times. In 2013, a shutdown caused the LTER Program to put three U.S. Antarctic stations on standby because funds meant to pay contractor Lockheed Martin for logistical support were frozen.

The view from afield

Scott Collins, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, leads an LTER project in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, which was not closed as a result of the latest shutdown in December 2018.

“Unlike 2013, the latest shutdown had surprisingly little impact on our work because we had continued access to the field sites,” said Collins. “But even so, some federal scientists were cut out of their studies during the shutdown and that disruption can have an impact on data streams.”

Sevilleta site researchers manipulate the size and frequency of monsoon season rain events to determine the effects of changes in precipitation patterns on desert grasslands. Photo of courtesy Scott Collins.

Collins said that the cuts to the NSF would be “devastating to science in general” but that he is hopeful that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will come together to make sure that basic research remains funded. In recent years, Congress has largely rejected Trump’s requests for steep cuts to science, and instead steadily increased NSF funding.

Collins’s studies in New Mexico provide insight into the effect that increased climate variables will have on the intersection of several major biotic zones, such as desert shrublands and grasslands, and piñon-juniper and riparian woodland. The Sevilleta LTER encompasses approximately 3,600 square kilometers (1,390 square miles) and ranges from Rio Grande riparian forests to the Chihuahuan Desert and up to sub-alpine forests and meadows.

“We have a great window into climate change and climate variability impacts on ecosystem. We study dynamics that drive grasslands to be replaced with shrubs [and] our studies allow us to make predictions on piñon pine woodlands under drought and fire conditions that will become more common with climate change,” Collins said.

Government funding for long-term research is fundamental to understanding natural ecosystems that are facing diverse human impacts such as fragmentation, climate change, atmospheric and oceanic pollution, and land cover change, he said.

“The only way we’re going to know what is happening with our ecosystems is to study them in the long run,” Collins concluded. “Every year our costs go up, people cost more, equipment costs more … there is no excuse for not funding this.”

Scientists at the Northern Gulf of Alaska LTER site conduct research off the coast of Alaska. Photo by Sarah Thornton, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

‘Monitoring vital signs’

According to a study published in BioScience on the global infrastructure for biological research stations, the majority of active stations are based in the Northern Hemisphere. Of the 1,268 active research stations spread across 120 countries, 45 percent were located in the Americas, with 32.8 percent in North America.

The study found most stations operate on around $1 million per year. Based on those numbers, the researchers suggested the global network of field station infrastructure is worth more than $1.3 billion.

Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist who serves as senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, told Mongabay that LTER funding is inconsistent or absent in many parts of the world, and that like field stations, they are concentrated in northern countries.

Given the acceleration of global change and species loss that the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlights, Lovejoy echoed Collins, saying that LTERs offer the “only way to truly understand what is going on.” Around a million species of plants and animals face extinction according to a summary of the forthcoming report.

“If we want to know what we are doing to ourselves as well as the rest of life on Earth, we must engage in long term ecological research,” Lovejoy said. “One can think of this research as monitoring vital signs.”

Taran Volckhausen is Colorado-based freelance journalist who regularly reports from Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @tvolckhausen

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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