, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 267–273 | Cite as

Advancing Ecosystem Science by Promoting Greater Use of Theory and Multiple Research Approaches in Graduate Education

  • Kathryn L. CottinghamEmail author
  • Samuel B. Fey
  • Keith J. Fritschie
  • Jessica V. Trout-Haney
20th Anniversary Paper


Since the inaugural edition of Ecosystems was published in 1998, ecosystem science has undergone substantial changes including the development of new research methods and an increasing emphasis on collaborations across traditional academic boundaries. In response to this transformation, we reflect on the current state of theory in ecosystem science, and make recommendations for training the next generation of Ph.D.-level ecosystem scientists. Specifically, we call for increased integration of theory into ecosystem science and outline the utility of iterating between theory and data generated by observations, experiments, and quantitative models. We recommend exposing graduate students to these three major approaches for generating data and propose strategies that students, advisors, and departments can employ to ensure this exposure. Ultimately, a successful training program will provide students with an understanding of key theories related to ecosystem science and how they interact with data, an appreciation for the interconnectedness of approaches to scientific inference, and a well-developed skill set in at least one approach—thereby empowering them to confidently tackle our pressing environmental problems. Although this is a daunting list of goals, continuing to advance our understanding of how ecosystems function necessitates a rigorous and well-developed training program.


training inference pedagogy models observations experiments 



The authors wish to thank Steve Carpenter and Monica Turner for giving us the opportunity to contribute to this anniversary celebration. Conversations with Matt Ayres and Mike Dietrich informed our thinking on the nature of theory in science, while Kassaundra Amann, Matt Ayres, Precious Kilimo, Jaclyn Hatala Matthes, and Andrew Vacca provided thoughtful comments and constructive suggestions that helped to improve our previous drafts. This work is funded by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1601269 to KLC & JVTH; PLR-1506155 to Ross Virginia); a James S. MacDonnell Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (SBF); a Department of Education Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need Fellowship through grant P200A120087 (KJF); and by Dartmouth College (Scholarly Innovation and Advancement Award and Neukom CompX faculty grant to KLC and McCulloch Graduate Fellowship in Environmental Change to KJF).

Supplementary material

10021_2016_70_MOESM1_ESM.docx (231 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 230 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Osborn Memorial LaboratoriesYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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