Long-term ecological research should include studies on how social science interacts with ecosystems

January 18, 2006

The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network of 26 research sites in which more than 1,800 scientists and students collaborate through funding by the National Science Foundation, turned 25 years old in 2005. During that quarter century, researchers have made important strides in understanding how ecosystems change over time.

But a new report, co-authored by an anthropologist at the University of Georgia, says that much more attention should be paid at the study sites and elsewhere in America to the social science aspects of long-term ecological study. Without it, a fully integrated picture of how people interact with the natural world may remain incomplete.

"We need a more explicit examination of how social and ecological issues interact," said Ted Gragson. "When we understand better the relation between humans and biophysical systems, our ability to forecast future scenarios will be vastly improved."

The report, by Gragson and Morgan Grove of the USDA Forest Service at the Northeastern Research Station in Burlington, Vt., was published in the current issue of the journal Society and Natural Resources. It leads off an entire issue dedicated to better understanding of social science at LTER sites.

Scientists from UGA have been involved in long-term ecological research at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory near Otto, N.C., since the beginning of the LTER program and have published nearly 1,000 research papers. As is true for all 26 LTER sites within the network, however, research has focused on ecological systems while the human dimension of the interaction between landscapes and people has lagged.

"Most ecological scientific research has focused on biological and physical systems in isolation from human influence, or considered humans and their activities as external perturbations to the functioning of biophysical systems," Gragson and Grove write in their report.

At the same time, social science research has also been somewhat isolated from environmental studies, the authors say. They quote an article published in Science in 1997 in which the authors claim that "most aspects of the structuring and functioning of Earth's ecosystems cannot be understood without accounting for the strong, often dominant influence of humanity."

The just-published issue of Society and Natural Resources offers first steps toward redressing the apparent lack of understanding between the two sides of the research equation. It reports on the impact of social science and ecology at four LTER sites: Northern Temperate Lakes, located in northern Wisconsin; Coweeta; the Central Arizona-Phoenix site; and the Baltimore Ecosystem Study.

Still, much more needs to be done, Gragson and Grove argue.

"The long-term record already available in the LTER program makes it a unique observatory for assessing the ecological effects of numerous external and internal forces from climate to land use," Gragson said. "Social scientists might do well to emulate ecological scientists in systematically collecting long-term data on beliefs, attitudes and behaviors."
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University of Georgia

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