Field ecology (old)

This instructional module is about the responsible conduct of field research. By research, we mean the activities undertaken by scientists to discover new knowledge about how the world works. These activities follow a well-established protocol called the scientific method, in which scientists begin with careful observation of natural phenomena, guided by general goals and specific objectives. After making sufficient observations, scientists use inductive reasoning to develop hypotheses about the phenomena they are studying. Hypotheses are explanations, and they may be expressed in words or other forms of notation, such as mathematical expressions. Hypotheses lead (through deductive reasoning) to predictions about what will happen under specific circumstances, and these predictions can be tested through appropriately designed experiments. The results of such experiments, if inconsistent with predictions of a particular hypothesis, will cause scientists to reject that hypothesis and to seek alternative explanations. If the results of experiments are consistent with the predictions of a hypothesis, they lend support to that hypothesis, although they do not prove it. Experiments, irrespective of their consequences for a given hypothesis, frequently lead to further observations and the formulation of additional hypotheses, in what can be termed the "cycle of science".

By field research, we mean research that is conducted in the out-of-doors, beyond the confines of a laboratory or office. Although it is unlikely that any research project would be conducted entirely in the field, we are concerned with the component(s) of a research project that is (are) conducted out-of-doors. Many scientific subdisciplines routinely conduct field research. A few examples include agriculture, botany/plant biology, conservation biology, ecology, entomology, forestry, horticulture, marine science, earth science, atmospheric science, microbiology, systematics, and zoology. Research subjects may be both biotic (e.g., plants, animals, microorganisms), abiotic (e.g., air, water, rocks, minerals, chemical elements), or complexes of biotic and abiotic components (e.g., soils, forests, ponds). From a hierarchical perspective, most field research involves individual organisms, populations of individual species, communities comprised of many species, ecosystems, or even the biosphere. The scale of field research may be small (e.g., an individual animal, the flowers of an individual plant) or large (e.g., an ocean basin, the earth's atmosphere). Field research may be minimally intrusive (e.g., creating maps from remotely-sensed data) or highly manipulative (e.g., experimental alteration of an entire ecosystem).

By responsible conduct of field research, we mean the ethical conduct of such research. Ultimately, responsible conduct of field research requires that researchers (1) concern themselves with ethical questions concerning their research and (2) make decisions about whether a particular element of a research program is right or wrong. In the process, field researchers make moral decisions about their research; such decisions go well beyond the statement of preferences.

Author: Dr. Thomas R. Wentworth and Ms. Kristen Rosenfeld
Maintained By: Gary Comstock
Last Updated: 2008-08-12