We have all been hearing the reports that Volkswagen fixed diesel cars by some engineering trick to show low levels of pollution, while the actual pollution produced on the road is 10-100 times hig…
Charley Krebs highlights in his blog post the tension that exists between doing research under simplified and consequently artificial contexts and doing research in the complexity of real natural systems.
This tension reflects into how research and researchers are evaluated and funding made available. Time is at the core: how fast are results and publications expected, how long a period grants are awarded for, expectation of high short-term impact of those publications…
There is a place for model systems and model organisms in research, the danger is in assuming that those are the most important studies. Selling the idea that such studies by themselves will save mankind from starvation is damaging because the most difficult , slow, and costly part of research is that that needs to be done to study the complexity of real systems, be them agricultural or natural systems.
The catch is that as researchers depending on short-term funding or hoping to advance our careers, we need to publish results that are clear and conclusive and to do this frequently (keep a steady flow of publications). Researchers also need to “sell” their proposals as contributing to the well-being in our countries, region, or mankind, but we are not really asked to give solid evidence about the expected contribution.
Should we as researchers aim at realistically solving problems that would help human society and environmental sustainability or just play with unrealistic simplified systems and sell our proposals with vague descriptions of assumed connections to the real problems? and most importantly should the way research and researchers are evaluated be modified so as to not discourage a holistic and long-term approach to the study of natural and agricultural systems?
A long history
The argument between simple vs. realistic models is not new, and has probably existed for as long as Ecology has existed as an accepted discipline. I give below an example of a publication related to this question (will add more later, and if you are familiar with any please suggest their inclusion by writing a comment to this post).
Hall, C.A.S. 1988. An assessment of several of the historically most influential theoretical models used in ecology and of the data provided in their support. Ecological Modeling 43: 5-31.