Promoting ideas in ecology: Bill Robertson, biogeochemistry, and biodiversity
While ecology has undergone a remarkable transition in the technologies available to measure and describe ecosystems, Bill Robertson and the A.W. Mellon Foundation have understood that such a revolution must be balanced by wise investment in the development of fundamental ideas that govern how we think of complex ecological systems in our biosphere. Development at this empirical-conceptual interface is inherently difficult, however, and depends on both intellectual and social factors. Bill invested in both and, as a result, shaped the development of ecology as well as ecologists. I will address how Bill and the Foundation have influenced our emerging view of ecosystems and their dependence on broadly constrained – but also highly diverse – interactions between plants and nutrient cycles.
I will evaluate how our views of nutrients and plant-nutrient relations are changing, to a significant degree as a result of Bill’s and the Foundations efforts to promote work at the empirical-conceptual interface. A central challenge has been scaling between improved technologies for measuring fast and local mechanisms, to the large-scale and slow dynamics that govern ecosystems over centuries to millennia. I will offer an analysis of ecosystems across biomes and biodiversity gradients that suggests that particular classes of plant traits are disproportionately important for understanding how nutrient cycles emerge at the ecosystem scale. My findings suggest that new knowledge can come from better and more strategic consideration of how individual plant traits and strategies can feed back upon ecosystem properties. While a grand synthesis that involves biodiversity may be elusive at the moment, there are some clear paths for progress and areas of critical importance.