Frontiers in Ecosystem Ecology from a Community Perspective: The Future is Boundless and Bright

K. C. Weathers, P. M. Groffman, E. Van Dolah, E. Bernhardt, N. B. Grimm, K. McMahon, J. Schimel, M. Paolisso, R. Maranger, S. Baer, K. Brauman, E. Hinckley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


In an era of increasingly multidisciplinary science, it is essential to identify the frontiers as well as the core of an inherently holistic discipline: ecosystem ecology. To achieve this, we led a series of town hall events at multiple scientific-society meetings over a two-year period followed by a workshop with a diverse set of ecosystem scientists to review and expand on those outcomes. For the society town hall events ~70 individuals were asked to give short, provocative (the so-called, soapbox) presentations and audience members (~250) filled out tailored surveys. Both presentations and surveys were transcribed and themes were extracted and analyzed before and during the follow-up workshop. Formal ethnographic analysis of the soapbox texts produced three major themes: “frontiers,” “capacity building,” and “barriers to implementation,” including several subthemes. A workshop was held to analyze the ethnographic data where workshop participants further grouped key frontiers as (1) rethinking the drivers of ecosystem change, (2) new insights into ecosystem process and function, (3) evaluating human dimensions of ecosystem ecology, and (4) new angles on problem-solving/applied research. In addition, 13 experts were interviewed to crosscheck interpretations. The survey data, workshop deliberations, and expert interviews suggest that the core of these frontiers defines the current state and provides the foundational knowledge that bounds ecosystem ecology as a discipline. In response to emerging complex environmental issues and ongoing socioecological challenges, the edges of these frontiers expand fundamental ecosystem ecology to engage and intersect with disciplinary realms to create new ways of making sense of complexity, and to develop an even more holistic understanding of ecological systems. In this paper, we present our synthesis of the frontier and core research themes with the goal of inspiring the next wave of studies in ecosystem ecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)753-770
Number of pages18
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The project “Frontiers in Ecosystem Science: Energizing the Research Agenda” was funded by NSF DEB-1143517. Our final workshop was partially supported by the National Socio-Ecological Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). We thank all of our soapbox speakers, survey participants, and expert interviewees for contributing their insights into this effort, and SESYNC Workshop participants, especially those who commented on this manuscript, including Jill Baron, John Melack, Michael Pace, and Robert Sterner. The manuscript also benefitted from comments by two editors and two anonymous reviewers.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, The Author(s).


  • drivers of change
  • ecological systems
  • human dimensions
  • networks
  • state changes
  • thresholds


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