When scientists ask big questions, it’s always difficult to get the big answer. When scientists ask big ecological questions that require synthesizing data from a variety of geographical locations and different research protocols, it can seem downright impossible.
In the case of the Nutrient Network, a project that recently began receiving funding from the Institute on the Environment, that frustration with such scientific incongruence fueled a solution.
Better known as NutNet, the effort began back in 2006 with a group of researchers, including University of Minnesota ecologists Eric Seabloom and Elizabeth Borer, who were frustrated by existing approaches to understanding the generality of plant responses to nutrients. The challenge of comparing the impact of humans, animals, and nutrients on biomass in different global grasslands was immense. There was no uniformity in the research, and this made it difficult or even impossible to effectively answer wide-scale questions within the discipline. Borer and Seabloom later received a National Science Foundation grant to connect colleagues into the network and allow comparable data to be collected.
What NutNet does is create a web of scientists studying grasslands around the world who are willing to conduct research for two to three days a year that adheres to a constant protocol, then share their data with the rest of the network. The goal is to better understand how plant production and diversity are impacted by outside forces.
Essentially, it’s a crowd-sourced research tool that lets scientists address big questions that can have big impacts. The research template consists of using 5-meter by 5-meter plots with different combinations of treatments. After first observing the plant community as a control, the researchers manipulate the soil by adding nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in various combinations. Some plots are fenced off to see the difference that keeping animals out will make. With this procedure, NutNet ecologists can understand if the type of nutrient matters or if the herbivore matters, and whether the response changes in different parts of the world.
Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences and a member of NutNet, says the truly global nature of the network increases the strength of the research and data. And ecologists are taking notice. Since its incarnation, the network has grown across six continents in around a dozen countries, with about 120 scientists working at 70 sites. That’s a lot of data opening up a lot of research possibilities.
In 2011, Utah State professor and ecologist Peter Adler and a number of co-authors published a paper in Science using NutNet data. It sent shock waves through the ecological community as it questioned what had previously been considered a core tenet of plant productivity studies. It was thought that the relationship between plant productivity and the number of species had a hump-shaped relationship. Using NutNet research data, Adler and colleagues rejected that notion and contended the relationship is not nearly so clear-cut. With the ability to compare large caches of uniformly obtained data from around the world, Adler was able to poke a hole in what had previously been perceived as common ecological knowledge.
For Lind, the future of NutNet is bright. He says the collaborative spirit of the network allows for a new type of research method and hopes to see it serve as a template for answering other important ecological questions about how human impact is affecting the world.
This is precisely what interested IonE in investing in NutNet. It’s an innovative model with great potential to be applied a wide array of environmental fields. Expanding beyond the grasslands, this collaborative network with a research protocol could move fluidly across disciplines and continue to help in getting big answers to those big questions.
Justin Miller is a student communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment. Photos courtesy of Eric Lind.