What’s up, vegetation science? Thinking about the future challenges and opportunities for vegetation science from the perspective of early-career researchers

Prepared by Jonas J. Lembrechts, Florencia Yannelli and Marta Gaia Sperandii

Word cloud of the recurring topics coming out of our horizon scan for vegetation science. Along with “Vegetation”, terms like the “monitoring” of “change”, “dynamics” and “climate” pop out big, highlighting how vegetation science will increasingly have to move from what vegetation is and how it can be conserved to what vegetation can be and can become in a rapidly changing world. Schema from the original paper.

This Behind the paper post refers to the article Fifteen emerging challenges and opportunities for vegetation science – A horizon scan by early career researchers by Florencia A. Yannelli et al. (2022), published in the Journal of Vegetation Science (https://doi.org/10.1111/jvs.13119).

As anthropogenic activities and global change are altering ecosystems and driving biodiversity loss worldwide, identifying future challenges, opportunities, and research gaps in vegetation science is crucial for the future of the field. In regular times, such topics would have been the core of lively talks and discussions during our annual IAVS symposium, yet the spread of the novel SARS-CoV-2 changed everything. Although the cancellation of the 2020 Symposium in Vladivostok was sad news for many IAVS members, it was early career researchers (ECR) such as the IAVS Young Scientists who most suffered its consequences. For ECR, the annual symposium is a most needed opportunity to present our work, network, and discuss new ideas that often serve as seeds for collaborations.

In the middle of this new uncertainty, we decided to take the challenge as an opportunity and took the chance to reflect on the future of vegetation science, especially in the context of global change. Horizon scans are the perfect exercise to accomplish this, where emerging issues and opportunities that are still relatively poorly explored are proposed and discussed by a representative set of active scientists in a particular field. Besides highlighting challenges, gaps, and promising approaches, horizon scans can provide decision-makers and stakeholders with an informative framework to prioritize areas of knowledge to tackle and stimulate the development of collaborative solutions.

Of course, the most well-known ones have been performed for over a decade in the field of Biological Conservation (see multiple Sutherland et al. in TREE), but there have also been great examples for other ecological disciplines such as invasion science. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we brought together a geographically diverse group of 22 ECR featuring different academic backgrounds and career stages and performed a horizon scan for vegetation science. Our horizon scan took place in the form of a two-day online workshop held in October 2020. Of the 24 topics initially proposed and discussed by participants, we ranked 15 as the most emergent and impactful for vegetation science.  

Fifteen topics that are considered to be emergent and most impactful by the horizon scan for vegetation science. Each topic was identified to contribute to at least two of the goals we recognized for the field (i.e., to describe patterns, understand processes, integrate different knowledge systems and communicate science); the goals are represented as symbols (see legend in the lower right corner), so that the outer part of the graph shows, for each topic, its contribution in terms of specific goals. Different colours indicate how each topic can develop in the field (i.e., developing new frontiers and data types, improving predictions, or advancing research and policy-making). Schema from the original paper.

The highest-ranked topics contain methodological tools such as next-generation sequencing, plant spectral imaging, process-based range models and resurveying studies, and permanent plots, which we expect will need to be integrated into vegetation science to lead it into the future. Overarching, there is the looming impact of global changes, for which we stress the need to integrate long-term monitoring, the study of novel ecosystems, below-ground traits, and pollination interactions, and the creation of global networks of near-surface microclimate data. Finally, we also emphasize the need to integrate traditional forms of knowledge and a diversity of stakeholders into research, teaching, management, and policy-making to advance the field of vegetation science, a research field that will more and more be intertwined with society as a whole as natural areas remain under pressure.

Group photo of the workshop participants, attending from Brazil, Mexico, USA, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Germany, Italy, France, Norway, UK, Slovenia, Serbia, Belgium, Spain and Indonesia.

The whole process of organizing the workshop, performing the horizon scan, and working together in a manuscript during these difficult times of lockdowns and isolation has given us a great opportunity, not only to create tighter networks within our community, but also to stay updated on what other vegetation scientists are working on and experience more inclusive collaboration modalities. All while reducing the carbon footprint of IAVS events.

Much work to do, we believe, as nature is increasingly under pressure by climate and other global changes. We hope that our horizon scan can help identify the ways forward to tackle the issues that are and will come. But most of all, we hope it can become an inspiration and energize ecologists and vegetation scientists, especially the young ones, with the knowledge that their work is of uttermost importance to save our planet.

The fern Asplenium scolopendrium growing at the bottom of a large cave in France, a symbol of the complexity and resilience of vegetation. Photo credit: Jonas Lembrechts.