ripe for scientific exploration, and have great societal relevance. Success will require new investment in the general field of biogeosciences, as well as support for infrastructure that encourages research integration, collaboration, and coordination among earth scientists and biologists.
Research efforts will require substantial material support because biological systems are complex entities with dynamics spanning a broad range of scales that are affected by chance and historical contingency. The inherent complexity of biological systems at all scales—individual species, guilds, communities, biomes, biosphere—and the increasing footprint of human activities over the last several millennia and centuries—requires that we bring the full panoply of scientific approaches to the problem of understanding ecological dynamics. In the past, geohistorical analysis has received little effort compared with that expended on ecological modeling, modern observations, and manipulative experiments. This is despite the extraordinary potential of the geologic record for yielding essential information on patterns and processes of biotic response to environmental change. As outlined in the preceding chapters, advances over the past two decades have revolutionized earth scientists’ ability to date and extract critical biological and environmental information from the geologic record. Moreover, biologists increasingly realize that long-term historical perspectives are vital for answering a host of biological questions, both fundamental (e.g., principles of community organization and individual species response) and particular (e.g., timing of biotic change relative to natural and human stressors in a given region).
Until now, limited use of the geologic record reflects long-standing uncertainties about the adequacy of geohistorical information for answering ecological questions. These uncertainties are now largely resolved—a broad and diverse array of geohistorical records are demonstrably suitable for addressing ecological questions. The limited use of the geologic record also reflects the cultural, disciplinary, and administrative barriers that separate the earth and biological sciences. Analysis of the geologic record of ecological dynamics cannot be tackled without a significant commitment in effort and funds, and without renewed emphasis on genuinely multidisciplinary research both by agencies and by individuals. Without such change, only a few earth scientists (researchers, reviewers, supervisors, fund managers) will identify biological problems as falling under their disciplinary mandate. Similarly only a few biological scientists will find it practicable to acquire the skills needed to analyze geohistorical records, no matter how important geohistorical data are to the questions being addressed. However, like several previous national committees (e.g., NRC, 2001c, 2004; NSB, 2000), this committee considers that a deeper understanding of ecological dynamics should have a high scientific priority. As a matter of policy, federal agencies should take the lead