The much-needed handbook

Let me tell you a little story. Imagine that you are an ambitious young PhD-student, worried about climate change and dedicated to spend the next 4 years performing an experiment that will answer critical questions on the future of our planet.

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Climate change experiments, so crucial to understand the future of our rapidly changing world. Yet how to do them well?

You prepare your project thorougly, sitting together with your supervisors to decide which techniques to use, and browsing the literature for inspiration. You make important decisions that fit your specific case perfectly, setting up a unique and well-designed experiment that will answer your critical research question once and for all.

And then, results come in. And they are inconclusive. As in, climate change will have major implications for your study system, but results just don’t match up with what other people find. Bummer. Not only for you, when you try putting your results in perspective. Also for the whole scientific community, when trying to unify, summarize and synthesize results. But most importantly so for our whole society: how to communicate clearly about the impacts of climate change for the functioning of our planet if studies do not seem to hopelessly disagree with each other?

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Measuring photosynthesis using a LI-COR

But then you dig deeper into the literature. Turns out that experiment B had a different tactic of measuring leaf traits, while experiment C worked with an entirely different definition of what exactly ‘plant stress’ entails. Research group D on the other hand has a different measurement tool alltogether, explaining their different results. Finally, the results of experiment E turned out only to be valid for rainforests, and not for the Arctic tundra where you did your precious experiment.

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Did you measure leaf litter fall the same way as the other researchers in your field? 

What is lacking, clearly, is uniformity. Individual research projects invest considerable resources in collecting data for a number of environmental and biotic variables and in developing protocols for field measurements. This leads to a diversity of similar but not quite identical protocols, and hence to a diversity of ways to measure and quantify the same underlying effects and responses. While some of this variability may be due to good scientific reasons, protocol selection is often based on traditions and habits.

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Climate change experiments need to strive for uniformity, to make results comparable and easier to interpret between studies. 

And this issue, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what we solved! With 115 experts in the field, we created a handbook for climate change experiments (found here) that brings best practices together. Incomparability should now forever be in the past, where it belongs.

 

Reference

Halbritter et al. (2019) The handbook for standardised field and laboratory measurements in terrestrial climate-change experiments and observational studies (ClimEx). Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

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