The goals of ecology are to describe and understand patterns in nature at different levels of biological organization and to use this information to make predictions. A central theme in ecology is the study of how evolution, through the processes of natural selection, chance, and historical factors, has led to observed patterns in nature. More specifically, ecology focuses on the interactions between organisms and their environment. Plant ecology is especially important because plants produce food and fuel for all other organisms, regulate global water budgets, and determine atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen. Agricultural vegetation is responsible for about one-third of global energy fixation and water flux, whereas natural forests in the tropics and subtropics are the major vegetation type regulating the remaining two-thirds of the water and carbon dioxide exchanges. Plants also influence soil nutrient levels, soil type, and the presence of associated microorganisms, invertebrates, and fungi. Plants are particularly useful experimental subjects for ecology because they define community structure and because they are accessible for study. This report identifies the major research areas in plant ecology and suggests important topics for study within each area. The four major research areas identified follow hierarchical levels of organization in biology and include: response of plants to environmental variation; structure and regulation of populations; community and ecosystem ecology; and human influence on the environment. The most important research areas identified by respondents to the BSA survey were: conservation biology (including studies of biodiversity, endangered species, introduced species, and habitat management); plant population biology (including studies of plant reproductive biology); and community and ecosystem ecology. Although each research area is important, some studies such as studies of endangered species or endangered habitats must be done soon before the species or habitats are gone. Limits on the number of trained researchers and available funding make it important that priorities be determined. Plant ecology has moved beyond the descriptive tape measure and counting stage to a science that includes experimental, comparative, and analytical approaches and often requires interdisciplinary work with physiology, genetics, statistics, taxonomy, physics, or economics. Sophisticated equipment and new tools such as global models, remote sensing, computational approaches, and molecular and isotope analyses enable ecologists to study previously inaccessible phenomena.
Excellence in education was also listed as a high priority in the BSA survey. Students need to understand the importance of plants, see how the study of plant ecology relates to their own lives, and understand that ecology can provide a framework for managing environmental problems. As we enter the 21st century, environmental problems have become global problems that touch every person. With the human population of 5.5 billion still growing rapidly it will be difficult to maintain even the present environmental quality. More research is needed to determine how plants respond to environmental change and to develop management and restoration plans for sustainable natural and urban landscapes. Although funding is available from both government and nongovernment organizations, the amounts available are limited and very competitive. Questions in community and ecosystem ecology often require long-term projects over many years to monitor environmental change. The Long-Term Ecological Research Site program sponsored by the National Science Foundation is an important step in the long-term monitoring process. Conservation requires economic considerations and development of education programs. More communication is needed among ecologists, ecosystem managers, government officials, and environmental educators to ensure that the funding available is used most appropriately.