About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

On the differences between natural resource and biology departments

Six weeks ago, in my post on research funding, in the comments several people noted that funding for TAs and RAs were different in natural resource departments than in ecology and evolutionary biology or biology departments. A reader Steven Byrd, emailed me asking me to expand on the perceived differences since he was about to make the switch moving from his masters in a biology department to his PhD in a natural resource department. I myself have jumped this divide nearly every move I’ve made – PhD in EEB department, Postdoc in Fish and Wildlife, tenure track at McGill in Biology, tenure track at Arizona in School of Natural Resources. Since many people like myself and Steven cross this divide or at least contemplate crossing this divide at least once in their career,  I thought it would be interesting to comment on the cultural differences I have observed and see what others think.

First a bit of background. This is specific to the US, but I know it is similar in Canada and believe it has parallels in Europe and Australia as well. Definitely curious to hear from our international readers. Most universities are organizied into departments nested inside of colleges nested inside the university. Ecology is typically found in two locations. One is in an EEB or Biology department inside of a College of Science (or on a smaller campus a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences). This college also has chemistry, physics and often some of atmospheric sciences, oceanography, geology, etc and is focused on pure research without focus on applications. The other is in the College of Agriculture where there are usually departments like Wildlife and Fisheries, Forestry, often Soils, Crop Science, Range Management, Hydrology and some others that overlap with ecology as well as things like plant sciences (plant breeding and pathology), animal husbandry, etc. The college of Ag is focused on applied questions, and in the US in land grant universities the college of Ag is naturally where the agricultural extension agents are homed. The college of Ag is also where federal cooperative units with the USGS (which has a mission of biological inventory and survey) and the US Department of Agriculture are homed – these units are employees of their respective federal agencies and are forbidden from teaching undergraduate classes but otherwise are rather regular members of departments doing research and having graduate students. In many campuses the forestry, wildlife, etc departments have been shrinking and have been merged into unified “natural resource” departments. These departments have also been undergoing a major transformation in recent decades from an emphasis on “hook and bullet” management of game animals for hunting and fishing to conservation of endangered species.

OK – so enough background. These departments all do ecology but if you’re contemplating a switch, what should you you know about the differences between the Biology/Ecology and Evolutionary Biology/College of Science and the Fish and Wildlife/Forestry/Natural resources/College of Agriculture world? (From here on I will abbreviate these two contrasts as EEB vs NatRes). The following are my own observations. They are general stereotypes based on the many departments I have visited and certainly do not apply to 100% of institutions, and in fact none of them apply to every place I’ve worked (and most of them don’t apply to my current place at U Maine which has several unique features with respect to this divide). But broadly speaking:

  • Research funding – EEB goes after NSF and maybe NASA or NIH. NatRes goes after USDA and an occasional NSF, but the majority comes from contract work for state and federal agencies (e.g. monitoring endangered species). As a result I think EEB tends to be a bit more boom-bust and (also divides people into have and have nots) while NatRes tends to be a bit more slow and steady.
  • Research topics – both sides are doing good ecology which is probably the most important point. But there are subtle differences. NatRes is more focused on collecting data and using sophisticated quantitative methods to make sense of the data. In EEB there is more of a split between pure field work and pure mathematical ecologists. In EEB there is also more of a focus on questions rather than information. Sometimes when I sit on NatRes committees I have to push students to ask questions that tie to theory (but many NatRes faculty are doing the same push), but sometimes when I sit on EEB committees I get bemused by how much handwaving there is about incorporating the latest trendy question (can you say phylo-spatial-functional trait coexistence?) without really thinking through the value of the work.
  • Reputational basis – evaluation for tenure and more generally for reputation is more mutlidimensional in NatRes. Papers and grants are still vitally important, but relationships with state and federal agencies, making a difference on the ground, outreach and education are all also important. EEB tends to be very one dimensional on papers and grants. For these reasons the pressure levels might be slightly lower in NatRes (although no tenure track job on the planet is absent of stress). Certainly I think people in EEB are more likely to know and talk about their h-index.
  • Relationships between departments – in general EEB tends to think they do better science and look down on NatRes. NatRes tends to think EEBers have their heads in the clouds and are irrelevant. For the record, I’ve seen places where from an objective outside view, NatRes is clearly the superior department and places where EEB is clearly the superior department and places where they’re both good, but they all still tend to adopt this attitude towards each other. Which is unfortunate, because despite the fact that in my opinion both groups are doing exactly what their mission mandates and there are enormous synergies, on most campuses these judgmental attitudes prevail and there is very little interaction between the two groups (and they are often physically separated by large distances).
  • Undergraduate curriculum – NatRes are training undergrads to get jobs in state and federal agencies. For students to be hired by these agencies, they must have taken a very specific set of courses so the whole curriculum is built around these national requirements. EEB tends to teach a lot of service courses (i.e. introductory biology, neurobiology, plant taxonomy) taken by people all over campus. The majority of undergrads majoring in Biology want to go into medicine/health sciences.
  • Graduate trajectory – in NatRes most students stop after a masters (again targeting jobs in state and federal agencies or maybe an NGO). If you want to get a PhD you usually need a masters first, preferably from another institution. In EEB – most students are doing a PhD, often without having gotten a masters first. Traditionally EEB departments see their graduate program as primarily for creating new professors, although I do think they are increasingly embracing the role of training people for conservation work as well.
  • Graduate funding – in EEB it is a mix of RAships from NSF grants and lots of TAships (coming from the service courses). In NatRes TAships are few and hard to come by so it is mostly work on the contracts with state agencies and any USDA grants. The TAships in EEB help to counter the boom-bust nature of pursuing NSF funding (i.e. provide backups when funding goes dry), so it can be very hard to have students in a NatRes department if you primarily pursue federal funding and don’t have a steady stream of state/federal contracts.
  • Internal departmental culture – EEB is much more bottom-up governed while NatRes is much more top-down governed. Both groups have regular faculty meetings and votes. But the opinion of the department chair (and in NatRes often an executive committee of 4-5 senior faculty) counts a lot more heavily, and I’ve seen people have heavy consequences from getting on the bad side of a department chair much more in NatRes – EEB is the stereotypical herding cats where everybody just shrugs their shoulders and expects some people to be prima donnas. Also I think it might be fair to say that the proportion of old white males is slightly higher in NatRes than EEB (although this is changing and nowhere in ecology does particularly well on race). I don’t know a nicer way to say this but some (and only some) NatRes departments still have more of a “good-old-boy club” feel. Some EEB departments might have more of an elitist attitude.
  • Relationships between the colleges – almost invariably the College of Agriculture is the second richest and most powerful college on campus (after the college of medicine if such exists). They always have new buildings, money floating around for various initiatives, etc. Within the college of agriculture, NatRes is usually near the bottom of the ladder. In contrast, while colleges of science are usually less powerful, EEB/Biology is often the biggest and richest department within the college (especially when its a joint Biology department with EEB and molecular/cellular biology). So NatRes tends to be the little fish in the big pond, while EEB tends to be the big fish in the small pond. There are advantages to both – mostly depending on whether resources are being allocated at the university level (e.g. buildings which favors college of ag) or at the within college level (e.g. various travel awards to students which can tend to favor EEB).
  • Interior decorating – by far the most important distinction is what the hallways look like!. EEB departments tend to be in generic university drab with perhaps a glass display case of books by the faculty or maybe something out of the collections. NatRes Have large stuffed mammals, often a bear, mounted upright in the wildlife half and to have gorgeous solid wood paneling on the forestry half.

Those are the differences that jump most immediately to my mind. As already stated they are sweeping stereotypes and the landscape will differ in individual units. My only goal here is to provide a “quick reference” for people contemplating the switch. Overall, I find it highly regrettable that these cultural differences exist and that people don’t work together better between these units. We are all doing ecology after all. And it makes me really appreciate the structure here at U Maine where all of the biological sciences (from EEB to nursing and food sciences to forestry) are in one college – effectively a college of biology. More universities should move in this direction. Maine is also a place where people aren’t very hung up on the basic-applied distinction – something else I wish more universities would foster

I fear that somebody will get annoyed by my putting this down in black and white, but my intention is to help people new to the issues. Keep in mind that these are only approximately true, and that I love – repeat love – my time spent in both types of units on multiple campuses and nearly always end up finding a way to have cross appointments or what not to effectively end up in the middle between the two which is where I am happiest.

What are your observations about the similarities and differences across the “divide” (which shouldn’t be as big a divide as it is)? How does this generalize in other countries? What about people at private universities or undergraduate education-focused universities in the US – which culture matches better to what you experience?

How to write a great journal article – act like a fiction author

There are a number of good posts out there on how to write a good journal article and even a whole blog devoted to the topic; many of them are linked to in the comments section of my post on writing style.

Here I want to elevate above the nuts-and-bolts sentence-level-detail of my post on writing style* and even elevate above the aforementioned posts that break down different sections of a paper and zoom out to 100,000 feet and think really strategically about writing a paper.

In my experience as a student committee member and as an associate editor for three journals I must have seen many 100s if not at this point 1000s of pre-publication articles. And they are varied. But many of them are by already good writers in the sense of clear, fluid English that understands well the purpose of each of the four sections (intro, methods, results, discussion). But many (most?) of these are still missing something. Something which I think is the hardest thing to learn: to think about the paper as a cohesive unit.

Think about an artistic painting. For the artist, it is made up of 100s or 1000s of individual brush strokes, each one of which requires skill and artistry. And of course a painting typically has a few key objects – a building, a lake, a person and the strokes have to make those up convincingly. But the reason an artist makes a painting, and the reason we hang paintings in the Louvre and visit them by the millions is none of those reasons. It is the overall gestalt effect – the message, the emotional impact. The sum of the parts is MUCH greater than the whole in a great piece of art.

It is no different with a paper. A day after reading it, you don’t remember well-crafted sentences or a really clear introduction – you just have an overall gestalt. With an academic paper this gestalt usually includes a one sentence summary of the factual content of the paper (and yes it is really only one sentence). But it also includes the emotions and judgments hanging on that one sentence. Is it convincing or weak? Is it elegant? Clever? Surprising? Ultimately, much of the emotional gestalt we take from a paper is was it convincing? do I trust the author? It is my experience that first-time writers and even many more experienced writers are so caught up in the mechanics (the sentences and sections in analogy to the brush strokes and objects in the painting) that they never think about the overall gestalt. And as a result the gestalt is rather poor. Which, fairly or not, reflects on the results of the paper. This of course is what distinguishes an art school student (working on mastering the details) from a great artist. And it is what distinguishes a publishable paper from a great paper, one that is remembered, one that has impact, and, dare we dream, a paper that will achieve the analog of being hung in the Louvre (whatever that might be – and no its not getting published in Science or Nature).

My main piece of advice will sound like it is tongue-in-cheek but it is in fact straight-up serious advice. Think and work like a fiction author! Wikipedia says that the main ingredients of fiction writing are: Character, Plot, Setting, Theme and Style. I’m sure there is debate, but these sound a lot like what I learned in high school, and I’m going to go with these.Notice that these are all unifying elements – they are things that cut across the introduction, middle, and ending/resolution of a fiction story. In short they are what give the gestalt.

Let me address each of these in a little more detail as they relate to non-fiction, scholarly article writing:

  • Character – in fiction the characters need to be richly drawn to draw you into the story and make you care enough to keep reading and to remember them. The characters in a journal article are the questions you are asking. Introduce us to them. Spend a little time fleshing out their nuances. This is not achieved by a dump of literature citations, although that is a piece of it. You need to sound excited by your questions (which means you need to know what they are!). And you need to make them 3-D. And you need to dwell on them lovingly. None of this by the way means that you should write a long introduction anymore than you should spend half your book introducing the characters. Just as in the best fiction, the characters (questions) should be introduced deftly and crisply, which requires work.
  • Theme – the take home message. In fiction it is a moral, or perhaps an emotion. In a journal article it is the one sentence take home message. You may think I’m joking, but most people really will take away only a single sentence summary of the paper, so you better know what you want it to be before you start writing. “Figuring it out as you write” is a terrible approach. Your paper will sound disjointed and like you didn’t know what your theme was before you started. So figure out your one sentence BEFORE you start writing. I am known in my lab group for mercilessly asking a student who is at the writing stage of a paper “what is your one sentence?”. I ask them before they start the presentation. I ask them immediately at the end of the presentation. And I ask them several more times during the discussion with the lab. It might seem impossible, but it is actually very achievable – it just requires setting this as an explicit task and spending some time (usually interactive with other people) to achieve it. It is a sine qua non for a paper that has a good gestalt. How can a fiction writer construct plot/story arc, characters, setting to all build towards a powerful theme if they don’t know what it is? No different in non-fiction.
  • Plot – a good piece of fiction has a clear sense of movement. It starts one place, gives a sense of motion at any point you are reading, and then you end up somewhere new. It’s a big part of why people keep reading to the end. I call this the story arc. And the story arc is the thing that I find most often missing in journal articles. You need to take the reader along a very clear trajectory from question to conclusion. Just having the standard four sections is nowhere near enough. So many papers organized by the four sections still sound like a dump of everything you ever thought or did in connection to the paper. You need to work hard on story arc to make sure everything in the paper is pulling towards that one arc. This is why figuring out your one sentence before you write is so important.This lets you know what is superfluous and unnecessary and trim it away (most good writers will tell you that half the battle is knowing what to delete).
  • Setting – the place and culture in which things happen. In field experiments or observations this is pretty simple. Just as I cannot begin to fully understand or relate to a character unless I know their context, I won’t really care if p<0.05** unless I can visualize the whole experiment in my mind. Almost everybody tells me that they used a 1m x 1m quadrat (or whatever their sample unit was) but many fail to tell me if their replicates are 5m apart or 1km apart. If they’re on the same topography or randomized, surrounded by the same vegetation, etc. A well drawn, information-packed diagram of the layout is something I often find myself requesting as a reviewer or editor..
  • Style – this is a broad category that covers everything from writing dialogue to what voice is used – but it is ultimately the techniques. The brush strokes. And it is the clear writing I posted on last year in a non-fiction article.

My bottom line is this. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every section of the paper should be working together, like a well-synchronized team of rowers all pulling towards one common goal. The introduction should introduce the questions in a way that gives them emotional pull and leaves us desperate to know the answer. The methods and results should be a page-turning path towards the answer. And the discussion should be your chance to remind the reader of the story arc you have taken them on and draw sweeping conclusions from it. Any freeloading sentence or paragraph that pulls in a different direction should be mercilessly jettisoned (or at least pushed to supplemental material). Does this sound like a novel you would want to read? Yes, it does, and it probably sounds like a journal article you would want to read too.

I wish more people saw themselves as needing to use the skills of a story teller when they write a journal article. I of course don’t mean the connotations of dissembling or making things up that the word “story” carries. But I do mean the art of story-telling that knows where it is going and does it crisply so that it sucks us in and carries us along with just the right amount of time spent on details of character and setting. Where the characters (questions), the plot (story arc), the setting, the theme (the one sentence take home message) all work together to make a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Like anything in writing, you can do it if you work at it, but you do have to work at it (writing is not a gift handed to you by the gods)***. So go ahead, turn your next manuscript into a cohesive whole with great characters and a compelling story arc that leaves us deeply moved.

UPDATE, 22 June 2014: Comments on this post are now closed. This post was highlighted on “Freshly Pressed“. Which is flattering, but has led to dozens of people who wouldn’t otherwise have seen our blog trying to make non-substantive comments in order to promote their own blogs. We may or may not reopen comments on this post in the future.

* (which I badly violated in this sentence by stringing 5 nouns and more connective words in a row with no verb in sight and then running on for 45+ words in one sentence! – do as I say, not as I do :) )

**I probably won’t care about p<0.05 for a whole other set of statistical/philosophical reasons, but I leave that for another day!

*** just as an example of the messy, iterative process that writing is which depends as much on the bas-relief process of what is removed as what is added, I had a clear vision for this post – science writing should be more like fiction writing with the same elements as a compelling story which immediatley led to a title and intro. Then I when I started writing, I ended up with an outline that looked like

I – you have to know your main point

II – you should be like a fiction writer

IIa – character

IIb – plot

IIc – theme


Well – I clearly had lost my way. While nothing I said was untrue or unimportant, I had bifurcated and complexified off my main theme. This is something I am very prone to do (as I think are most academics). So I deleted two whole paragraphs on I – you have to know what you want to write about – and then worked a much reduced version of it into the IIc theme section. Boom – back to a single story arc, a single sentence to remember, and a tighter, stronger piece. Not every edit is this easy, and this post could certainly benefit from more, but I hope it at least makes my point that you have to edit with a mentality of “does this add or distract from my main point” and be merciless if the latter.

Frogs jump? researcher consensus on solutions for NSF declining accept rates

Dynamic Ecology’s readers have spoken in a clear voice! There is a clear consensus around what changes people favor to address the hopelessly declining grant award rates at NSF. In a post on Monday I described what I see as the long-term exogenous trends in our society (US specifically but as commenters noted probably largely applicable globally) that affect NSF. And that are putting in NSF in a tight squeeze leading to a current acceptance rate of 7.3% and every expectation it will go still much lower. Basically funding flat, many pressures on researchers to apply for more grants (both more applications from old hands and pressure on many to begin applying) lead to a trade-off, the only variables of which NSF controls is # of applications and grant size in $.

I had a reader poll on what choices readers would like to see NSF adopt. To be clear this poll is entirely unscientific in sample design – its whoever reads the blog and answers. It is presumably mostly academic ecologists, and our readership skews early career and male (although how much more it does so than academic ecology in general is unknown), but beyond that I couldn’t say what biases there are. There were 450 votes – I don’t know how many voters since each voter could vote up to 3 times and polldaddy doesn’t give me the details unless I pay them $200 (I know there are other choices – I’ll probably use them next time but polldaddy is so convenient from inside WordPress). But to a first approximation there were presumably about 160-175 voters (some voters likely voted for only 1 or 2 choices). The results as of 11:30AM EST Wednesday (in my experience the vast majority of people who will read the post have read it by now) are:

Results of survey on solutions declining accept rates at NSF

Results of survey on solutions for declining accept rates at NSF. Note since users could pick three choices the 450 votes probably maps to slightly more than 150 voters, perhaps 160-175 total voters, each picking 1-3 choices.

Basically there are three groups of answers. In the first group, nearly everybody who voted was in favor of two changes:

  1. Reduce the average grant size from the current $500K to something more modest ($200K was the example in the poll). This would immediately increase accept rates by 2.5x (last year’s 7.3% would have been 18.25%. That’s a pretty big difference. Several people noted cutting grant size would negatively affect graduate students (fewer RAships), faculty at institutions/departments without TAships, and postdocs. Presumably the choice for only a modest cut was partly driven by this. Personally I would take some of the money saved and put it directly into NSF predoc and postdoc fellowships (this money doesn’t come with indirects and so is more efficient and also tips the balance of power to the students which is desirable in my opinion).
  2. Limit the number of proposals by restricting multiple grants to one researcher in a fixed period. The example given in the main text was at most one grant per five year period (once you’ve been awarded you cannot apply again). There are of course devilish details – do coPIs count, SKP count (senior key personnel=people whos CV is submitted but no salary in the grant), etc. And 5 years from award date or end of grant? etc. And while there is no perfect solution – nearly every solution will unfairly penalize some deserving person – there are certainly multiple good solutions and this is not a reason to not implement this.

Again it is remarkable that nearly everybody who voted, voted for both of these options. These options together effectively amount for a vote to spread current funding around more widely. Also note that implementing #1 almost requires some version (possibly weaker than I proposed) of #2 or you just will compound the problem of more people submitting more applications to chase fewer dollars.

Three other choices were about evenly split. To a first approximation, almost everybody voted for the two choices above, and then split evenly among the following 3 choices with their 3rd vote. To wit:

  1. Reduce grant sizes even further to $50K (not the $200K from above). This would have allowed an acceptance rate of 73%. It would have also severely limited funding (after overhead it is about $35K so roughly 3 months of summer salary or 1 year of PHD or 1/2 year of postdoc). My guess is that the thinking here is that these grants would not mostly be used for such things and instead just cover the basics of fieldwork, travel to conferences, publishing papers, etc. In short not so different from the Canadian NSERC Discovery grant. To me it is striking that across choices #1 and #3 they got a combined 47% (recall 33%=everybody voted for it if everybody voted all 3 times). – presumably a non-trivial number of people felt so strongly about this they used 2 of their 3 choices to vote for reducing grant size.
  2. Limit number of proposals by only allowing “productive researchers” to submit – this of course begs the question of how you define productive researcher. I threw out the example in the main text of 15 papers published in the last 5 years. Like #2 above this will require an arbitrary definition that hurts some deserving people, but that alone is not a reason to avoid it – especially once the rules are clear people can manage their lives around the rules (and one could imagine exemptions for early career researchers, special circumstances, etc). One reason to like this option is that studies have shown that past research success is one of the best predictors of future research success (better for example than panel evalutions of projects).
  3. Limit number of proposals by a lottery – Again many details on how this works. Is there a lottery to apply? or just a lottery for the awards among those who applied? or just a lottery among qualified scientists however that is defined? Although the lottery seems absurd on the face of it, two recent studies cited in salient fact #2 of my original post suggest that, at least among those proposals ranked moderately high (30% in the DEB case), panel scores were not that different than a lottery in predicting research outcomes. Presumably this is true for some of those that were just below the 30% cuttoff and not true for the bottom 10-15% with the line somewhere in between. Thus the lottery has the great virtue of calling a spade a spade and removing stigma from losers in what currently has a large component of lottery already but cloakings of assessment.

Then there were two “no-hopers” – essentially nobody favored these choices:

  1. Business as usual – live with the low accept rates – this got only about 2% (perhaps 5-6% of voters), meaning about 95% of voters oppose business as usual with ever declining accept rates. In the metaphor of the original post, researchers are not frogs!!  In the original post and comments a number of problems in very low accept rates (beyond the fact it makes life tough for researchers) were identified including how it distorts the selection process (more conservative, more clique-driven and of course more random), the waste of time writing 15 page proposals (at least 1 month of researcher time) for 5% success, etc.
  2. Limit proposals to certain career stages – this was the absolute least favorite choice. We academics are an egalitarian bunch. It also is not obvious that any one stage is inherently more productive.

I said in my original post I would wait to share my opinions until the poll results were in to avoid driving the results. I’m sure my biases bled through in last post and this anyway, but hopefully not terribly. But personally, I agree with everybody else – I would be in favor of some combination of #1-#5 and opposed to #6 and #7. On the cutting grant size, I of course presented arbitrary discrete options of $50K or $200K, but to me the optimum would probably be about $100K*. Over 3 years that gives $22K of direct per year. That’s enough for field work (or computers equipment or what not for field), travel to conferences, publishing fees and some consummables each year with enough left over to give a bridge year to a student, a year to a postdoc, a year of tech etc. To make this viable, I would not put all of the savings into more grants (my $100K size gives an accept rate of 36.8% – I would aim for 20-25% accept rate and put the rest into more fellowships given directly to PhD and postdocs). The sublinear response of productivity/research outcomes to dollars input strongly argues we need to move down that curve to fewer dollars per researcher where the slope of the curve and hence marginal value of research productivity bought per dollar spent increases. By the same token, I think many feel, including, me that research dollars have gotten too concentrated in a few researcher’s hands (but I know of no data on this). There are good arguments for concentrating (see my post on Shockley and lognormal productivity), but really is a superstar lab with 18 students going to get more marginal value out of one more student than a very good lab that currently has 2-3 students? I doubt it.

I personally think #4 (limit by researcher quality) and #5 (limit by lottery) have more merit than people gave them credit for too, but they are more radical changes to the system.

It is worth noting that there is enormous consensus (at least among poll respondents) to reduce grant size non-trivially and put caps on number of grants per researcher. And these are things that NSF could, if it wanted to, implement immediately. No congress, no lengthy reform processes, etc would be needed. A year or two of appropriate advance notice to researchers would be good. But beyond that these are already within the purvey of program officers to adjust budgets and recall as a commentor did that a cap of max 2 proposals per PI was placed when the pre-proposals were introduced. It would probably require consensus across a unit to make the cap global and across multiple years, but that should be achievable. Finally, note that a single unit (say DEB just for example…) could implement these as an experiment while the rest of NSF watched to see how it worked (this already happened/is happening with the pre-proposal process too). Presumably the main dynamic opposing these changes are just innate conservatism/keep-it-like-it-is and lobbying by the few but powerful that are getting large chunks of money under the current system (although I would be curious to know how many of them really think the current system is optimal).

I think more meta-research is needed too. Just what can panels successfully assess or not? Although Sam Scheiner disagreed with me in the comments on my last post, I know of very little evidence that panels can do much more than distinguish the very worst proposals from the rest (please give my citations if you think I’m wrong). If that is true we need to be scientists and deal with it, not avoid doing the research to find out because the current system is comfortable. Kudo’s to Sam and Lynnette for their paper. Similarly the question of exactly how sublinear research productivity vs grant dollars is vitally important but not yet very clear.

I have no idea what the next step is, but it seems to me that the long term trends and outlook are so extreme something has to be done (only 5% favor business as usual). And there is such a strong consensus (nearly 100%, certainly *way* over 50%) on several concrete changes which would have big impacts but would not require major restructuring such that I would be disappointed to see nothing change over the next 3 years.

Here’s hoping the community can work together to find a way to turn down the heat on the pot we’re all in!

* I am not unaware that different subdisciplines cost different amounts to do research ($100K goes less far in ecosystem science work in the tropics than it does in simple trapping or counting experiments at a site close to home). The implications of this is a whole other topic, which I am not touching here. For this post if current DEB across all subprograms has a median of $500K then it can change to $100K with differences in funding between fields untouched.


Are US researchers slowly boiled frogs? – or thinking out of the box about the future of NSF

There is a belief that dropping a frog into hot water will cause it to react and immediately jump out, while putting it in a pan of cool water and slowly warming will cause the frog to never notice until it is boiled. Here in Maine you hear the same debate about how to cook a lobster. Whether the frog myth is true or not is debatable (although it is clearly sadistic). But it has become a common metaphor for failing to notice or respond to small incremental changes which when taken in the aggregate are terrible (fatal in the case of the frog). We seem to have a bit of the same thing happening with the primary basic science funding agency in the US (the National Science Foundation or NSF). In this piece I want to a) argue that due to macro trends not the fault of NSF, the agency and their researchers are in a frog-boiling scenario, and b) attempt to kick-start an out-of-the-box big picture discussion about what should be done about it (akin to the frog realizing it needs to take bold action and jump out of the pot).

But first, I’ve already said it, but let me repeat it to be abundantly clear. This is NOT a criticism of NSF. Every single program officer I’ve ever dealt with has been a highly dedicated and helpful professional (not to mention they are also researchers and one of us), and NSF regularly gets rated by government auditors as one of the most efficient and well run branches of the government. Instead, these trends are being driven by macro trends beyond the control of NSF (or of us researchers). I’m sure NSF is just as aware of and unhappy about these trends as I am. I expect they also are having discussions about what to do about it. I have not been privy to those discussions and have no idea whether NSF would welcome the discussion I am promoting here or not, but I feel like this blog, with its tradition of civility and rational thinking might be a useful forum.

Why researchers at NSF are like frogs being slowly boiled – the macro trends

I am going to focus just on the environmental biology division (DEB), although I don’t think the story differs much anywhere else. I haven’t always been able to obtain the data I would like to have, but I’m pretty confident that the big picture trends I am about to present are quite accurate even if details are slightly off. The core, graph, which I’ve seen in various versions of NSF presentations for a while (including those to justify the switch to the preproposal process) is this:

Trends in # of proposals submitted (green), # of proposals funded (blue), and success rate (red). This data is approximate (eyeball scanned from http://nsfdeb.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/deb-numbers-revisiting-performance-of-pi-demographic-groups-part-1/ provided by NSF). Linear trend lines were then added.

Trends in # of proposals submitted (green), # of proposals funded (blue), and success rate (red). This data is approximate (eyeball scanned from http://nsfdeb.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/deb-numbers-revisiting-performance-of-pi-demographic-groups-part-1/ provided by NSF). Linear trend lines were then added.

This graph confirms what NSF has been saying – the number of proposals submitted keeps going up without any sign of stopping while the number of proposals actually funded is flat (a function of NSF funding being flat – see below). The result is that the success rate (% of proposals funded) is dropping. But adding trends lends and extending them to 2020 is my own contribution. The trend in success rate is here actually an overestimate due to the stimulus year in 2009 which was left in. According to a naive, straight line trend, success rate will reach 0% somewhere between 2019 and 2020! Of course nobody believes it will reach 0% And the alternative approach combining the other two trend lines gives roughly 200 proposals funded out of 2000 for 10% in 2010. But the trend line is not doing a terrible job; when I plug in the 2013 number from DEB of 7.3%* it is not that far from the tend line (and is already below the 10% number). Nobody knows what the exact number will be, but I think you can make a pretty good case that 7.3% last year was on trend and the trend is going to continue going down. A few percent (2%?) by 2020 seems realistic. All of this is the result of inexorable logic. The core formula here is: TotalBudget$=NumberProposals*Accept%*GrantSize$

NumberProposals is increasingly rapidly. Although harder to come by data on, my sense is that GrantSize$ is roughly constant (at least after adjusting for inflation) with good spread but a median and mode right around $500,000. Maybe there is a saving grace in TotalBudget$? Nope:


Trends in NSF funding in constant 2012 dollars (data from http://dellweb.bfa.nsf.gov/NSFHist_constant.htm). Also see NSF’s own plot of the data at http://dellweb.bfa.nsf.gov/nsffundhist_files/frame.htm.

NSF appears to have had four phases – exponential growth in the early days (1950-1963), flat from 1963-1980. Strong growth from 1980 to about 2003. And then close to flat (actually 1.7%/year over inflation) from 2003-2013 (again a stimulus peak in 2009). Note that the growth periods were both bipartisan (as was the flat period from 1963-1980). Positive growth rates aren’t terrible and congratulations to NSF for achieving this in the current political climate. But when pitted against the doubling in NumberProposals, it might as well be zero growth for our purposes. It is a mug’s game to try to guess what will happen next, but most close observers of US politics expect since the debate has shifted to a partisan divide about whether to spend money at all and a resignation that the sequester is here to stay are not looking for big changes in research funding to come out of Congress anytime soon (see this editorial in Nature). So I am going to treat TotalBudget$ as flat line and beyond the control of NSF and researchers.

The number that probably deserves the most attention is NumberProposals. Why is this going up so quickly? I don’t know of hard data on this. There is obviously a self-reinforcing trend – if reject rates are high, I will submit more grant applications to be sure of getting a grant. But this only explains why the slope accelerates – it is not an explanation for why the initial trend is up. And there is certainly a red-queen effect. But in the end I suspect this is some combination of two factors: 1) the ever tighter job market (see this for a frightening graph on the ever widening gap between academic jobs and PhDs) which has led to ever higher expectations for tenure. To put it bluntly, places that 20 years ago didn’t/couldn’t expect grants from junior faculty to get tenure now can place that expectation because of the competition. and 2) as states bow out of the funding of their universities (and as private universities are still recovering from the stock crash), indirect money looks increasingly like a path out of financial difficulties. Obviously #1 (supply) and #2 (demand) for grant writing faculty reinforce each other.

So to summarize: TotalBudget$=NumberProposals*Accept%*GrantSize$. TotalBudget$ is more or less flat for the last decade and foreseeable future. NumberProposals is trending up at a good clip due to exogenous forces for the foreseeable future (barring some limits placed by NSF on number or proposals). So far GrantSize$ has been constant. This has meant Accept% is the only variable to counterbalance increasing NumberProposals. But Accept% is going to get ridiculously low in the very near future (if we’re not there already!). Part of the point of this post is maybe we need to put GrantSize$ and NumberProposals on the table too.

Some salient facts for a discussion of what to do

In the next section I will list some possible solutions, and hopefully readers will contribute more, but first I want to highlight two very salient results of metaresearch (research about research).

  1. Review panels are not very good at predicting which proposals will lead to the most successful outcomes. Some claim that review panels are at least good at separating good from bad at a coarse grain, although I am not even convinced of that. But two recent studies showed that panel rankings effectively have no predictive power of variables like number of papers, number of citations, citations of best paper! One study was done in the NIH cardiovascular panel and the other was done in our very own DEB Population and Evolutionary Processes panel by NSF program officers Sam Scheiner and Lynnette Bouchie. They found that the r2 between panel rank and various outcomes was between 0.01 and 0.10 (1-10% of variance explained) and were not significantly different than zero (and got worse when budget size, which was an outcome of ranking, was controlled for). UPDATE: as noted by author Sam Scheiner below in the comments – this applies only to the 30% of projects that were funded. Now traditional bibliometrics are not perfect but given that they looked at 3 metrics and impact factor was not one of them, I think the results are pretty robust.
  2. Research outcomes are sublinear with award size. Production does increase with award size, but best available (but still not conclusive) evidence from Fortin and Currie 2013 suggests that there are decreasing returns (a plot of research production vs. award size is an increasing, decelerating curve (e.g. like a Type II functional response).This means giving an extra $100,000 to somebody with a $1,000,000 buys less productivity increase then giving an extra $100,000 to somebody with $200,000 (or obviously to somebody with $0).

Possible solutions

Just to repeat this is not a criticism of NSF. The exogenous drivers are beyond anybody’s control and simple budgetary math drives the rest. There is no simple or obvious answer. I certainly don’t have the answer. I just want to enumerate possibilities.

  1.  Do nothing – low Accept% is OK – This is the business as usual scenario. Don’t make any drastic changes and just let the acceptance rate continue to drop to very close to zero. I actually think this might be the worst choice. Very low acceptance rates greatly increase the amount of randomness involved. They also ironically bias the panels to be conservative and select safe research (maybe even mediocre research) that won’t waste one of the precious awards, which is not good for the future of science. I recall being part of a discussion for an editorial board for a major journal where we all agreed the optimal accept rate was around 25-30%. Anything higher and you’re not selective. Anything lower and you start falling into traps of randomness and excessive caution. I think this is probably about the right number for grants too. Note that we are at about 1/4 of this rate. I personally don’t even consider the current acceptance rate of 7% acceptable but I cannot imagine anybody considers the rates of 1-2% that we’re headed towards to be acceptable. The other approaches all have problems too, but most of them are not as big as this one in my opinion.
  2. Drive down NumberProposals via applicant restrictions on career stage – You could only allow associate and full professors to apply on the basis they have the experience to make best use of the money. Alternatively you could only allow assistant professors to apply on the argument they are most cutting edge and most in need of establishing research programs. Arguably there is already a bias towards more senior researchers (although DEB numbers suggest not). But I don’t think this is a viable choice. You cannot tell an entire career stage they cannot get grants.
  3. Drive down NumberProposals via applicant restrictions on prior results - A number of studies have shown that nations that award grants based on personal records of the researcher do better than nations that award grants based on projects. You could limit those allowed to apply to those who have been productive in the recent past (15 papers in the last 5 years?). This of course biases against junior scientists although it places them all on an equal footing and gives them the power to become grant eligible. It probably also lops off the pressure from administrators in less research-intensive schools to start dreaming of a slice of the NSF indirect pie (while still allowing individual research productive researchers at those institutions to apply)..
  4. Drive down NumberProposals via lottery – Why not let the outcome be driven by random chance. This has the virtue of honesty (see fact #1 above).It also has the virtue of removing the stigma from not having a grant if people can’t be blamed for it. This would especially apply to tenure committees evaluating faculty by whether they have won the current, less acknowledged, NSF lottery
  5. Drive down NumberProposals via limitations on number of awarded grants (“sharing principals”) - You could also say that if you’ve had a grant in the last 5 years, you cannot apply again. This would lead to a more even distribution of funding across researchers.
  6. Decrease GrantSize$  – The one nobody wants to touch is maybe its time to stop giving out average grants of $500,000. Fact #2 strongly argues for this approach. Giving $50,000 to 10 people is almost guaranteed to go further than $500,000 to one person. It gets over that basic hump of having enough money to get into the field. It doesn’t have much room for summer salaries (or postdocs – postdoc funding would have to be addressed in a differnet fashion), but it would rapidly pump up the accept rate into reasonable levels and almost certainly buy more total research (and get universities to break their addiction to indirects). Note that this probably wouldn’t work alone without some other restriction on the number of grants one person can apply for, or everybody will just apply for 10x as many grants which would waste everybody’s time.

What do you think NSF should do? Vote by choosing up to three choices of how you think NSF should deal with the declining acceptance rates (and feel free to add more ideas in the comments):

I am really curious to see which approach(es) people prefer. I will save my own opinions for a comment after most votes have come in. But I definitely think it is time for the frogs (us) to jump out of the pot and take a different direction!

* Note that 7.3% is across all proposals to DEB. The blog post implies that the rates are lower on the core grants and higher on the non-core grants like OPUS, RCN, etc. They don’t give enough data to figure this out, but if I had to guess the core grants are funded a bit below 5% and the non-core grants are closer to 10%.

Scientists have to present a united front, right?

So on Friday, a group I’ve been working with (Maria Dornelas, Anne Magurran, Nick Gotelli, Hideyasu Shimadzu and others) came out with a paper in Science. We took 100 long-term monitoring datasets across 6 continents and many taxa and looked to see if there was a consistent trend in local alpha diversity over time. To our surprise there wasn’t – on average across datasets the slope was zero and most datasets were close to zero (and the one’s that weren’t cancelled each other out). We also found that temporal beta diversity (turnover in species composition within one local community) changed much faster than any reasonable null model would predict.

From a “the earth is doomed” prophesy point of view this is mixed results. Local alpha diversity is not looking as bad as we expected (also see this recent paper by Vellend et al), but species composition is churning really fast (and although we didn’t measure this, there is a reasonably good chance that its already widespread species moving in to replace rarer species that is driving this). This is probably bad news for those that care about the state of the planet. And finding of no trend in alpha diversity does NOT contradict declining global diversity (scale matters!). But all of us authors can quickly imagine certain subsets of the public cherry picking results and trumpeting “scientist’s prove claimed modern mass extinction not occurring”.

So I want to expand beyond this specific finding to the more general question, when scientists are working in domains that have strong implications for broad policy debates, how should they handle and think about how their work will play in the policy context vs how they should do their science. This plays out in questions of extinction, invasion, climate change, etc. It was very vividly played out in “climategate” and before that, in creationism, where Stephen Jay Gould, testifying before state supreme courts about whether evolution was well understand and widely agreed about by scientists had to back off claims he had made in the academic world that his theories of punctuated equilibrium were revolutionizing and overturning traditional views of how evolution worked.

One view of the relationship of science to the general public is that the public cannot be trusted and so we scientists all have to band together and not show any internal disagreement in public. If we reveal even one crack in the edifice we are building towards the whole thing will be pried apart. They note that there are vested interests who don’t play fair and will take things out of context. They note that modern 30 second sound bites and 140 character tweets don’t leave room for communicating the complexity. This means dissent, nuance, exceptions to the rule, etc should not be published in a way the general public will notice (it’s OK to bury them in obtuse language in the middle of discussion sections). And indeed, I had been told by colleagues about the paper I described above that “you can’t publish something like that”. Lest you think I exaggerate, Mark Vellend shared with me a quote from a review of his aforementioned paper (published in PNAS but this quote is from a prior review at Nature) that I reproduce here with Mark’s permission:

I can appreciate counter-intuitive findings that are contrary to common assumptions. However, because of the large policy implications of this paper and its interpretation, I feel that this paper has to be held to a high standard of demonstrating results beyond a reasonable doubt … Unfortunately, while the authors are careful to state that they are discussing biodiversity changes at local scales, and to explain why this is relevant to the scientific community, clearly media reporting on these results are going to skim right over that and report that biological diversity is not declining if this paper were to be published in Nature. I do not think this conclusion would be justified, and I think it is important not to pave the way for that conclusion to be reached by the public.

This quote is actually a perfect example of the attitude I am trying to summarize playing a role right in the center of the peer review process.

This is definitely a common view, and reasonable people can disagree, but I just can’t get on board with this “united front” approach for a number of reasons:

  1. Ethically, a scientist is obligated to be honest. This inlcudes not just honesty by commission (the things we say are true) which 99% of us do. It also includes honesty by not ommitting (not saying things we know to be true but inconvenient). Indeed this might be central to the definition of what it means to be a scientist, instead of say a lobbyist or maybe even a philosopher.
  2. Practically, a scientist is most likely to be seen as an honest broker by the public when at least some of the time things contrary to the main thinking get published. Or if not contrary at least nuancing (the general belief isn’t true in these particular conditions). Nobody believes somebody is objective when they can’t see and deal with evidence contrary to one’s beliefs. If we sound like a PR machine staying on message we won’t be trusted.
  3. Psychologically, an ecologist is most likely to be heard and paid attention to when they talk about good news related to the environment as well as all the bad news. Nobody can/wants to pay attention to a doomsayer.

For all of these reasons, I think it is a mistake to bury evidence that is contrary the general program that biodiversity is headed towards imminent destruction in every possible way in every corner of the earth. It’s actually a good thing, for all of the ethical, practical and psychological reasons given above to have scientists themselves putting out a more complex, nuanced view.

I can already hear the skeptics saying the public cannot handle complex and nuanced. But I think looking at climate change is informative. Take the the original IPCC reports and how careful they were to break out all the different aspects of climate change and the different levels of uncertainty around it. And then look at what got perceived as a “united front” and “win” attitude that came out in climatgate and how strongly the public reacted (NB: climategate was an overblown tempest in a teapot, but it speaks exactly to my point about how the public perceives scientists – or more to the point how the public wants to perceive scientists and how upset they get when the honest broker role appears inaccurate). The public CAN hear and accept complexity, uncertainty etc (barring an extreme fringe that will always exist). It just takes a LOT of work to communicate it. But I don’t think we as scientists have any other choice.


Is requiring replication statistical machismo?

A recent post of mine about why Biosphere 2 was a success stirred mixed reactions. But one of the most common negative reactions was that there was no replication in Biosphere 2, which of course EVERYBODY knows is a hallmark of good science. This actually spilled into a spirited discussion in the comments. So, do we need replication to do good science?

Anybody who has read some of my older posts (e.g. one true route poststatistical machismo post) will know that my answer is going to be no. I’m not going to tell a heliologist that they are doing bad science because they only have one sun (they do have the stars, but most of the phenomena they study like sun spots are not yet studyable on other stars). Nor am I going to say that to people who have developed theories about why our inner solar system contains rock planets and the outer solar system contains giant gaseous planets (although in the last 2-3 years we are actually getting to the point where we have data on other solar systems, these theories were all developed and accepted well before then). And Feynman’s televised proof that a bad interaction between cold weather and a rubber O-ring led to the demise of the Space Shuttle Challenger definitely did not need and would not tolerate replication. Closer to home, I am not going to tell people who have been measuring CO2 on top of Mauna Kea  (aka the Keeling Curve one of the most well known graphs in popular science today) that their science is bad because they only have one replicate. Nor am I going to tell people who study global carbon cycling to give up and go home because it is a well mixed gas on only one planet (I mean come on  N=1, why waste our time!?). In short , no, good science does not REQUIRE replication.

Let me just state up front that replication IS good. The more replication the better. It always makes our inferences stronger. We DO need replication when it is feasible. The only problem is that replication is not always possible (sometimes even with infinite amounts of money and sometimes only due to real world time and money constraints). So the question of this post is NOT “do we need replication?” It IS”do we HAVE to have replication” and “what do you do in these trade-off or limitation situations?” Give up and go home – don’t study those questions – seems to be some people’s answers. Its not mine. Indeed any philosophy of science position which leads to the idea that we should stop studying questions that inconveniently fail to fit a one-stop-shopping approach to science is not something I will endorse. This is the statistical machismo I have talked about before – when one has to make the statistics so beautiful AND difficult that few can achieve the standard you have set and you can then reject others work as WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Careful thinking (and perusing the examples in the last paragraph) lead to a number of ways to do good, rigorous science without replication.

First let’s step back and define what replication is and why it is important. Wikipedia has several entries on replication, which in itself is probably informative about the source of some of the confusion. When ecologists think about replication they are usually thinking about it in the context of statistics (wikipedia entry on statistical replication) and pretty quickly think of Hurlbert’s pseudoreplication (also see Meg’s post on the paper) . This is an important context, and it is pretty much the one that is being violated in the examples above. But this definition is only saying you need replication to have good statistics (which is not the same as good science). But Wikipedia has an alternative entry on “replication – scientific method” which redirects to “reproduceability”. This definition is the sine qua non of good science, the difference between science and pseudoscience. Reproduceability means if you report a result, somebody else can replicate your work and get the same thing. If somebody is doing science without reproduceability, call them out for bad science. But don’t confuse it with replication for statistics. Ecologists do confuse these two all the time. Thus to an ecologist replication means multiple experimental units well separated in space (not well separated=pseudoreplication, not multiple=no replication=degrees of freedom too small). As I said, those are both good goals (which I teach in my stats class and push students to achieve). But they are not the sine qua non of good science.

It is instructive to think about an example that came up in the comments on the Biosphere 2 post: the LHC (large hadron collider) and the hunt for the Higg’s Boson. Pretty blatantly they did not have ecological replication. Each LHC facility costs billions of dollars and they only had one (ditto for Biosphere 2). But the physicists actually had an extremely well worked out notion of rigorous reproduceability. Despite only having one experimental unit, they did have multiple measurements (observed particle collisions). Thus this is a repeated measures scenario, but notice that since there was only one “subject” there was no way to correct for the repeated measure. The physicists made the assumption that despite being done on one experimental unit, the measures were independent. But what I find fascinating is that the physicists had two teams working on the project that were “blnded” to each others work (even forbidden to talk about work with each other) to tackle the “researcher degrees of freedom” problem that Jeremy has talked about. They also had very rigorous a priori standards of 5σ (p<0.0000003) to announce a new particle (I seem to recall that at 3σ they could talk about results being “consistent with” but not “proof of” but I haven’t found a good reference to this). So, in summary, the Higg’s test had an interesting mix of statistical replication (5σ), reproduceability (two separate teams) and pseudoreplication (uncorrected repeated measures) from an ecologist’s perspective.

So what do we get out of statistical replication? The biggest thing is it allows us to estimate σ2 (the amount of variance). We might want to do this because variance is innately interesting. For instance, rather than ask does density dependence exist, I would rather ask what percent of the year-to-year variance is explained by density dependence (as I did in chapter 8 of this book and as I argued one should do in this post on measures of prediction). Or we might want to quantify σ2 because it lets us calculate a p-value, but this is pretty slippery and even circular – our p-value gets better and better as we have more replication (even though our effect size and variance explained don’t change at all). This higher p-value due to more replication is often treated as equal good science, but that is poppycock. Although there are valid reasons to want a p-value (see Higg’s Boson), pursuit of p-value quickly becomes a bad reason for replication. Thus for me, arguing to have replication to estimate σ2 is a decidedly mixed bag – sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing depending on the goal.

However, and to me this is the biggest message in Hurlbert’s paper but often forgotten against the power of the word “pseudoreplicationn”, is the #1 problem driving everything else in the paper is the issue of confoundment. If you only have one site (or two or three), you really have to worry about whether you get the effect you observed because of peculiarities of that that site and any weird covariances between your variable of interest and hidden variables (Hurlbert’s demonic intrusions). Did you get more yield because of pest removal as you think or because its downhill and the soil is wetter? One way to kill the demon of confoundment is to have 100 totally independent, randomly chosen sites. But this is expensive. And its just not true that it is the ONLY way to kill the demon. I don’t think anybody would accuse the LHC of confoundment despite only having one site. You could spin a story about how the 23rd magnet is wonky and that imparts a mild side velocity (or spin or I don’t know my particle physics well enough to be credible here …) that fools everybody into thinking they saw a Higg’s boson. But I don’t hear anybody making that argument. The collisions are treated as independent and unconfounded. The key here is there is no way to measure that or statistically prove that. It is just an argument made between scientists that depends on good judgement, and so far the whole world seems to have accepted the argument. It turns out that is a perfectly good alternative to 100’s of spatial replicates.

Let me unpack all of these examples and be more explicit about alternatives to replication as ecologists think about it – far separated experimental units (again these alternatives are only to be used when necessary because replication is too expensive or impossible but that occurs more often in ecology than we admit):

  1. Replication in time – repeated measures on one or a few subjects do give lots of measures and estimates of σ2 – its just that the estimate can be erroneously low (dividing by too many degrees of freedom) if the repeated measures are not independent. But what if they are independent? Then its a perfectly valid estimate. And there is no way to prove independence (when you have only one experimental unit to begin with). This is a matter for mature scientists to discuss and use judgement on as with the LHC – not a domain for unthinking slogans about “its pseudoreplicated”. Additionally there are well-known experimental designs designs that deal with this, specifically the BACI or before/after/compare (just Google BACI experimental design). Basically one makes repeated measures before a treatment to quantify innate variability, then repeated measures after the treatment to further quantify innate variability and then compares the before and after difference in means vs. the innate variability. The Experimental Lakes Area eutrophication experiments are great examples of important BACI designs in ecology and nobody has ever argued those were inconclusive.
  2. Attention to covariates – if you can only work at two sites (one treatment and one control) you can still do a lot of work to rule out confoundment. Specifically you can measure the covariates that you think could be confounding. Moisture, temperature, soils, etc and show that they’re the same or go in the opposite direction of the effect observed (and before that you can pick two sites that are as identical as possible on these axes).
  3. Precise measurements of the dependent variable – what if σ2=0? Then you don’t really need a bunch of measurements. This is far from most ecology, but it comes up sometimes in ecophysiology. For a specific individual animal under very specific conditions (resting, postprandial), metabolic rate can be measured fairly precisely and repeatably. And we know this already from dozens of replicated trials on other species. So do we need a lot of measurements the next time? A closely related one is when σ2>0, but the amount of error are very well measured and we can do error analysis that ripples all the error bars through the calculations. Engineers use this approach a lot.
  4. We don’t care about σ2 – what if we’re trying to estimating the global NPP. We may have grossly inaccurate measurement methods and our error bars are huge. But since we have only one planet, we can’t do replication and estimate σ2, but does that mean we should not try and estimate the mean? This is a really important number, should we give up? (note – sometimes the error analyses mentioned in #3 can be used to put confidence intervals on, but they have a lot of limitations in ecology). And note I’m not saying having no confidence intervals is good, I’m saying dropping entire important questions because we can’t easily get confidence intervals is bad.
  5. Replication on a critical component – The space shuttle example is a good example of this. One would not want to replicate on space shuttle’s (even if human lives were taken out of the equation cost alone is prohibitive). But individual components could be studied through some combination of replication and precise measurement (#3 above). The temperature properties of the O-ring were well known and engineers tried desperately to cancel the trip. They didn’t need replicate measures at low temperatures on the whole shuttle. Sometimes components of a system can be worked on in isolation with replication but still generalize to the whole system where replication is not possible.
  6. Replication over the community of scientists – what if you have a really important question that is at really big scales so that you can only afford one control and one experimental unit, but if it pans out you think it could launch a whole line of research leading to confirmation by others in the future? Should you just skip it until you convince a granting agency to cough up 10x as much money with no pilot data? We all know that is not how the world works. This is essentially the question Jeff Ollerton asked in the comments section of the Biosphere 2 post.

So, in conclusion: Ecologists have an overly narrow definition of what replication is and what its role in good science is. High numbers of experimental units spatially separated is great when you can do it. But when you can’t, there are lots of other things you can do to deal with the underlying reasons for replication (estimating σ2 and confoundment). And they are not places for glib one-word (“pseudoreplication” sneeringly said) dismissals. They are places for complex, nuanced discussions about the costs of replication and how convincingly the package of alternatives (#1-#6) are deployed, and sometimes even how important the question is.

What do you think? Have you done work that you were told is unreplicated? How did you respond? Where do you think theory fits into the need for replication – do we need less replication when you have better theory? Just don’t tell me you have to have replication because its the only way to do science!


Policy relevant science: the unreasonable effectiveness of boundary objects

In a recent post on policy-relevant science I talked about boundary workers and boundary organizations. The boundary I am talking about is between science and policy and the notion of the boundary between scientists and policy-makers is something receiving increasing attention by social scientists. Briefly (read the last post if you want more), the idea originated with people who span between inside and outside of a company, mutated to be the boundary between scientists and others, and led to adding a new concept – boundary organizations (e.g. conservation NGOs, land trusts, etc).

But today, I want to talk about another idea that emerges from thinking about the boundary: the boundary object. As the name implies a boundary object is a thing, not a person or group of people, that helps to span the boundary. In the original corporate model, things like price lists and user licenses were boundary objects. In the science policy boundary, there are many possibilities – maps and models being two of the most commonly cited, but many many other objects can (should?) be thought of as boundary objects as well.

To be a good boundary object, an object needs several properties:

  1. Spans/lives in two worlds/translates – this is the most obvious point. It needs to have genuine uptake of the language and concepts of the scientists but also genuine uptake of the language and concepts of the policy makers. It probably needs to be enough of a compromise to maks both sides a bit uncomfortable. A bit too certain for scientists. A bit too quantitative for policy makers. An ANOVA table or regression table does not span (full comfort for scientists, all the discomfort for the policy makers). A bar graph of standardized coefficients is a bit better. A decision (regression) tree is a lot better (and it makes both groups stretch their comfort zones)..
  2. Central – a good boundary object needs to get to the heart of the matter and show the key variables enough to stimulate discussion and yes, provoke disagreement, or it is not doing its job. Just a map of the area without any layers is not a boundary object. A map that identifies existing resources, existing practices, proposed regulatory zones is a good boundary object.
  3.  Highly public – a boundary object needs to be easily available to everybody on both sides of the boundary – probably on the internet in this day and age. A drawing on a cocktail napkin from a discussion between two people is not a boundary object. But if it is scanned and put on the internet (or emailed to a group) it could be.
  4. Credible – a boundary object needs to be reasonably credible as objective and neutral. If it is seen as a tool for one side to win, it won’t be used. Indeed, even if it is unintentional (e.g. bad initial parameters in a model), just being perceived as biased can be the kiss of death to the life of a boundary object.
  5. Changeable/editable – boundary objects need to be changeable. As the discussion across the boundary changes and moves, the boundary object needs to capture and reflect. In some cases, a boundary object can become the centerpoint of negotiation.

I stated earlier that both maps and what-if (scenario-driven) models are great boundary objects.  Assuming they map or model the right variables it is pretty clear how they meet the five criteria. Especially maps. The ideal model to serve as a boundary object has a number of clear input parameters that can be changed to see how the outcomes change. This is especially powerful when the model is fronted on the web where anybody can tweak the parameters and play with the model. A model is also powerful when the assumptions can be written down clearly (although just making clear the what the inputs and outputs are is useful).

As the title of this post suggests, boundary objects can be extraordinarily, surprisingly successful in invoking boundary spanning. I’m sure almost any ecologist who has put themselves in a policy context (hearing, forum, etc) has seen the power of a map. I saw it a couple of weeks ago in my town – there was a public hearing on building a giant student apartment complex in close proximity to some wetlands. The whole conversation centered on the architectural drawings (which were mounted on a 3×5 poster board). And when a scientist got up and started talking about why he thought the soil survey was wrong, he didn’t just say it, he took the time to hook up to a projector and show soil maps. Maps just change the whole conversation. They don’t make people magically agree (of course!). But they make the conversation much more concrete, much less talking past people and not being heard, and ultimately much more productive.

Models are used much less often in environmental policy in my experience (but still frequently). They can also be game changers. It doesn’t mean people agree with the model. But they do mean people can start to understand what the most important variables are. And they can start to have concrete dialogues about what the right assumptions are. A great example where maps and models interesect is the diagrams being produced of sea level rise in response to climate change. To a large degree the map aspect dominates. But in more nuanced conversations outside of the press, they start to lead to error bars (whats that map look like if the seas only go up 20 cm or up 1m), they start discussions about what we do and don’t know about ice melt, etc. My whole job before I returned to academia was building models to be used as boundary objects in the business world. I spent 5 years of my life modelling the changes to mail sorting that would happen with automation (optical character readers and bar code sorters).  These models served as a focal point for launching 100s of discussions from the impacts for unions, to change in the number of facilities needed to what types of machines to buy and what types of mail to incentive in the future.

Maps and what-if models aren’t the only useful boundary objects. I already mentioned decision trees (output from a regression tree). While a single regression tree might be less trendy and statistically proper than a random forest, it is a WAY better boundary object. Managers intuitively get regression trees and can immediately start discussing limitations of the statistical model, matching the model vs their mental model of reality, and see policy implications. Another boundary object is forcing a quantitative weighting of priorities. This can be done with techniques as simple as voting for rank order. Or as complex as using analytical hierarchical process. Having a discussion to conclude that genetic diversity deserves 27.2% of our attention, taxonomic diversity 37.8%, and functional diversity 35% is totally arbitrary and inherently wrong by being so one dimensional – but it is a fantastic way to have a constructive conversation! (again that theme of a good boundary object takes everybody out of their comfort zones). Similarly a “health of nature in Maine” index combining different factors with arbitrary weights would be stupidly oversimplified from the reality ecologists know, but a great boundary object. Even reports serve as boundary objects – think of the just released IPCC report (of course the many maps, charts and models are each boundary objects) but the wording of the report itself stirred great debate and discussion on what we know, how certain we are, etc. Scenario generation (sensu this paper) is another less-quantitative boundary object.

As a slightly more detailed case study … even just simple access to data can serve as a boundary object so long as the effort is made to genuinely put the data in the middle of the boundary, not just in the scientist’s world.  I’m working on a project for the Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative to take a mix of freely available, but technically complex data (e.g. shapefiles) and new data (e.g. model projections) produced by our researchers and just put it in a simple, map and trend chart interface in a web-browser. I keep getting told – well those GIS layers are already available or you’re missing the complexity behind the forecasts, but they’re kind of missing the point of a boundary object. Its about putting conversation starting information out in a genuine spanning (lives in two worlds) context. The average state legislator or town councilor is not going to pull out a GIS layer. But they will spend 5 minutes on the web. And if they do they will be able to get a trend chart of climate change in their town or a map of land cover change over the last 20 years in their town or the changing economy of their town (part of the appeal of maps and part of the spanning is people always want to look at where they live) . And they will start putting patterns together. Start comparing past to projected future. Start looking for more information on assumptions behind the models. And have a lot of conversations they wouldn’t have had. Time will tell if this specific project serves its purpose, but if past experiences with boundary objects are any guide, my money is that it will. This ties into the theme of how to make sure research gets across the boundary and doesn’t just mold away in journals – which will be the topic of my next post on boundaries.

But my bottom line experience is that getting a bunch of people in a room with different opinions and “just talking about it” or “letting everybody be heard” is vastly less effective than getting a bunch of people in a room with different opinions with a boundary object at the center of the discussion. It focuses things in very concrete ways and towards negotiation and compromise and increases the level of understanding and minimizes the amount of talking past each other between the sides.

One could speculate for a long time about the psychology of why boundary objects work (an irrational belief that anything coming out of a computer is correct, the ability to find “my house” on the map, focusing people in a constructive direction, genuine success at translation and spanning, and etc). These are interesting topics of study in their own right (and are being studied), but not my own field of research. I just notice how well they DO work. Its almost like its magic (except of course the reality is its a lot of hard work behind the scenes). Hence the title of “unreasonable effectiveness”

What boundary objects have you used in your work? Were they effective? What made them effective? Any experiences with what made them more effective?



Scientific ethics discussions in labs

Meg recently wrote a nice post on what various people do in lab meetings. The small number of you who regularly read my posts will know I don’t often like bald prescriptions in statistics or about how to do science. I tend to think nuanced, context-dependent answers are better. And on the whole I think this applies to lab meetings too.

But I am going to stick my neck out and make a flat out “you should” statement. You should set aside time in lab meetings to discuss scientific ethics (and I mean discuss – students should be talking most of the time – and I mean set aside – not just mixed in among the science conversation). Inspired in no small part by Meg’s post I recently devoted a full lab meeting to such a discussion in my own lab (I hold lab meetings jointly with another professor), which I had never done before. Its not that I am uncomfortable with the topic, its just that with so many papers to read and presentations to rehearse I had never prioritized it. But Meg’s post inspired me to be creative and a little more proactive about what I thought was important. I want to say up front that I don’t believe there has ever been a major ethics lapse in either of our labs, so that is not why I did it. But in the past year I have been involved peripherally in multiple instances where various parties thought major ethical lapses were happening. And even in our own lab meeting where both advisers are very open and approachable (or so I like think at least), there was such a palpable hunger for talking about the subject that it made me very happy we had taken the time and I plan to repeat this every year or two.

Here’s how we ran the meeting. First I gave a brief verbal overview of what I perceive to be the core ethical issues (I list these below). Then I passed around index cards and made everybody write down something on the card (they could write down “I don’t have a question” if they wanted). Then I had a student trusted by the other students gather these cards. Then we opened up the floor to questions. For most questions myself and the other adviser gave our answers briefly (and we mostly agreed but differences also existed and were informative to students) and especially we let students share their opinions. And sprinkled through the conversation, the student holding the cards made sure all of the anonymous questions got posed. This obviously only works with more than 1-2 students; so if your lab is small, think about other forums like a one-time joint lab meeting, a departmental brown-bag lunch, etc. Also of note, I don’t think we walked away with definitive answers to many of the questions, but at least they were in the open and students knew what various people considered within the bounds of acceptable or out of bounds.

For what its worth, here was my brief spiel on what scientific ethics in ecology covers. I first pulled up on the screen the ESA ethical code (nobody knew it existed). Then I said there are four issues (intentionally paralleled to crimes as a mnemonic device):

  • Assault and trespassing – these are ways of doing harm in the real world and relate to permits and reviews: IACUC (animal care), IRB (human subjects), environmental impact, and research permits (or private land access)
  • Theft – claiming someone else’s intellectual property (ideas, data, verbage) as your own. We talked about how ideas are floating in the air and how I am much less quick to assume somebody stole my idea when I see it in a paper than I used to be. But we also talked about how there are people I trust and don’t trust with new ideas. We talked about how data ownership relates to long-term (read multiple years, multiple students) data collection efforts. I talked about how as an editor I had seen multiple cases of outright plagiarism. We talked about what earns authorship.
  • Fraud - presenting as true something that is not true (specifically misleading data or methods descriptions). We talked about some sensational cases, and some less well known cases within our own field. We talked about the ethics of removing outlier data points (great if you report, fireable offense if you don’t). We talked about how you would report fraud that you suspected. We talked about how honest to be in describing methods. We talked about what to do when you are a graduate student who thinks you’ve done the analyses correctly but you’re not sure and everybody else trusts you.
  • Nepotism – we talked about how conflict of interest occurs in peer review of articles and grants and we talked about what our own personal guidelines were (and how choices range from refusing to review to disclosing but reviewing to not mentioning it). Not surprisingly this was of less concern to graduate students who have not been placed in this role too often but they were certainly interested to hear how it worked.

Again the key here is this was mostly student generated. Myself and the other adviser talked less than 30% of the time. My introduction was merely a 5 minute recap of the topics above – the details I gave above of what we talked about were things that came up naturally in conversation after I stopped my monologue. And the adviser’s roles were mostly to give examples of how this was a real-world issue from personal experience and to give our own opinions. But this was primarily a graduate student driven discussion.

So even if you think your lab has no problems – no especially if you think your lab has no problems – just do it. Go ahead and schedule a discussion of scientific ethics in your lab. You’ll be glad you did. I certainly was!

What do you think? Am I over emphasizing this? Am I just slow and you already have ethics discussions in your lab? How do you do it? As a student do you feel like you get enough training in this? As a student are you aware of where else besides your adviser you go to get guidance on this topic?

Policy relevant science – life on the boundary

I have had a couple of posts so far on what I perceive as a how-to-guide on doing policy relevant science (an overview and a piece emphasizing why contrary to popular opinion universities are actually a good base for doing policy-relevant science).

One root of my interest in policy relevant science comes from the fact that I spent 10 years as an IT/management consultant before going back to school in ecology. During this time I learned a lot about organizational dynamics and how decisions in large institutions (our customers were all Fortune 100 companies) get made. Although having no academic experience in this topic I have a fair amount of real-world experience and I enjoy intellectually but also practically see this as an area where I can add value in the push to sustainability science.

So here I want to talk about a concept that originated in the business world (indeed numerous articles were published all the way back to the 1970s by professors at business schools) but now is increasingly growing in importance in ecology, sustainability, environmental sciences and related fields. This is the notion of boundary workers.

In the corporate context, the boundary was what separated the company from the rest of the world. For both legal and management reasons there was a  lot of concern about how a company maintains its identity, focus and function as a unit and thus ultimately how one defines what is in and out of the company. And this naturally leads to the idea of a boundary. Boundaries imply demarcation of in and out, but they pretty quickly also imply ideas of flows across boundaries. Accordingly, in management theory, a boundary worker is somebody who works within a company but focuses on flows across the corporate boundary. This would include sales people, people doing marketing research, people doing the logistics of delivering goods, etc. Boundary workers are the eyes and ears of the company that help to integrate the changing nature of the real world with the focused internal workers of a company.

As mentioned there is a lot of literature on boundary workers in corporations (one operational measure is % of day spent talking to people outside the company). Contrary to many expectations, boundary workers do not suffer career-wise in many cases – they are well paid and well promoted. They have high job satisfaction. They are also not typical – they have an unusual set of skills (communication skills obviously but also tolerance for ambiguity and some other less obvious traits) and are unusually well networked. And there is a lot of theory about how groups in fast-moving industries (computers, fashion) need a higher proportion of boundary workers in comparison to slow moving fields (construction, manufacturing of durable goods like refrigerators).

How does this relate to policy relevant science? Well it seems pretty obvious there is a boundary (at least one!) between basic research and policy makers. I’m not going to get too specific here about exactly where that boundary lies, because I have a whole future post on the topic. A growing number of researchers in the field of science policy (the social science of how science informs policy) talk about this boundary and the importance of understanding it. Good examples include: Cash et al. 2004, Guston 2001, Clarke et al. 2011. One can think not only of individual boundary workers but boundary organizations (many NGOs government agencies, cooperative extension, etc).

So all of this is rewarding (and provides a platform for publishing in high profile journals!) for social scientists. Should biosphysical scientists, specifically ecologists (and here I am mostly talking about the subset that care whether their science is policy-relevant or not) care about this literature and concept? Well, I will candidly say I don’t think biophysical scientists should care about all of the literature. Some of it is very caught up in things purely of interest to social scientists and not of much practical use to scientists looking to work on the boundary (I’m not going to name names) But some of the literature is eminently useful.

For example, Cash talks about the three things science needs to have to translate well across the boundary: credibility (good science done by demonstrably competent scientists), saliency (relevance to the policy makers) and legitimacy (not done in an obviously biased fashion or more strongly done in an inclusive transparent fashion). Clark talks about how boundary work changes depending on how many players there are on the science side of the boundary and on the policy side. In a later paper Guston talks about the role of “boundary objects” – something I am planning a whole post on. Are these things that policy-relevant science workers already intuitively know? Yes, definitely. But do we benefit from having a shared language and conceptualization? Yes, definitely. As scientists, it should come as no shock that having a conceptual framework, a model if you will, and jargon is useful to those wishing to work in the area!

My last point comes out in spades when the conversation turns to the idea of training future boundary workers. I increasingly think science departments are asleep at the wheel and failing in our training if we don’t have options that enable students to get training in being boundary workers. Some students, will have no need for this as they are planning to work entirely within the “company”/boundary (i.e. basic science). But many students are increasingly planning from the beginning to work on the science-policy boundary. And we are short-shrifting these students if we don’t train them how to work on the boundary (just as we are short-shrifting students targeting academia if we don’t train them in the skills for academia like presentations, science ethics, etc). And I don’t think there are too many departments left that are so basic science oriented that they don’t have a significant fraction of their students who need boundary training.

What does boundary training for students look like? Well its not like a standard graduate lecture course. There are no equations. It is probably a bit like a seminar/discussion course but with a very different set of literature. And with leaders and/or members who have real-world experience as a science-policy boundary worker.

Here at the University of Maine, as part of the Sustainability Solutions Initiative, I co-taught a course on boundary spanning with colleagues David Hart, Kathleen Bell and Laura Lindenfeld. I learned a lot from teaching this course – from my co-teachers, from the students and from our speakers – I would even say it was a formative experience for me. The course had four components:

  1. Paper reading/lecture/discussion (with papers on boundary spanning).
  2. Speaker panels of people outside academia working on the boundary (one panel had state legislators and executive branch employees, one had NGOs, one had community organizers, etc). Students had to prepare questions in advance and write-up what they heard
  3. An internship component – students had to identify a boundary worker in their field, shadow them for a day, and write a 10 page paper reflecting on what they learned.
  4. A brief training session on science communication (with each student working through an example in their own research) largely inspired by the NSF “Becoming the Messenger” workshops.

This mix worked extremely well for us, and I will probably use the same mix whenever we next repeat the course. The exact mix, length, and details of the assignment could obviously vary from case to case. But the idea of bringing in diverse outside experts is I think essential.

So, my bottom line is this. For science to expand out and reach policy, we need to have good conceptual models of this process to make us skilled practitioners and to help train students. The model that resonates the best for me centers on boundary spanning and boundary workers. I like this model in part because I think it makes clear that not everybody in science is or needs to be a boundary worker, that we can have boundary spanning and non-boundary spanning roles, and that the act of boundary spanning is indeed much more than “just doing science but communicating it better”. I think scientists need to: a) not just leave this topic as a research topic solely to social scientists, and b) start getting serious about this as a formal skill that we need to train our students in.

What do you think? Are you a boundary worker? Do you want to be? Do you work at a boundary organization or want to? Does the notion of being at or spanning the boundary resonate? What do you think universities need to change with respect to boundary spanning?


In praise of a novel risky prediction – Biosphere 2

You have probably heard of Biosphere 2  (so named because you are living and breathing in Biosphere 1). It is based north of Tucson, Arizona. It is an entirely gas-impermeable living environment covering 1.27 hectares with rain forest, coral reef, desert, savannah and farm ecosystems designed to support 7 or so humans in perpetuity with no external inputs except energy. The facility is a marvel of engineering (as it probably should be for its $200 million price tag).

A picture of part of Biosphere 2

A picture of part of Biosphere 2. The dome on the left is one of the two “lungs” (a giant air bubble under a 20-ton rubber membrane to allow the air to expand and contract without blowing out the glass).  The desert biome is under the glass on the left (set back), the marsh and ocean biomes are under the longer glass section to the fore and right in this image (with the savannah running across the backside). The rain forest is off the image to the right and the farming biome (now the LEO experiment) and living quarters are out of view behind. (image by user Gleam on Wikimedia under CC3 license)

What most people know about Biosphere 2 is how it was covered in the news when the first crew of 8 people were sealed in for two years from 1991-1993. (there was a follow-on mission for 6 months that received much less attention). Press coverage was initially favorable. But over time, squabbles within management and within the crew, two injections of oxygen that were not revealed in a transparent way and even rumors of the crew ordering pizza and opening the door to receive it during their mission took their toll, and the project was mostly treated as a joke in the press. This decaying reputation led to the need to hand the facility over to Columbia University who invested but then left (which didn’t help the reputation).

Currently, Biosphere 2 is owned and operated by the University of Arizona. Full disclosure: as somebody who was on the faculty at UA I have colleagues who include a former director and one of the current faculty at Biosphere 2 and several other faculty running experiments there now, but these ties are all related to the very recent UA management of B2 and have nothing to do with the period I am writing about (except for the paragraph on LEO below). I have visited it twice as  “tourist” but also several times on scientific tours. I last visited it as a tourist during my vacation a couple of weeks ago which got me thinking about what a great contribution to ecology Biosphere 2 has made (in contradiction to its reputation).

I have argued in the past for the need for prediction in ecology (see these posts: IIIIIIIV). I have also made no secret that philosophically, I am a fan of Lakatos. Lakatos was a student of Karl Popper who rejected Popper’s notion that the main goal of science was to falsify theories. Lakatos argued that science progress when theories make predictions and these predictions are tested and confirmed. And Lakatos was quite clear that there was a spectrum from weak, boring predictions that wouldn’t sway anybody (fertilizer will increase yield) to “stunning” predictions (Newton’s predictions that Halley’s comet will return in 76 years or there will be a planet located near where Neptune was found).

In this framework, I think Biosphere 2 has to be labelled a resounding success in sticking out its collective neck and making truly “stunning” predictions*. Although these predictions in many ways did not prove true, we have (and this is the point – see especially this post of mine on prediction) learned an enormous amount from the failed predictions.

On the applied question of can we build a human-supporting self-sustained ecosystem, the answer is no, not yet. But we learned a lot. Biosphere 2 taught us that concrete takes years to fully cure (which is what was pulling the oxygen out  – but something engineers did not really understand since they hadn’t built concrete in enclosed environments at any large scale before). Organic farming knowledge is essential (the first mission had nobody trained in organic farming and had many crop failures and resulting hunger – something corrected on the second mission). Attention needs to be paid to the social dynamics of small, enclosed crews.

But it is mostly the ecological failures=learnings that fascinate me.The glass blocked ultra-violet light which led to most of the pollinators congregating near the glass boundaries and dying (and the humans having to do a lot of hand pollination). The rain forest, unlike real rain forests, accumulated enormous amounts of leaf litter due to missing microbes (and then things jump started and normal high levels of litter decay are now occuring (we still haven’t figured out exactly why). The coral reef crashed and burned for reasons that are still being worked out. The trees were not exposed to wind with interesting implications for growth forms and wood density. An invasive species of ant that snuck in through the soil obliterated much of the intended insect community. And etc. An entire special volume of new research was produced in the early days, and research is ongoing. The number of questions one could and should address is limited only by funding.

One cool success where the applied and basic intersected was addressing the oxygen deficit. The oxygen deficit was seasonal and worst when the biomes were shut down for winter. The crew was able to manipulate the arid (desert and savannah biomes) by adding water at the right time to green up out of season with the rainforest (thereby releasing some oxygen) to help ameliorate the oxygen problems.

And to the University of Arizona’s credit, they are continuing in the tradition of bold, risky predictions. In the former farm biome they have built LEO (Landscape Evolution Observatory). They are building three hillslopes (each with 333 m2 of surface area and about 1,000 metric tons of soil that are massively instrumented). They are starting with virgin soil and gradually introducing biotic factors to test theories of water flow, erosion and etc. Traditionally hydrologists have had to deal either with very small trays or the real world which is not fully controlled and instrumented. This meso-scale, controlled-environment experiment has already blown holes in current models and understanding of erosion and underground water flow and they’ve only simulated one rain event!

So far, I have talked as if the applied goals (self-sustaining environment for humans) and the basic research lessons were distinct. But I actually think they are highly complementary. I think this is exactly where ecology needs to head as we become more predictive. Specifically, ecology needs to stick its neck out making risky predictions and one way to push ourselves is to be involved in eco-engineering projects (whether they be restoration or self-sustained enclosures or reserve designs or green infrastructure like green roofs, etc). I think this for two reasons.

  1. I think this will help the public reconnect to and appreciate ecology again. This can’t hurt our funding. But even more importantly, it can’t hurt the role of ecology in policy and the public imagination. Such places where humans and ecology interact capture the attention of and inspire the general public. Biosphere 2 has been criticized as performance art (and indeed a large number of the original participants had theater backgrounds). But maybe we need to be more aware of the performance art aspect of our science. Physicists build giant “atom smashers” and talk about “god particles”. Astronomers talk about asteroids smashing into the earth. Pulling off the moon landings gave engineers a degree of increased credibility that has lasted for generations. Where’s the exciting places ecology interacts with humans? I think eco-engineering a self-contained, human-supporting ecosystem that could be used to go to the stars is one place!
  2. Aside from capturing the imagination, I think eco-engineering is good for the science, even basic science. Specifically it forces us to stick our necks out and make Lakatos’ stunning predictions. Very often, these result in stunning failures. But these failures advance science just as much as the successes. Sometimes more. Again, as noted in this post, the pressure to make daily weather forecasts and bear the burden of publicly being wrong has been very good for the science of meteorology. I think it would be good for the field of ecology too.

What do you think. Should ecologists be involved in eco-engineering? Is prediction good for science? Are failed predictions good for science? What bold eco-engineering project to fire the public imagination should ecologists take on next?

*Which is not to say there weren’t a number of avoidable disasters too. There could be a whole post in itself analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of launching a project managed by two strong-willed, visionary people who had conflicting goals from the start and funded by a billionaire with all having an eye to publicity vs the much more staid, science-focused, half dozen rounds of peer review of something NSF would try to pull off.