Bonus Friday link: NSF’s Bio Directorate removes proposal submission limit for 2019

For the US folks, NSF’s Bio Directorate had an important announcement yesterday, removing the limit on the number of proposals someone can submit as PI or co-PI in 2019. Here’s part of the announcement:

Having listened to community concern and tracked the current low rate of submission, and following extensive internal consultation, BIO is lifting all PI or co-PI restrictions on proposal submission for FY 2019, effective immediately.

BIO recognizes that it is important to track the effects of the no-deadline policy on proposal submission patterns, to ensure that a high-quality review process is sustained. Therefore, we are seeking approval from the Biological Sciences Advisory Committee to establish a subcommittee to assist in developing the evidence base for any future policy changes that may be needed.

I think this is great news! And I completely agree with Mike Kaspari:

So you got an email inviting you to apply for a tenure-track ecology faculty position. How should you interpret it?

So you got an email inviting you to apply for a tenure-track ecology faculty position. Perhaps from the search committee chair, perhaps from someone on the search committee, perhaps from someone in the hiring department. How should you interpret it? In particular, does it mean you’re a shoo-in to get an interview?

A similar question could be asked about responses to informal inquiries with the search committee chair. Say you email the search committee chair with your cv, asking if you fit the position, or if your application would be competitive. The search committee chair replies that yes, it looks like you fit the job ad, please do apply (or words to that effect). How should you interpret that?

Unusually for me, this isn’t an ecology faculty job market question that I can address with data. So what follows is just me speaking from my own admittedly-anecdotal-but-not-inconsiderable experience, and from what I’ve learned from speaking with more experienced colleagues (who aren’t responsible for anything I say). Hopefully commenters will chime in.

The goal here is just to share a bit of information about one narrow aspect of the ecology faculty job market. The purpose is descriptive, not prescriptive; I’m not here to judge the practice of inviting people to apply for faculty positions.

If you are on the faculty job market, I can’t promise this information will make you happy (sorry!). I would never presume to tell anyone how to feel about being on the very competitive ecology faculty job market.

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Blind spots in scientific discovery

An interesting remark I came across: to learn how technological innovation happens, study the people who nearly produced some major innovation, but failed because of some blind spot that seems obvious in retrospect. One example from the link is the person who invented sound recording on a wax cylinder decades before Edison. The inventor had a blind spot: not considering playback, instead viewing recording as a form of stenography.

I’m now wondering if this applies to science. What scientific insights or discoveries were almost made by someone other than the person(s) who made them, except for a blind spot that prevented full, correct development of the insight or discovery?

I’d suggest Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. The Origin is tremendously successful at explaining the origin of adaptation, but its explanation of the origin of new species is infamously hard to pin down. Following James Costa (and I hope I haven’t misunderstood him!), I think that’s because Darwin had a blind spot: his “success breeds success” mental model of selection (to borrow Costa’s phrase). Darwin imagined that, when better variants arise, they eventually sweep to fixation everywhere that they can spread to. That mental model prevented him from quite recognizing modern notions like frequency-dependent selection, and caused him to underestimate the extent to which selection favors different variants in different places. So instead of hitting on modern ideas about how selection can drive speciation (Schluter 2000, Kassen 2014), Darwin ended up treating the production of diversity as itself a heritable trait that selection might favor, thereby promoting speciation (that’s Darwin’s “Principle of Divergence”). There are circumstances in which something like Darwin’s idea can work, for instance when there’s selection for bet hedging (Beaumont et al. 2009). But in general, it’s not a correct picture of the origin of species.

What other scientific discoveries or insights were prevented by some crucial blind spot? See here for a couple of possible examples.

When should scientists cite the work of sexual harassers?

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, prominent men (and a few women) in many walks of life are being held accountable for sexual harassment and bullying (good!). Academic science is no exception; think for instance of evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala’s recent resignation from UC Irvine following a university investigation finding him guilty of serial sexual harassment.

Which raises the question of what forms accountability should take. Most obviously, there are official sanctions imposed by employers, the courts, and other institutions, such as being fired, rescinding of awards and honors, and legal sanctions. But in this post, I want to focus on one form of “unofficial” sanction that could be imposed by individuals: not citing the work of sexual harassers and others guilty of bad behavior.

There’s a lot of debate in the humanities right now over whether or when to cite the work of sexual harassers or others who’ve behaved badly (note that I link to that only for its summary of the debate; I disagree with some of the author’s opinions on the debate). In the sciences, I kind of feel like the issues are fairly straightforward, although perhaps that just shows I haven’t reflected on them sufficiently carefully. So I’m going to think out loud here. Basically, I think it comes down to the purpose of the citation:

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What academics can learn from business III: good meeting culture

This is the third in a series of things I think academia would do well to look to and learn from business (also see how many business hats an academic wears and business advice books). When I left the business world and went back to graduate school in 1997, there were many things I liked better about the academic culture. But there was one thing that jumped out at me as immediately badly flawed in academic culture: meetings. Everything about them – when held, why held, how held. To be sure a good meeting is a combination of artful guidance by its leaders and participants and a bit of luck. But there are some clear rules of thumb that help.

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Guest post: judgment fatigue

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.


I feel tired.  It’s mentally fatiguing to judge others and to be judged, and it seems that we scientists spend an inordinate proportion of our time doing one or the other.  Do we do more than people in other lines of work?  Do we do the right amount given our overarching goals?  Or do we do too little, or too much?  Could we judge in ways that are less exhausting for everyone?  My tired mind thinks we do too much, and that there must be better ways of doing it.  But that’s just from the gut, and I have no specific ideas to offer.  I’m hoping that when you finish reading this you will have some thoughts to share in the comments.

(1) Judging.

  • As an Associate Editor, I’ve got one manuscript awaiting decision, and probably a couple more “out there” in review (I’m not totally sure). I will make a judgement of each, offering my opinion to an Editor about whether a paper should be published in the American Naturalist. There’s at least one major judgement per month.  As a reviewer for many different journals, I’ll do the same, one step back in the process, also roughly once per month.  The decisions are consequential for the authors.
  • Upon submitting my recommendation to the Am Nat Editor, I will also be asked to rate the reviewers of the paper – in other words, to judge the judgements. I’m not sure, but one can imagine that at some level my judgement of the judgements will be judged by other judges.  I sure hope someone judges that judgement. Not.
  • I’ve currently got an application package for promotion to Full Professor to read, after which I will communicate my judgement as to whether this person deserves promotion. Maybe 2-4 things like this happen in a given year.  The outcomes matter for people’s lives.
  • The season of NSERC Discovery Grants is upon us, and as a member of the Evolution and Ecology evaluation panel, December-February will involve evaluating some 40-45 full proposals. February will include an intense week of coming up with final judgements as to whether each grant is insufficient, moderate, strong, very strong, outstanding, or exceptional, in each of three different ways: excellence of researcher, merit of the proposal, and training of highly qualified personnel.  Over my three-year term, this committee will determine the funding level for more than half of Canada’s ecologists and evolutionary biologists funded through this program.
  • For the dozen-plus grad student committees I’m on, each year will involve a handful of oral comprehensive exams, a handful of defenses, and a larger bunch of progress reports. On top of that will be a few turns as external examiner for Ph.D. exams or defenses elsewhere.  The committees will decide whether students can continue their degrees, or get their degrees, in addition to judging all the details of their research.
  • And also…job applications and interviews, awards committees (I’ve been on two major ones for scientific societies during the past 3 years), discussion groups critiquing papers, grad student seminar evaluations, undergrad papers and exams…and I’m probably forgetting things.

(2) Being judged.

  • Every judgement involves both the judge and the judged, so this section can be short (switch roles from the last section). In sum, for every judgement I render, there is a judgement received, on a manuscript, grant proposal, or promotion application of my own.  And while no one has an evaluation sheet in hand when I give a seminar, there are most certainly judgements made, sometimes evident during question period (or by someone falling asleep), sometimes not.  After a paper is published, sometimes you receive positive feedback, sometimes rather harshly worded e-mails. The positive judgements feel good, but probably not as bad as the negative ones feel bad. The wear you out.

Important point 1: This is likely a fairly typical judgement load for someone at my mid-career stage (with the exception of the NSERC panel, which is not a constant throughout a career). In other words, I’m not claiming to do any more of this stuff than anyone else, but rather that we all spend a tremendous amount of time as judge or judgee.  Little stuff happens daily, and formal judgements are probably given or received several times per week, averaged over the year. It’s exhausting.

Important point 2: The cumulative mental fatigue is not just from doing the work, as it is for an activity like preparing a lecture.  It also stems from the knowledge that each decision matters for someone else’s future – some in only a small way (a mark on an oral presentation) but some in a major way (e.g., funding, promotion).  The fact that essentially all final judgements involve multiple judges eases the stress somewhat, but it’s still there.  On the other side, being judged is always stressful.

Important point 3: The work of judgement is extremely important and very often gratifying.  The importance hardly requires explanation: ideas turn into data and data into knowledge via judgements.  The activities described above involve helping many people to get better at what they do, to think more clearly and critically, and to improve communication.  The judge also learns a lot, and all that is quite gratifying.  In short, my intention is not to suggest that we’re just running around like chickens with our heads cut off, following the rules of the system blindly.  The work is important and rewarding.  But…

  • Do some people steer clear of scientific careers once they see how often they’ll need to judge and be judged? If so, are we losing out from the absence of those people?  (Note that I’m not asking about the fairness of judgements – a very important issue – just the fact that so much judgement happens.)
  • Would science be better off with more doing and less judging?
  • To return to my initial questions: Are we doing the right/wrong amount? Could it be done in a less exhausting way (for both judges and judged)? To be sure, some strategies are already aimed at reducing our collective judgement load, such as journal editorial decisions to “reject without review”, or reducing the number of times one can apply for a given fellowship/grant.  These strategies also come with costs, so solutions will not be a simple matter.

Anyone else feeling judgement fatigue?  I look forward to hearing what you think…

With public engagement, it’s also okay to start small

Yesterday, I had a post about how it’s okay to start small when it comes to learning R or any other new technical skill. Today’s post takes that same “it’s okay to start small” message and applies it to public engagement.

Sometimes, a colleague will ask about a recent public engagement activity my lab worked on. After I describe it, they sometimes say something like “I’d like to do more outreach work, but my lab isn’t as big as yours – I don’t have those people to help me!” Often, that is said with a sense of resignation that it won’t be possible for them to do outreach. Or perhaps the conversation centers around an upcoming NSF proposal, where a colleague is trying to figure out what they could propose for the broader impacts section, feeling like they want (or need) to propose something, but that there’s no way for them to do that if they are just starting out or haven’t done much public engagement in the past. In these conversations, my messages are:

  • it’s okay to start small, and
  • take advantage of existing opportunities.

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