Answers to reader questions, part 3: what we’d say to Congress, tropical vs. temperate systems, and more

For previous posts in this series, go here.

If you had 5 minutes to stand up in front of Parliament/Congress and say whatever you wanted, what would you say? (from Margaret Kosmala)

Brian: Fund elementary and high school education in the sciences and math better. For all of our angst about disbelief in climate change, lack of concern on biodiversity loss, etc, this is basically an educational problem. Basic math and science literacy is our best friend. And its a good investment for the country too (in terms of jobs, wages, etc).

Jeremy: Tough question. Part of me wants to dodge it, on the grounds that nothing I or anyone says in 5 minutes in front of Congress or Parliament is ever going to matter squat. But I know that wasn’t the point of the question, so I won’t say that. Part of me would want to say something about macroeconomics. I know this is nothing to do with ecology, and I’m certainly not going to claim special expertise in economics. But personally, I think the biggest and most important public issue of the moment is the ongoing hangover from the financial crisis, the weak-to-downright-counterproductive policy response from national governments, and the resulting horrendous collateral damage to the lives of millions of people (and to funding for science and education at all levels). But part of me says that people like Paul Krugman can talk about macroeconomics much better than I can, so I should stick to talking about something on which I have some expertise and credibility. So if I was sticking to topics on which I have expertise, and I was talking to the Canadian Parliament, I’d tell them to reverse the current Canadian government’s systematic destruction of research and information-gathering capacity. Hacking away at the NSERC budget, closing the ELA, dropping the long form census…the list goes on and on.

What are the main obstacles to creating accurate mechanistic predictions in ecology? (from Konsta Happonen)

Brian: I just did a post on the mechanistic piece of predictions. Suffice it to say here, I think the main obstacle is too narrow a definition of mechanism. As for predictions in ecology, I think the main obstacle is cultural. “Discovering something new” is way more valued than “testing a theory” (which is what predictions really are). And then since most theory in ecology is what May called strategic theory (really simplified caricatures of reality), testing most of these theories tends to not result in making and testing predictions but rather in saying “yes this force is or is not going on”. Now strategic theory is a good thing, but in my opinion it should not be the only thing. You have to turn it into other more predictive kinds of theory eventually.

Jeremy: I don’t have much to say in response to this question, but I did want to comment briefly on Brian’s response. I actually think testing theoretical predictions is quite valued by leading journals and funding agencies. Our journals and grant applications are filled with tests of hypotheses! But yes, those predictions or hypotheses often are derived from strategic theory, so they’re typically not quantitative. Also: I had thought the distinction between “strategic” and “tactical” models was due to Richard Levins? Am I misremembering? Probably. They say the memory is the first thing to go…

Community ecology has something of a reputation, both within and outside the field, as being particularly susceptible to bandwagons and fads. Do you think that’s true? If so, why? Is it a bad thing? And if it’s bad, what, if anything, can be done about it? (from yours truly!)

Brian: I’m not sure I buy the basic premise. Other branches of ecology have fads too. Eddy towers to measure CO2 flux in ecosystem ecology cost a lot more than community ecology bandwagons and yet, when I talk to people in the field, it is clear that there are some real limitations and lack of creativity around this approach. Climate change is a fad sweeping through all fields (just saw a paper showing the evolution of a gene polymorphism that got published in PNAS this week  because it had links to climate change). And evolutionary ecology is very fad driven. Even physiological ecology and population ecology have fads. I seem to recall Jeremy wrote a post about how the r/K formulation of the logistic equation is worse than the r/alpha formulation, yet we’ve used the r/K formulation for decades – that’s a bandwagon. And over in evolution they certainly have their band wagons (phlogenetics, -omics, etc). Groups of humans are all that are needed to have bandwagons. (Jeremy adds: just to clarify, the post on r/K selection that Brian refers to is here. Brian’s slightly misremembering it; I didn’t argue that one formulation of the logistic is better than another. But I don’t think this undermines Brian’s point.)

How do you justify the cost of research without vague promises of future applied/conservation value? (from BEC)

Brian: This really unpacks to two separate questions:
1) How do you play the game to get the grant
2) Morally how to you justify to yourself spending money on a topic
For #1 it depends totally on the funding agency. For NSF you do pretty much exactly as you say – vague promises of future conservation value are what NSF wants – too much emphasis on the applied side and you won’t get funded. I will say though as a reviewer for NSF that I tend to give higher scores for broader impacts when the social infrastructure is credible (i.e. you have list of names and organizations that you have already worked with vs a vague promise to publish it or share the data with the forest service). For USDA grants things have to be much more concretely applied with obvious tangible benefits
For #2 – Basic research has shown over and over again to pay off, so I don’t think there is an inherent need to justify basic research. But I do think there is a pendulum swing going on where society is less and less willing to fund basic research without obvious links. I think this will be an increasing trend to demand more real, tangible relevance in the future. Personally, I am happy with that. And in the mean time, its really a personal decision, and I’m pretty happy with that.

Jeremy: I have various old posts on this (see here, here, and here). Of course, those posts are about justifying the value of fundamental research in general, not about how to justify some specific piece of fundamental research in a grant proposal. When it comes to specific grant proposals, I think you either tell the funding agency what they want to hear, or else you just say what you really want to say and live with the consequences. And if you don’t like either of those alternatives, well, you’d better find a question and study system that lets you kill two birds with one stone. By which I mean a study system that’s a good model system for asking fundamental questions, but which is also a system in which the answers to those questions are of direct applied relevance. There are such systems. For instance, think of the work of Bill Murdoch and colleagues on California red scale. Great fundamental population ecology–but also of direct applied relevance because red scale is an important agricultural pest on citrus trees. Indeed, such systems arguably aren’t even that rare. I think there are a fair number of applied problems out there that are really fundamental problems but haven’t been widely recognized as such. For instance, at last year’s ESA there were multiple talks from really good fundamental ecologists (e.g., Jon Shurin, Val Smith) working on algal biofuels. Most people working on algal biofuels come from non-ecological backgrounds and can’t see basic ecological problems that are totally obvious to an ecologist. This sort of blindness to fundamental issues on the part of many narrowly-focused applied researchers creates an opportunity for you as a fundamental researcher when you approach funding agencies, because your proposal often will look really novel and groundbreaking. Using trophic cascades to control zooplankton grazing in algal biofuel reactors–what a novel idea! Cancer is an evolutionary problem–what a novel idea! Etc. I suspect that in future an increasing amount of fundamental research will be such “dual use” research, if only because funding agencies are indeed (and unfortunately) under increasing pressure to support research with direct applications to problems we already know we want to solve.

Why don’t ecology journals accept submissions in TeX? (from Margaret Kosmala)

Brian: They should! One of the most insidious aspects of the technology revolution is that journals have increasingly pushed the production process onto the authors. We are now responsible for the production quality of the figures. For most of the copy editing. And, while you would think this trend would lead to journals forcing authors to typeset with TeX, ecologists as a group would revolt, so journals do the next most lazy (more importantly cheap) thing – demand that everything be done in Word so that they can offshore the typesetting to India to somebody with 2 weeks of training who can run some macros to import into their typesetting system (India is in fact where most typesetting of academic – especially for profit – journals happens these days).

Jeremy: What Brian said. I don’t know TeX and am disinclined to learn; I have much better things to do with my time. And I’m also annoyed with having the production process pushed off onto me as an author. So while I’d have no problem if journals wanted to accept submissions in TeX, I’d be really annoyed if they required it. So I suppose the answer to your question is “the attitude of people like me!”😉 But cheer up–I’ll retire eventually!😉

Are there qualitative differences between tropical and temperate systems? (from calimans)

Brian: Yes, but we don’t know what they are! Not a very satisfying answer, but after 15 years studying global ecology, its the most honest one I can give. The diversity is so markedly different in the tropics that we have to say there are qualitative differences (and diversity increases faster in the tropics than productivity, temperature or any reasonable explanatory variable). The extent to which this diversity is a cause or an effect of the differences can be debated (the answer is both). But there is no decisive evidence of what causes these differences.

Jeremy: No. Tropical and temperate organisms all evolve via mutation, selection, migration, and drift. New tropical and temperate species arise only via speciation from existing species. Their abundances change via births, deaths, immigration, and emigration. Etc. Plus, there’s no sharp division between the tropics and the temperate zone; it’s a continuous gradient (perhaps a nonlinear one, but a nonlinear gradient is still a gradient). So I’d say the tropics are merely quantitatively different, not qualitatively. But I suspect I’m just interpreting “qualitative” differently than Brian, and that Brian and I don’t actually disagree substantively.

In many ways, I think that the question of whether the tropics are “qualitatively” or “quantitatively” different than temperate regions is like lots of long-debated questions about whether some obvious or large difference is “qualitative” or “quantitative”. I think such debates usually are either uninteresting semantic debates, or else they’re really about something else. For instance, consider the question of whether humans are qualitatively or quantitatively different from other species. It seems to me that the really important–and really obvious!–thing is that humans are very different in many ways from other species! And it seems to me that we can describe, quantify, and work out the implications of those differences without ever deciding whether they’re “really” qualitative or “really” quantitative differences. So if you insist on setting that hugely important and hugely obvious fact to one side in order to focus on whether those differences are “qualitative” or “quantitative”, I have to wonder why you insist on doing that. Is it because you just care a lot about semantics? Or is it because you’re actually trying to bolster your position on some other substantive issue, like a particular religious view of humanity’s place in the universe, or a particular view on the ethics of animal research, or whatever? I’d say much the same about the tropics vs. temperate question. Why does it matter whether we say the differences are “qualitative” or “quantitative”?

What advice do you wish you’d been given as a grad student? (from sjd)

Brian: #1) Think consciously about time-management skills. They are important in grad-school. They are critical to survival as you move on. But they are a learned skill, not something we innately know how to do.
#2) Ask for help. Science is fundamentally a social enterprise. And nearly everything one does after a PhD has elements of collaboration. Yet somehow we expect PhD students to go it alone. its not good training for their future. And much of the “right way to do things” is really just a social convention. As a grad student the most go-to group for help is probably your peers. Especially the ones a year or two ahead of you. Ask them lots of questions. And most advisors are alot more amenable to request for help than graduate students think.
#2a) When you’re in your last two years or so, be bold about reaching out to big names in your field outside your university. Email them and invite them to come to your presentations at conferences. Go up and talk to them. You’d be surprised how often this turns into an invitation to tag along for lunch and then a postdoc.
#3) Follow your heart scientifically – it is easy to get caught up in the stress for jobs, but in the end the answer is good science, and good science comes from following your heart (and its more fun along the way). Its not a guaranteed solution, but I believe it is the best path.

Jeremy: All the advice I wish I’d gotten as a grad student, I got.

What piece of literature (scientific or not) has been most influential in shaping your view of the world? (from sjd)

Brian: A very broad question! And I always freeze at pick your favorite X type of questions – there are so many choices! At the broadest level – I would have to say the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s work that I read as a teenager. He’s way too sexist and libertarian for me now (I haven’t let my kids read his stuff), but his scientific/technological optimism certainly pervades my world view as a citizen and a scientist. Within science, I guess I would have to say two books: Rosenzweig’s Species Diversity in Space and Time (1995), and Brown’s Macroecology (1995; I started grad school in 1997) were what defined the direction I have gone as a scientist. They created a space and gave permission to pursue macrecological questions that hadn’t existed before those books came out. As to how science should be (and is) done, I’ve frequently cited Lakatos in this blog (his lecture on pseudoscience and the demarcation problem is a good entry point).

Jeremy: I have an old post on this.

13 thoughts on “Answers to reader questions, part 3: what we’d say to Congress, tropical vs. temperate systems, and more

  1. @Jeremy: TeX is supposed to save you time — instead of worrying about margins and line spacing and font size and all that, you just *write*. In particular, TeX is really nice for writing equations. How much time have you spent fighting Word to make an equation look right? Ugh. But I do understand about not messing with other people’s workflows, so I’d just like to have TeX be an *option* for submission, not that it be required.

    • Meh. Most journals have no particular requirements about margins, line spacing, font size, etc. And even if they did, those things can be changed with one click in Word. So even if it were somehow possible to download knowledge of TeX into my brain, Matrix-style, I don’t think that it would speed my writing. And I don’t find it difficult at all to make my equations look the way I want them to in Equation Editor in Word; never have. But sure, it’d be nice if TeX were an option.

    • Theoretical journals accept TeX, as do ESA journals and Am Nat. Even Limnology & Oceanography, which doesn’t publish much theory, takes PDFs and can deal with TeX in the end. Which journals refuse?

      I love TeX, primarily because it produces serious looking output. I think there’s a subtle psychological effect of seeing properly formatted equations that makes reviewers more easily convinced!

      My biggest issue with it is the lack of “track changes”. How do you TeXers manage to collaborate on manuscripts?!

      • Hmm, I never thought about the psychological effect of formatting. But now that you mention it, I do kind of like it when, as a reviewer, I get a ms that looks nice. Not so much in terms of equation formatting per se, as the typesetting and formatting of the whole thing. And just recently, I was asked to review a horrendously typeset ms in multiple, randomly-intermingled and strange fonts, all of them hard to read. It did not put me in a good mood, and it may have affected my review, though I consciously tried not to let that happen.

      • I use Word because I am lazy, and TeX always seemed to me like a great solution to a problem I never had. That being said, I have a hunch that if you controlled for all other factors, manuscripts submitted in TeX have a higher acceptance rate than those submitted in Word, just due to the fact that they already look more or less like a published paper, and that probably has some sort of subconscious psychological effect. Although, I think the “controlling for other factors” is pretty crucial here, as there are a lot of non-random differences between the TeX and Word users I have encountered. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but I can identify the TeX users in my department with a surprising degree of accuracy (my working hypothesis is Tex use is positively correlated with use of Bayesian statistics).

      • While we’re digressing onto the topic of manuscript formatting, can I make a plea for placing figures in the manuscript rather than at the end for the review process? I understand the reason to have text, figure legends, and figures as separate sections in the final manuscript to be typeset, but damn, it makes reviewing suck to have to constantly flip back and forth among these three separate sections.

      • I admit I’m in the habit of putting figures at the end because that’s what at least some journals used to require. Do many journals still require that? And if so, do they enforce it? Because if not, I guess you could just ignore the requirement. As you say, it is more convenient for reviewing purposes to have the figures inserted into the text near where they’re first referred to.

  2. Not to be contrary for the sake of being contrary: Climate change is not a fad. It’s a phenomenon. It’d be happening whether or not we had anything to say about it as researchers. It’s also the defining phenomenon of our time. (Along the same lines, competition wasn’t a fad in the 70s, but the theories about how competition structures communities were fads.) The particular theories about biological responses to climate change, on the other hand, are driven by faddish theories. Working on climate change isn’t a fad, it’s both a practical imperative for our species as well as a tool for understanding how biological systems functional at multiple levels.

    • Hi Terry,

      I think you may have slightly misunderstood Brian. I don’t think he meant that climate change research per se is a fad. I think he was referring more to the tendency of many researchers to draw tangential connections between climate change and their research, in the hopes of boosting the perceived importance of their research. Researching climate change isn’t a fad–but *pretending* that you’re researching climate change arguably is.

      • Ah. Agreed. Every third paper I’ve reviewed or edited in the past couple years has involved the deletion of a superfluous paragraph about relevance to climate change.

  3. “Basic research has shown over and over again to pay off”

    Hmm…well, five points:

    1) Some people argue convincingly that not all “basic research” pays off. It depends on how you define basic research and what field or topic you’re referring to. One could also argue that, since only a small percentage of lines of inquiry ever yield viable products (either in terms of commercial products or directly beneficial knowledge about, say, improving the environment), the more money you spend on research, the more money goes to non-beneficial research.

    2) if I put my money in a savings account at 0.25% interest, it will “pay off”. So the question is one of relative benefits: if we put our money in a savings account at 0.25%, is that the best we can do, or are we sacrificing higher returns elsewhere? In the long run, it’s hard to argue that basic research has a huge economic payoff (say, a 10% return on investment), since it’s swamped by other factors in the economy, as we well know today.

    3) the basic research payoff could also be measured as the payoff in the economy of the investor vs. other economies. One weakness for basic research in this regard is that, since published research is freely available for anyone in the world, much of the benefits accrue to other economies.

    4) whatever payoff/social benefits that might be generated by basic research could also be swamped by simple factors like poor tax law. While we’ve all paid for the basic research that leads to new drugs, the biggest payoff usually goes to the corp execs / insiders of the company that commercializes a new drug.

    5) if research spending is debt spending, then the payoff also has to cover the cost of the debt incurred to fund it.

    I’m not arguing against basic research. But the “payoff” line of reasoning is weak. Almost every interest group argues that whatever is spent on it’s particular interests has a payoff that’s so big that spending on its interests is essential. Are they all right? 🙂 It doesn’t seem so.

    Today we might get higher long term returns by redirecting some research money to other areas of education, to deficit reduction, or to any number of other issues.

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