Ask us anything, and we’ll answer!

A while back, we took a page from Reddit and did an “ask us anything“. We invited readers to ask us any questions they wanted, and answered them. It was quite interesting and popular–we got questions on everything from what’s the biggest issue in ecology to what we’d say if given 5 minutes in front of Congress. So we’re going to do it again!

So, within the next week, submit your questions in the comments on this post. You can also tweet questions to @DynamicEcology. Ask as many questions as you like. We’ll compile them and answer them in one or more future posts (as soon as we can get around to it; we’re all busy).

Just FYI, it’s probably going to be mostly Brian and I answering, since Meg’s bursting with post ideas at the moment and wants to focus on writing them up. But you are welcome to try to goad Meg into answering by asking loaded questions like “Are rotifers superior to Daphnia, or far superior to Daphnia?”๐Ÿ™‚

And by the way, if you want to ask a question about fighting one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses: it depends on how big a funnel I have.๐Ÿ™‚

30 thoughts on “Ask us anything, and we’ll answer!

  1. Great!

    1. Is existing knowledge of ecological theory being usefully applied to the solution of practical ecological problems (e.g. conservation issues, ecological stability/resilience issues, or however you conceive of what exactly constitutes an ecological problem). If not, why not, and is it even important to try to do so in the first place?

    2. Is the topic of (observed or potential future) climate change impacts on ecosystems getting unwarranted attention and/or funding relative to other drivers of ecosystem dynamics.

    3. If Auburn and Ohio State win out, should Auburn jump Ohio State in the rankings and thus play in the national championship game? Note that there is exactly one clear and correct response to this question and it varies, fairly significantly, from “yes”.

  2. Hi Jeremy and/or Brian,
    I’ve been an environmental consulting biologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA since 2001 and thus have no opportunity to conduct science-based research or statistical analyses. That being said, as someone who at least is trying to stay familiar with the literature (more applied wildlife biology than theoretical ecology, admittedly) I try my best to at least maintain a basic understanding of statistical methods and their application to my field. My question pertains to how I should sort the wheat from the chaff when staying familiar with current statistical methods in applied ecology. I will never fully understand or be able to use advanced hierarchical modeling, PVA, GLM, etc. in my line of work, but what “nuts and bolts” methods and data analysis techniques should EVERY biologist strive to maintain an understanding of, no matter their job description? For me, I just want to be able to critically analyze any biological assessment report, environmental impact report, or other applied regulatory document or permit that makes assertions based on analyzed data. I’m currently trying to read (when I have time) Gotelli and Ellison’s “A Primer of Ecological Statistics” to re-build my foundation of knowledge on stats, but given the emphasis on “staying billable” in consulting (ugh…), such time is limited. In any case, thanks to both of you (and Meg!) for maintaining such an intellectually stimulating blog. I don’t get a lot of intellectual stimulation in my job (compliance, not science!) and your blog is one of the few things I use to try to keep my brain sharp when it comes to thinking about ecology.

  3. One of the things I find to be a major downside of the way science is currently done (and perhaps ecology in particular – is the number of published papers that are just wrong. Not those with a mis-interpretation, or a difference that’s a matter of degree, but significant errors.

    Banobi et al ( looked at rebuttals, and found that they’re 17x less cited than the original paper (insert standard clause here).

    So given that management based on poor science can have significant real-life consequences (e.g.,, how do you counter bad science in the literature (if at all)? And how do you avoid spending your whole career countering others (and be perceived as a jerk)?

  4. How does one successfully transition from doing one or more postdocs to becoming an independent PI? Does doing more than one postdoc disrupt one’s ability to maintain continuity and develop a cohesive research program?

  5. When I first entered academia, I was expecting things to be difficult. I was expecting long hours, frustrations over projects, and failed experiments. One thing that I never expected to encounter, but which I see shockingly frequently, is academic bullying. I’m really surprised by this because my ecology department is very close knit – there is a huge amount of collaboration among labs, many departmental functions meant to get faculty and students mingling, and a general air of collegiality.

    Blogs like Tenure, She Wrote often cover important topics like sexual harassment and discrimination in the sciences, but rarely do I see anything about academic bullying.

    So, I’m wondering:
    How common do you think academic bullying is in ecology?

    And perhaps, if we can goad Meg into jumping in:
    Do you think women or men are more frequently the targets of academic bullying?

    • Can you elaborate a little on what you mean by “academic bullying”? What sorts of behavior have you encountered, and what was the context (e.g., was it behavior by supervisors, directed towards those under their supervision)? I ask just because I can imagine lots of things that might come under the heading “academic bullying”, for which the answer to your question might vary.

      • I think it usually involves a relationship with a power dynamic, but not always advisor-student. I’ve certainly seen/heard of cases where the relationship is postdoc-grad student, senior grad student – less senior grad student, and grad student – undergraduate.

        This post about toxic academic advisors gives a good overview of general examples of workplace bullying:

        Here are some specific examples that I can think of:
        Spreading harmful gossip about a person – or other things in the category of “social isolation”
        Intentionally tying up equipment/resources to make it difficult for a person to complete their research
        Giving excessively negative feedback and/or not acknowledging the positive aspects of a project
        Making back-handed comments to the person
        Delaying response to emails/meetings/etc or ignoring emails/questions/etc
        Attempting to undermine the person’s confidence about his/her work
        Overworking individuals
        Favoritism – particular individuals always get the unpleasant lab jobs, or particular individuals receive less attention from the mentor, etc.
        Setting unreasonable goals/deadlines and/or unexpectedly changing goals/deadlines

        Does that help? I think a lot of those examples depend on intent. For instance, setting an unreasonable deadline might be accidental, or it might be done intentionally.

  6. Do you think that Ecology literature is “idea-free”? ( Our dept discussion group has been talking about this paper and what it means to be theory-driven in our research. It has got me thinking about what are the ecological theories and whether it is important to name them. In my self reflection I realise that I often write intros with verbal explanations of broader theories that my work fits into (with refs, of course!) but I rarely use ‘theory’ in the intro or discussion. Maybe I should…but it also has become a pet peeve to see sentences that start with “Theory predicts….”. And most of the named theories I can think of have been shown to have so many flaws that their usefulness comes into question. Curious as to your thoughts!

  7. Hi Jeremy and / or Brian

    It is a pleasure to write to you, I wonder if there is research into the ecology focused on issues – Socio Environmental and Climate Change. Ecology is a broad field, and for me an area of โ€‹โ€‹interest, as my graduation is guided within the Socio Environmental Sciences, I am intrigued by the possible use of ecology in the search for solutions to Global Warming and Climate Change. I found the blog of you from internet searches on Macroecology, and I’m really enjoying it.

    Thank you!

  8. If you could restructure North American academics so that the best science is done, how would you do so? What I mean is that we take for granted that trainees should come in and do 5-7 years as a Ph.D. student (preceded or not by a Masters) and then do a post-doc or several and then perhaps maybe get a tenure-track position and then five years later hopefully get tenure and the “safety” to finally do high-risk research. All of this occurs in institutions that have a split mission to do both research and to educate the masses, and academics are expected to wear many hat with little-to-no training in such things as management, effective teaching, public communication, etc. Science funding is limited by ever-squeezed public funding, while success and promotion to the next “level” seems to be judged primarily by prolific publication. I don’t think this system produces the best science nor encourages the best scientists to stay in the game. Feel free to disagree; otherwise, suggest other alternatives (radical or not) to change the structure of academia for the betterment of science. (And I would prefer the answer be in haiku, if possible.)

  9. Pingback: Ask us anything: is ecological theory practical? | Dynamic Ecology

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  14. What is the future of field ecology/biology within academia? I am not yet quite ready to go on the job market, but from looking at the current postings and from talking to my former graduate adviser, I get the sense that field ecologist/biologist positions are getting scarcer. Those hired in the 60s and 70s are not being replaced with similar recruits, as departments seem to be going for more computational or lab-oriented work. Grants for pure field studies are difficult to get (unless in the context of global change), and publication rates might be lower (unless already part of a big lab), putting such applicants at a disadvantage. What does this mean for the future of field studies in behavior or ecology?

    • Jobs for ‘field biologists’ are rare. But jobs for faculty who do field-intensive work are abundant. These are the jobs for ecosystem ecologists, for experimental community ecologists, evolutionary biologists, “systems biologists,” and so on. Being a field biologist, in itself, is not so much a specialty, but a venue. Being able use field biology to ask questions that others find to be cool/sexy is getting to be more challenging.

    • Tenure-track academic positions in general are much harder to get than they used to be–there are many more candidates per position. I think that, rather than the sort of positions being advertised, is by far the biggest challenge to any type of ecologist looking for an academic job.

      Personally, I’d be very reluctant to say anything about what sort of ecology jobs are being advertised, and how that might be changing over time. There’s too much risk that’s one’s answer will be determined by one’s own prejudices rather than the facts. For instance (to pick an example from a related but a different context), Lindenmayer & Likens have now published two pieces in the ESA Bulletin claiming that ecology is losing its roots in natural history-based field ecology, that papers in which people report field data collected by themselves are being crowed out by mathematical papers and meta-analyses of data collected by others. Sounds plausible, right? And Lindenmayer and Likens are both prominent ecologists–surely they should have a good sense of the direction of the field and know whereof they speak? No, and no. If you actually go and look (as The EEB and Flow did), you find that the content of leading ecology journals is still heavily dominated, just as it always has been, by papers in which the authors report field data they collected themselves. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible that field ecology jobs are a declining fraction of all ecology jobs–but to convince me that that’s the case, you’d need to compile actual data (say from the ecology job wiki that’s been showing up somewhere on the intertubes each year for the past few years).

      In the absence of that data, all we have to go on are anecdotal impressions. So for what it’s worth (not much!), here are a few anecdotes, which you can weigh against those of your former adviser. I myself am mostly a lab-based ecologist–and I struggled to get a job, in part because I don’t do much field work. Shahid Naeem used to work in the same lab-based system I do–and I hear he refused to let his PhD students do their entire dissertations in that system, out of fear they wouldn’t get jobs. Similarly, Brian is a very quantitative guy–and he was turned down for jobs because of the (false) perception that he couldn’t teach field courses. And Meg will tell you that one reason she was hired at Michigan is because they liked the fact that she’s a “muddy boots” field ecologist.

      When it comes to grants and publications, I’d say exactly the same thing. Everybody thinks that it’s getting increasingly hard to get grants for whatever sort of ecology they personally do–and everybody is right, because grants in general are harder to get than they used to be. Everybody thinks it’s increasingly hard to publish their sort of work in the leading journals–and everybody is more or less right (or more or less wrong), because acceptance rates at leading journals are in fact declining (or in some cases, are flat).

      As for worries about the direction and future of ecology, insofar as people are doing different work than they used to (and as noted above, it’s not at all clear that they really are), well, I’m sure that’s mostly because they’re doing the best science they can, and are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by new technologies. I see no reason to think that the next generation of ecologists is going to be worse at science than the current generation. Every generation of ecologists includes some people who see the field changing, and think that any change necessarily is for the worse. When people like Mick Crawley back in the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming among the first field ecologists to learn statistics, and using that knowledge to design better field experiments, they were criticized by some for wasting their time fiddling with (punch card) computers when they should’ve been out in nature (seriously, I’m not making this up). But would anyone today seriously argue that ecology is worse off because we’re now much more statistically rigorous than we used to be? When people like Robert MacArthur and Bob May first started pushing mathematical modeling in ecology in a systematic way, they were criticized by some for trying to turn ecology into physics. But would anyone today seriously argue that all mathematical modeling in ecology is a waste of time? When NCEAS was first founded, there were plenty of critics who thought that trying to learn more from existing data was like squeezing blood from a stone, and that any postdocs who went there would be killing their careers. Now the value of data sharing is so widely accepted that many journals mandate it, and former NCEAS postdocs have become hot commodities on the ecology job market.

      Now, do I think ecologists always do unimprovable science? Of course not! But the things I find worth critiquing are much narrower–specific theoretical ideas, specific methodological approaches, etc. I don’t worry about the direction of the entire field.

  15. I failed to ask all my pertinent questions at the designated opportunity, (sorry!), but have been wondering, could you give us an estimate, to whatever precision level, and using whatever statistical paradigm you feel comfortable with, of the number of future posts dealing with beer, basketball or hockey that can be expected in the near future?

    For planning purposes only.

    • Sorry, but this edition of “ask us anything” is now closed. You shouldn’t have wasted your opportunity asking about trivialities like climate change, while neglecting to ask about “future frequency of beer-related posts” until it was too late.

      You’ll have to answer your own question by searching this blog for posts about “beer” and then using the sophisticated statistical technique of your choice to project the future frequency of such posts.

  16. Pingback: Ask us anything: what statistical techniques does every ecologist need to know? | Dynamic Ecology

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