It’s Mercer Award time! What’s the best ecology paper by a young author in 2014-15? (UPDATED)

The deadline for submitting nominations for the ESA’s various awards is Dec. 15. One of the highest-profile awards is the Mercer Award, given annually to the best ecology paper by a young author (lead author <41 at time of publication) in the last two years (so, 2014-15 this time around). The paper can come from any journal, and the lead author need not be an ESA member or US citizen. (UPDATE: George Mercer was a young ecologist killed in WW II. The age criterion for eligibility reflects the history of the award–which goes back to 1948–as a way of remembering a young ecologist whose career was cut short by war.)

Hopefully you’re planning to submit nominations! It’s fun to do. It’s a great way to honor deserving colleagues. It feels great if the person you nominate wins. And in the case of the Mercer Award, you’re shaping the direction of the field in a small way by giving honor and publicity to the sort of work you’d like to see more of.

To help you out, in this post I’ll do two things. First,  I’ll toss out some suggestions for papers that should be in the conversation for the Mercer Award. This should be a fun conversation to have–what’s the very best ecology published in the last two years? Second, I’ll address various common excuses for not submitting award nominations.

Mercer Award candidates

Just off the top of my head, here are some papers that I think ought to be in the conversation for the Mercer Award this year. Far from an exhaustive list–suggest your own candidates in the comments! I’m planning to submit a nomination this year, and I’m looking forward to hearing about some great papers I might otherwise have overlooked.

  • Hatton et al. 2015 Science. The predator-prey power law: biomass scaling across terrestrial and aquatic biomes. If we were handicapping the Mercer Award, I’d probably call this paper the favorite. Not saying it necessarily should win–that’s obviously a judgment call on which there’s scope for reasonable disagreement. And it’s not really a hypothesis-testing paper (the authors are unsure of the ultimate explanation for some of the patterns they identify), which would make it an atypical winner. But the various patterns they discover are precise and general, interestingly interconnected, and not necessarily just a consequence of stuff we already know. It’s a rich paper.
  • Kraft et al. 2015 PNAS. Plant functional traits and the multidimensional nature of species coexistence. As I said in an old post: Thank God somebody is finally bringing modern coexistence theory into “trait-based” ecology (well, they’re not the first; Angert et al. 2009 is great too). Unsurprisingly, the results undermine popular attempts to use trait patterns to infer coexistence mechanisms. And the fact that the authors had to run a massive competition experiment in addition to compiling trait data is in my view a feature, not a bug. Nobody said ecology was easy. And attempts to make it easy (e.g., by trying to infer process from pattern) have a pretty much unbroken track record of failure.
  • Gremer and Venable 2014 Ecology Letters. Bet hedging in desert winter annual plants: optimal germination strategies in a variable environment. As I said in an old post: I saw Jennifer Gremer talk about this work at the ESA meeting, it was a great talk. It’s a great paper too. Tightly links a biological model and long-term data to not only show that 12 species of desert annuals bet hedge, but that they do so near-optimally (!) Bet hedging is one of those things on which there’s lots of suggestive data but very few definitive examples. Especially not field examples. I’d add now that this seems to me to be a good example of the sort of thing that often wins the Mercer Award. It’s about big general ideas (bet hedging, optimality), but also really nails what’s going on in a specific system. It tightly links a theoretical model to data. And it test a hypothesis.

Looking forward to your comments: What other papers should be in the running for the Mercer Award this year?

Excuses for not submitting ESA award nominations

I’m too busy.

No you’re not. Ok, maybe you are if you have a bunch of deadlines to meet between now and Dec. 15 (which I’m sure many of you do, it being end of term and all). But otherwise, you are almost certainly not too busy to take an hour or two to write a nomination letter (which is all that’s required for the Mercer and most other ESA awards). Put it this way: every successful grad student, postdoc, and faculty member I know voluntarily does stuff in their professional life besides the “essentials” of doing their own research, writing papers, writing grants, and teaching classes (and no, that’s not because they work 80 hours/week). And they’re successful because they operate that way, not despite operating that way. Doing nothing but keeping your head down and focusing narrowly on your own stuff all the time is not a recipe for success. To put it yet another way: are you implying that only people with lots of spare time on their hands submit award nominations?

I’m just a grad student/postdoc/assistant professor/non-famous ecologist. A nomination from me wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Oh yes it would be! I’ve nominated a Mercer Award winner–early in my postdoc. Brian’s nominated a winner as well–years ago, when he was not yet senior. The ESA’s award committees take every nomination seriously, no matter who it’s from.

I’ve never done this before, I don’t know how to write a good letter.

There’s a first time for everything! And how do you expect to get better if you don’t try? Plus, what makes you so sure your first attempt would be bad? My letter nominating the Mercer Award winner was the first such letter I’d ever written. Don’t worry, there is no secret formula for a good nomination letter that’s only known to senior ecologists. Just look at the award criteria and address them in your nomination letter.

There will be a bazillion nominations, they don’t need one more from me.

While I don’t know for sure how many nominees there typically are for most ESA awards, it’s not bazillions. I bet it’s often very few. Speaking from experience, most awards committees are desperate for more nominees than they typically get, and are dismayed that many worthy candidates don’t get nominated.

There will be a bazillion nominations, my candidate would have no shot at winning.

See above. There almost certainly won’t be that many nominees, so your nominee almost surely will have a much better shot than you’d think.

I can’t think of any good candidates.

Sure you can. For instance, say you’re trying to think of nominees for the Mercer award. There are lots of things you can do to come up with ideas, none of which needs to take much time. Think about recent papers you read that you really liked. Chat about it with your labmates (picking a paper to nominate for the Mercer award would be a great lab meeting exercise!) Read the rest of this post and the comments for some suggestions. Skim the list of past Mercer Award winners and my post on what recent Mercer Award winners have in common to help shape your “search image” for what a Mercer Award winner looks like.

I’ve already submitted nominations for other awards, there’s a limit to how many I can do.

Well done, carry on. 🙂

I already do lots of other things with my professional time that I don’t have to do.

Well done, carry on. 🙂

I’m just not that into you nominating people for awards.

Ok, fair enough.

22 thoughts on “It’s Mercer Award time! What’s the best ecology paper by a young author in 2014-15? (UPDATED)

  1. How in the world am I supposed to know the age of the lead author of a paper? I think this task is harder than you give it credit for…

    • Fair question. I’ve always nominated papers by people whom I knew were eligible (which, yes, shows that I don’t tend to do a very exhaustive search before coming up with a nominee).

      For many people, a glance at their website photo or cv should tell you in a second, unless they’re close to the cutoff. Or you could ask if anyone in your lab knows how old the lead author is.

      Or you could just take a pass on the Mercer and submit a nomination for some other ESA award. There are lots of them!

      As an aside, you could argue that the ESA should go to a years post-PhD limit for the Mercer, rather than an age limit. But I’m not sure if that would completely resolve the issue you raise, since you’d still have to go to the trouble of looking up the cv of a nominee whom you don’t know.

      Or you could argue for just opening up Mercer eligibility to anyone, which would get into a discussion of the purpose of the award. Why do we want to give an award for the best work in ecology? Why would we want to focus on rewarding the best work by non-senior people?

      • > For many people, a glance at their website photo or cv should tell you in a second, unless they’re close to the cutoff. Or you could ask if anyone in your lab knows how old the lead author is.

        Yes, I suppose you could do any of those things. (Although, tell me: do you think I’d be eligible if I had a first-author paper from 2013 or 2014 (which I don’t)?) But that definitely raises the bar on the “I’m too busy” front. I think I’ll spend my nomination efforts on another award with less detective work.

        > website photo

        On second thought, this probably won’t help. If you’re in the 40-50 range, I’m pretty sure you’re not using an up-to-date photo!

      • “(Although, tell me: do you think I’d be eligible if I had a first-author paper from 2013 or 2014 (which I don’t)?) ”

        No comment. I recognize a trap question when I see one. 🙂

    • I think the truth is most nominations come from somebody who at least knows the author personally – not necessarily closely – and too close would be inappropriate – but at least have met somebody at a conference. This makes likelihood of knowing age a bit higher.

  2. I chaired the Mercer committee for a number of years, and unless things have changed dramatically, I can vouch for Jeremy’s “no, there aren’t a bazillion nominations”. So I’m fully behind Jeremy on this one: please nominate!

    Also – if you want to get involved a little bit with ESA, I can’t think of a job more pleasant than being on the Mercer Award committee. You get to read great papers and give an excellent young scientist a leg up.

    CSEE has equivalent awards, too – as do other societies. So if you don’t want to do Mercer, there’s another one out there you can nominate for, or help judge.

    • Having chaired the ESA Aquatic Section and handled their awards, a will also vouch for the “no, there aren’t a bazillion nominations”. More nominations would have been welcome!

  3. Fun question Jeremy.

    The ones on your list would be on mine too. A couple more:
    Newbold et al 2015 – Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity – this one is interesting as it is a working group with around 20 authors (many over 40 years). And it is a metanalysis. I am not sure any paper in either category has ever won a Mercer before
    Michaeletz et al 2014 – Convergence of terrestrial plant production across global climate gradients

    • Finally, suggestions that aren’t mine! 🙂

      Thanks for the Newbold et al. suggestion, will have to have a close look at that.

      Yes, a meta-analysis from a working group would indeed be an atypical Mercer award winner–but I suspect it’s going to become more common in future.

      At some point, a distributed experiment is going to win too. I actually thought hard about NutNet for this year, but my favorite papers from that project are from a bit earlier.

  4. Wow this age limit is completely silly – what possible reasoning could lead anyone to come up with <41 ? Why not use 42? or 43? or 39? or 29?
    I'll admit a strong preference for "42" because it is the answer to the "Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" produced by Deep Thought.

    Why not best ecology paper by someone <5 years after completing their PhD??

    • The award goes back to 1948. I assume the eligibility requirement was established at that time. EDIT: George Mercer was a young ecologist killed in WW II. I assume that the age limit is because the award is meant to honor a man who was killed before his time. He was young in the chronological sense, and the award eligibility criterion reflects that. So no, it’s not completely silly for the award to have an age limit. I’ve updated the post with this information, since this comment thread is unfortunately focusing on the age criterion rather than on candidates for this year’s award.

      Without wanting to deny that age 40 is arbitrary, I suggest that the choice of <5 years post-PhD is equally arbitrary. If you're going to have an award for "young" ecologists, than there will inevitably be some arbitrariness in the definition of "young".

      If you think the Mercer award eligibility criterion is a historical legacy that needs updating (and I don't disagree, though I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case), I suggest writing a polite note to Jon Levine, the ESA awards committee chair (

  5. Many scientific awards are restricted to various ‘age’ groups of scientists; an age cut-off and time-since PhD are the 2 usual eligibility schemes. The Robert MacArthur prize is now for folks within 20 yrs of PhD [ I think]. The most prestigious economics prize [ short of Nobel] is for folks under 40.
    The list goes on. cant see any harm and the benefit is big [ separate young from established scholars in awards].
    Working group reports should be ineligible since they violate the spirit of the age limit; how would we decide the work was mostly the product of a young person’s mind? maybe we need a new prize for influential group reports?

      • Working groups NOW produce some of the most influential pubs in modern ecology. They deserve a ‘room of their own’, and an updated recognition-scheme that targets their unique form.

      • @Brian:

        “I like the idea of a prize for working group reports.”

        Because you’d be odds-on favorite to win the first one, right? 😉 (just teasing)

    • “Working group reports should be ineligible since they violate the spirit of the age limit; how would we decide the work was mostly the product of a young person’s mind?”

      Good point, but a tricky one to deal with. A similar question could be asked about big distributed experiments like NutNet. Would it violate the spirit of the Mercer to give it to the many authors of a paper about a huge distributed experiment, if the leader of the project was under 40? I don’t think so, at least not necessarily, but it’s a tricky issue.

      • Yes, indeed tricky. Perhaps the only ‘patch-work partial solution ‘would be for the Mercer nomination to include a detailed discussion as to why the particular young person played such a key role as to deserve the prize; That way they would get credit for organizing and attracting good folks to work with them, something to promote.
        The new prize suggested for group reports targets the report and not a person; let the group sort out who did what. if they can or even want to!

  6. Imagine, in a hypothetical scenario, that I wanted to nominate a paper for the Mercer Award (although it’s getting rather late now). What do good nomination letters look like? Can any people who’ve sat on awards committees tell me what they find most helpful from nomination letters, beyond just addressing the award criteria at a basic level? I imagine that explaining why the chosen paper was the best paper by a youngish scientist of the past two years would be the bulk of it, but are there particular (non-obvious) themes that are worth elaborating?

    • Just explain why you thought the paper was great. The thing to remember is that part of what makes a paper great is how it fits into the larger context of the field. So talk about that context. For instance, does the paper solve some long-standing and important problem? (That’s the case I made back when I nominated a Mercer winner.) Does it improve on or go beyond previous work in some way? Etc. Does it raise important new questions for others to address? (that’s why Bolnick et al. won, years ago)

    • p.s. You can of course also talk about things that are specific to the paper. If it had an incredibly clever experimental design, or combined an unusually large and diverse number of different lines of evidence, or etc., say so.

  7. Pingback: What papers should be considered for the 2017 George Mercer Award? | Dynamic Ecology

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