The George Mercer Award is given annually by the ESA to an outstanding research paper published in the previous two years (so, 2015 or 2016 for this year’s award) with a lead author age 40 or younger at the time of publication. The age limit is in memory of George Mercer, a promising young ecologist who was killed in WW II.
I love awards like the Mercer Award. It’s great that the ESA recognizes outstanding work being done by up-and-coming ecologists. And thinking about potential nominees is a fun excuse to think about what makes for truly outstanding ecological research today. This would be a great topic for your next lab meeting: ask everyone suggest a nominee for the Mercer Award and then talk about them.
I have an old post looking back on past Mercer Award winners to look for common threads (more specific than, you know, “being a great paper”). So have a look at that post, and the list of past winners, if you want help forming a “search image”. Broadly speaking, Mercer Award winning papers tend to be those that powerfully combine multiple lines of evidence (often including both theory and data) to really nail what’s going on in some particular system, but in such a way as to also have much broader implications (e.g.). They also tend to come from a single lab or a small collaboration. But there are exceptions, plus there’s no rule that says future winners have to be the same sorts of papers as past winners. In particular, it’s notable that only one review/synthesis/meta-analysis paper has ever won as far as I know. One of these years, surely we’ll see the award go to an outstanding working group paper led by a young author, or to a paper from an outstanding large collaboration like NutNet. Maybe this is the year? (Although against that, one could argue that working groups are a different beast and deserve their own award.)
So, what papers do you think should be in the conversation for the Mercer Award this year? Below, a few candidates off the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of more–please do share your own favorites in the comments! As you’ll see from the list below, I have somewhat narrow taste in papers; I need other people to chime in and force me to broaden my horizons.
- Newbold et al. 2015 Nature. Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity. Suggested by Brian as a candidate last year. Would be the first working group paper to win.
- Alexander et al. 2015 Nature. Novel competitors shape species’ responses to climate change. Great, creative experiment, involving transplants of whole plant communities (well, whole chunks of them) up the side of a mountain.
- Williams et al. 2016 Science. Rapid evolution accelerates plant population spread in fragmented experimental landscapes. This is what lab experiments are for–to do manipulations that would be impossible in the field. Here, to experimentally shut off evolution in populations of Arabidopsis, thereby revealing big effects of rapid evolution on the rate of spatial spread. A future textbook example. Would be an unusual winner in that as far as I know no laboratory microcosm experiment has ever won (though a couple of mesocosm experiments have).
- Kraft et al. 2015 PNAS. Plant functional traits and the multidimensional nature of species coexistence. I suggested this one as a candidate last year. 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.
- Hatton et al. 2015 Science. The predator-prey power law: biomass scaling across terrestrial and aquatic biomes. A global data compilation uncovering new and unexpected cross-system patterns in trophic structure. Would be a slightly atypical winner, in that it’s not a complete story. The authors discovered the pattern but can’t yet fully explain it, though they can rule out the most obvious explanations. But what they’ve got is already a really important contribution to my eyes; expecting even more from one paper would be a bit greedy.
This year’s chair of the Mercer Award subcommittee is our own Meghan Duffy, so if you have any questions about the nomination process just email her (firstname.lastname@example.org). All it takes is a pdf nomination letter (typically 1-2 pages), explaining why the paper is novel and important, emailed to email@example.com with the award name in the subject line. I have a bit of advice here on what to talk about in a good nomination letter for the Mercer Award. Every nomination gets taken seriously, no matter who makes it–I nominated a Mercer Award winner back when I was a little-known postdoc. And as with pretty much all scientific society awards, the Mercer Award subcommittee isn’t overwhelmed with nominations and would always love to have more. So please nominate someone! Deadline is Oct. 15.