What papers should be considered for the 2017 George Mercer Award?

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 (duffymeg@umich.edu). All it takes is a pdf nomination letter (typically 1-2 pages), explaining why the paper is novel and important, emailed to awards@esa.org 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.

12 thoughts on “What papers should be considered for the 2017 George Mercer Award?

  1. Jeremy, could you provide a little more on where you want to see this discussion go? The reason I ask is that I quite strongly disagree with one of your suggestions and would definitely never recommend it for any such award. But you may not want to go down that type of road with this.

    • Thanks for asking Jim. As you probably guessed, I’d rather this thread not turn into post-publication review of individual papers. So if you disagree with one of my suggestions I’d ask that you keep your reasons brief. Something like “Personally, I wouldn’t go for Newbold at el. because I don’t trust the underlying data” or “I wouldn’t go for Williams et al. because I think the experiment was too highly-controlled to yield general insight; any effect important enough to be worth caring about should be detectable in a messy field experiment.” (those examples are hypothetical, obviously)

      • OK thanks Jeremy, no problem–I know that we often want to see our post discussions follow within some constraints. And that it’s often more generally helpful to all to highlight what, and why, we consider a given piece of science to be especially positive.

      • I’ve wavered on just what to say on this issue but have decided to go ahead, given that I wrote a critique of the paper soon after it appeared, coupled with the fact that science criticism is a real part of this blog. I know none of the authors and my interest in the piece stems strictly from a strong interest in inferential methods w.r.t. ecological/biological responses to climatic change(s).

        My detailed thoughts on the Alexander et al. paper mentioned above are here:

    • Now that I know for sure that someone else is submitting a nomination, my competitive juices are flowing. I am determined to write a great nomination letter to ensure victory for my chosen paper! 😉

      Just kidding of course, good on you for submitting a nomination.

  2. I concur with all your suggestions, Jeremy. I found myself also impressed by:

    Farrior et al.’s “Dominance of the suppressed: Power-law size structure in tropical forests” (Science, 2016) — this paper uses a simple and intuitive model of post-disturbance forest gorwth to explain empirical deviations from power-law scaling in tropical forest size structure

    Pollock et al.’s “The Roles of Ecological and Evolutionary Processes in Plant Community Assembly: The Environment, Hybridization, and Introgression Influence Co-occurrence of Eucalyptus” (Am Nat, 2015) — I think this paper is underappreciated! It makes a convincing case (to me, anyway) that potential for hybridization among closely related species can alter community structure. It looks like quite a lot of close field observation, genetic work, and modeling went into constructing this story, and it comes together really well.

  3. Here’s another candidate: Kunstler et al. 2016 Nature. Plant functional traits have globally consistent effects on plant competition: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v529/n7585/full/nature16476.html

    A lot depends on how much you trust their ability to estimate the model from the data they compiled. Also how much you trust that they’ve got the “right” model, or a sufficiently good approximation to the “right” model. I haven’t dug into their supplementary info in sufficient detail to judge this.

  4. I recently really enjoyed “The natural selection of bad science” by Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath, which uses both an analysis of average power published in review articles in the social and behavioral sciences [through time] and evolutionary dynamic population models (populations of scientific labs, that produce progeny who compete for funding, with fitness being determined by publication output) to argue how bad science evolves. It would certainly be an odd ball entry, given that the topic at hand isn’t a classic ecological question. I don’t think the awards description would exclude such a nominee, as the approach is ecological [topic is also loosely ecological], but the paper probably isn’t “ecological enough” for such an award? I often really appreciate these out of the box applications of ecological theory.


    I’ve yet to dig through the supplement to completely judge the merits of the paper yet.

    • Thanks for the tip, will have a look at this. Surely not a realistic candidate, given that the subject is science itself rather than some bit of nature. And given that no pure theory paper has ever won as far as I’m aware.

      I like looking at this sort of thing too, but find it hard to judge. There are so many semi-plausible models of the scientific process. How do you decide between them?

      • There are many plausible models for many ecological patterns as well. We decide between those by testing model predictions in controlled mico/mesocosum and field experiments, and natural observations. So what would this look like for the scientific process? Something as controlled as a microcosm experiment seems impossible [given current budgets], but perhaps there are natural experiments one could look for. It would be interesting if a funding body designed an experiment to test the effect of different incentives on output [although external incentives would likely cloud the results]. Ultimately, the slow generation time of scientists producing successful propagules seems like a challenge for testing this model? I think your question is a tough one to answer.

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