Friday links: the most famous ecologist, March for Science, and more

Also this week: PowerPoint vs. Alan Turing, self-organized grant funding, changing Waterman Award criteria, how to RELATE, the hater’s guide to reproducibility, incentivizing replication, academia coloring book, negative results on resurrection, #overlyhonestprefaces, and…



From Jeremy:

Terry McGlynn on why he supports the March For Science. Although really, Terry’s post is broader than that: it’s about how the Right Thing To Do is rarely obvious because downsides and trade-offs are ubiquitous. So it’s important that we recognize reasonable disagreement and be able to talk to and work with one another anyway.

Another argument for the March For Science. tl;dr: one reason (among others) scientists need to be concerned with politics, and with diversity and inclusion, is so that science works as well as it possibly can. I agree with the piece almost completely, except the bit at the end about how science is already “politicized” so scientists might as well march. My understanding of Dan Kahan’s work is that scientific research on a few specific politically-salient, politically-polarized topics (e.g., climate change) is indeed already politicized, in the sense that people’s political identities dictate their interpretation of scientific information on those topics. But science in general isn’t politicized in this sense, and I think it’s important to try to keep it that way, so that science works as well as it possibly can. Easier said than done, of course, especially in the currently-polarized political climate in the US, when the attacks on science are mostly coming from one political party. I certainly don’t pretend to any political wisdom on how to square this circle. I hope the March For Science will help rather than hurt, which is why I’m going to try to go to the March in Hartford this weekend. But I freely admit that choice is a contestable judgment call.

Putting the March For Science in historical context. In the US, it’s rare for members of any profession to march for their profession. It’s most commonly been done by farmers. The very interesting comparison with farmers suggests some lessons for the March going forward.

The main Dutch scientific funding agency, the NWO, has been asked by the Dutch parliament to pilot “self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA). Famed ecologist Marten Scheffer has been a key advocate for the project. The basic idea is that every eligible scientist gets the same amount of funding to start, but then has to give a fixed portion of it to someone else. I recall we linked to the original idea a couple of years ago in an old linkfest, and our commentariat was generally skeptical (as NWO seems to be, according to the linked article). Folks were worried about opportunities for gaming the system, the possibility that the system would favor famous, well-connected people (including but not limited to people who are active on social media), and the possibility of concentrating too much funding on popular topics. Scheffer suggests that people should be banned from giving money to anyone they’ve published with as a way to partially address those concerns. I dunno. Speaking as a Canadian, this basically sounds like the Canadian Discovery Grant system, except with a popularity contest in place of the grant review panels. Which doesn’t sound like an improvement to me–and I say that as someone who would almost certainly benefit from such a popularity contest thanks to my blogging. But what do you think? Take the poll:

Speaking of Canadian Discovery Grant (DG) review panels, there’s going to be a mock panel at the upcoming Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution meeting. Real DG panelists will evaluate two (real?) EEB DG proposals in front of an audience, using the real evaluation procedure. Then there’ll be a Q&A with the audience. Blogger that I am, I confess I don’t see what this will reveal that couldn’t be revealed as well or better by blog posts by ex-panelists. But perhaps I’m overlooking something. (ht @SalmonEco)

So you think you want to go to grad school and then become a prof. Are you sure? From a social scientist who left academia without bitterness or regret. Much (not all) of the advice generalizes to ecology. Contrary to what the linked piece says, I don’t think all of this advice is “lesser known”. For instance, I think it’s pretty well known even among beginning grad students that the academic job market is tough. But some of it is lesser known. (ht @dandrezner)

The hater’s guide to experimental reproducibility. Applies to reproducibility of statistics and computations too. I share Arjun Raj’s suspicion of moral fervor and simplistic checklists as substitutes for thought, intuition, and professional judgement. While also sharing his view that checklists have their place.

Relatedly, Stephen Heard asks why we care so much about reproducibility and not about robustness.

Semi-related: a clever way to incentivize replications. Authors who get a surprising, interesting result post a preprint and promise never to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, they offer co-authorship of a second, yet-to-be-written peer-reviewed paper to anyone willing to replicate their work. The clever bit is that both the original authors and the replicators have incentives to adopt this approach, though I do think they each have some countervailing incentives. Related: Terry McGlynn’s old idea of “calling in the wolf“. (ht Marginal Revolution)

The EEB and Flow with a fun list of the most famous ecologists, where “famous” is operationally defined by the h-index. No prizes for guessing who’s #1.

Reflections from three statisticians on the American Statistical Association’s consensus statement on p-values, one year on. To my complete outsider’s eyes, it looks to me like a capsule version of a left-of-center political debate. Robert Matthews is the passionate revolutionary impatient for major change. He has the revolutionary’s unrealistic-but-sometimes-useful beliefs as to where change comes from and how fast it can happen. David Spiegelhalter is the incrementalist reformer who says the revolutionaries have a point but are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. ASA executive director Ron Wasserstein is in a position of institutional leadership and needs to keep everybody happy, so he focuses on how things are slowly getting better and stumps for ongoing dialogue.

How to choose a car to drive software package for mixed modeling. ht Bob Carpenter, who comments.

Should professors tell students exactly what’s expected of them? Good musings on the pluses and minuses. I agree both that the pluses tend to outweigh the minuses, and that the minuses are underrated in many online discussions about pedagogy. Some good discussion in the comments of how to minimize the minuses.

PowerPoint is Turing complete. Terrifying Brilliant Hilarious Terrifillarious 5-minute video. Money quote:

But most importantly, you can use the themes, Word art, and transitions that PowerPoint is infamous for in your code.

Now I’m wondering if you can use Microsoft Word to prove undecidable theorems. (ht @kjhealy)

Academic coloring and activity book. “Find and color the many readers who will enjoy your dissertation.” (ht Marginal Revolution)


(ht @jtlevy)

Bird and Moon remains charming and funny. I liked this recent cartoon flowchart to help you choose your study species, and this one on the small but mighty Northern Pygmy Owl.

“It’s probably a violation of the terms of service on the bag of vegetables, though.” The whole thread is hysterical. 🙂

And finally, a belated Happy Easter from scientific publishing. 🙂

From Meghan:

NSF has announced a change to the Waterman Award criteria. People are now eligible until age 40 or 10 years post-PhD. This was done in response to criticisms (including by me) of the gender balance of recent winners — or lack thereof. If you take into account this year’s winners (two men), the past 15 winners (over a 13 year period) have all been men. I’m not sure how big of an impact this change will have (and this certainly isn’t a solution I had considered), but I’m glad to see that NSF is recognizing that there is a problem and working to address it. (Jeremy adds: what Meg said. I’m glad they recognize the issue, but I’m skeptical this change will address it. We’ll see, I guess.)

Related to the above, Joan Strassmann and Zen Faulkes both had pieces on how to improve the gender diversity of award winners: Joan’s advice was focused more broadly, whereas Zen’s proposal was specific to the Waterman Award. I first learned about the importance of “recognition, not recall” from conversations with Joan. That led to me working with Gina Baucom to create DiversifyEEB. (Here’s Gina’s post introducing DiversifyEEB; I still need to work on the follow up post relating it to the “recognition, not recall idea”!) So, while I agree with Joan’s take on the issue, I also agree with Zen that, for something like the Waterman Award, those approaches might not be sufficient. I think his proposed solution is worth trying.

If you want to develop your science communication skills, here’s a great opportunity! RELATE is a group at the University of Michigan that focuses on science communication and community engagement. They are leading a free online course May 5-7 entitled “Stand up for science: practical approaches to discussing science that matters”. I don’t have a formal affiliation with RELATE, but I’ve worked with them some and really valued their expertise.

13 thoughts on “Friday links: the most famous ecologist, March for Science, and more

  1. “Academic coloring and activity book. “Find and color the many readers who will enjoy your dissertation.” (ht Marginal Revolution)”

    Now who would pay $10.70 for a use copy? Or put another way: whose colouring would you pay for?

  2. ” I agree with the piece almost completely, except the bit at the end about how science is already “politicized” so scientists might as well march.”

    I would have to disagree with your take on the march for several reasons. One, science is and has been highly politicized in America since the Reagan era. Reagan eviscerated the budgets of agencies like the USFS and EPA, among others, to get science out of the way of large scale development projects. The thinking was without adequate staff, things like environmental impact statements would never be completed- or, more often, were so incomplete there were no grounds to sue. Since that time, unfortunately, science budgets at the federal level have waxed and waned depending on who sits in the oval office.

    One glaring exception to this trend happened in 2013… the grand sequestration. This was the fault of Democrats and Republicans. Because no one believed it would ever happen, everyone signed off on it. Since then, research funding has dwindled to such an extent that many established programs have vanished, and many seasoned investigators have hung up their six guns. If ever there was cause for a science march, it was then, not now. Any moves Trump makes to strip funding simply clip off the remaining low hanging fruit. The damage has already been done.

    Right, wrong or otherwise, the science march will be characterized and perceived as a partisan event, and a distinctly anti-Trump event. Lost in all of the spin and reporting will be the real just cause, which is that science has in all its forms made society what it is today. Thus I am convinced the march will do more harm, long-term anyway, than good. We live in a black and white soundbite society and that cannot be overlooked. The march is certain to harden the positions of hardline conservatives and further alienate the populace from the process of science. I do not see how the trade-offs benefit science to any appreciable degree.

    There have been many recent successful efforts to turn back the erosion of not only science, but also environmental protections in the US. Those came about not by any concerted partisan effort, but by the joining of liberal and conservative advocacy groups. Environmentalists, sportsmen, ranchers and yes, scientists. So whether we are talking potable water or federal lands, there already exists a broad-based consensus. A march is not needed to form this consensus.

    Presidents and administrations come and go. Trump is unlikely to be re-elected in four years, and there is a very real chance he is expelled from office even before then. His list of enemies grows by the hour, and many of these enemies are Republicans holding office. Behind closed doors most elected officials, Democrat or Republican, simply want him gone. An implicit understanding of American culture and of our political system is required to effectuate any kind of lasting change. It does not come overnight, and it must come with significant bipartisan support. The science march has no potential of doing that. Marches and demonstrations in general only serve to preach to the choir and most often rub the opposition the wrong way.

    It is certainly true that there is a vast segment of American society that is distrustful and ambivalent to science. That more than anything is why persons like Trump and Reagan have “attacked” science. They get away with it because many voters simply do not see the value of science… and they are not going to see it when scientists march tomorrow. I have for many years brought together disparate groups of people, who normally despise one another, to achieve landmark protections of federal and private lands. It is not easy and it never will be, but it does create positive lasting change.

    I do not support the march and I will not participate. Instead, I am spending my Earth Day working with a group of environmentalists and sportsmen to combat invasive weeds that threaten the interests of both groups. While not wanting to sound hyper-critical of your remarks, I believe in this instance your analysis of the march and its impact going forward is shallow at best.

    • Been longer than I can remember since a commenter told me I was wrong in such uncertain terms. Which is fine, if anyone ever thinks I’m completely wrong they should say so.

      You might be right. There are various points on which I would quibble with you (e.g., I wouldn’t be so quick to assume Trump won’t be re-elected, or that there’s any real chance he’ll resign or be impeached). But I think your overall argument is certainly defensible. Purely anecdotally, I think many scientists who don’t support the march share your thinking.

      As I said in the post, I don’t claim any particular wisdom on this. And I’m learning as I go, as I suspect many scientists are.

      • I too could be wrong despite the strong belief in my convictions on the issue. From my perspective, in many cases it took years to coax the owners of rangelands, gas and oil leases etc to let scientists just step foot on their properties, for fear of someone finding the next “spotted owl”. Building those relationships is a big effort mostly because of their inherent distrust of science. So I confess my experience could cloud my judgement. But I do believe an event like the march pushes conservatives further away from us.

      • In the short term, I think it will depend a fair bit on how the march is reported in the media. For instance, I very much hope that some speakers will say what you just said, that they’ll share stories of working with people across the political spectrum to overcome initial suspicion and achieve outcomes that benefit everyone. And I hope that such stories will get media play.

  3. Poll respondents are about evenly split between those who want to see the self-organized funding model piloted, and those who think the NSERC Discovery Grant system would achieve the same goals better. Plus a few percent who think it’s a terrible idea. Nobody thinks it’s a great idea, apparently.

  4. Interesting points about the march for science. I’m not so sure about this particular statement: “when the attacks on science are mostly coming from one political party.” I think it’s worth perhaps defining what a “political attack on science is”. To me, a reasonable definition is when a particular view that is counter to scientific consensus is strongly associated with members of a particular party. By that definition, I think political attacks on science can come from both democrats and republicans. Climate change denial is certainly strongly associated with republicans, but anti-vaccine and especially anti-GMO is strongly associated with democrats.

    Some might say that “cutting science funding” is a political attack on science, which is a slightly different definition. By that definition, Trump is certainly a politician attacking science, and overall, more democrats support maintaining science funding. But there are also many republicans that have publicly stated their continued of science funding and, should we be so lucky, will be the ones to block the proposed cuts. Historically, republicans have been quite friendly to NIH (Arlen Specter was one if its biggest champions). And the sequester was a democratic invention (and a really stupid idea to begin with). So again, while I think there’s some degree of validity to the statement that the attacks are mostly coming from one party, I think it’s a bit more nuanced.

    • p.s. Speaking as a born & bred Pennsylvanian, Arlen Specter was the sort of Republican who is all but extinct in the current national Republican party (Susan Collins is the only one left in the Senate). As illustrated by his change of party affiliation late in his career. He’s not the best example to make your point.

      Quibbles aside, I think your broader point is defensible.

      • Was a Democrat in the ’50s and ’60s, then switched to Republican, then, as you noted Jeremy, Democrat again.

      • Agreed, Specter is perhaps not the best example. But consider Tom Cole:
        Marches or no marches, those are the folks that are really going to save science from this administration. (That said, as a transplanted Pennsylvanian, I am definitely worried about the likes of Pat Toomey!)

        Also, very interesting about the political affiliations of the anti-GMO movement. My guess would be, however, that amongst *politicians*, the publicly anti-GMO ones are far more likely to be Democrats. Same for the public face of the anti-vaccine movement, although I think I’ve seen some similar results somewhere showing bi-partisan anti-vaccine sentiment—sort of an odd amalgam of hippies and evangelicals.

    • You make an important point about funding and related cuts. Not all funding cuts are “attacks” and not all “attacks” are cuts, and I think these are important distinctions. Cuts to defense spending under Obama initially received bipartisan support, largely because conventional warfare has become somewhat obsolete concerning recent threats. Sequestration was not an attack on science, but it certainly did a whole lot of damage to science. My belief is that the direction science should go, and in many cases has gone (as it concerns funding) are monies secured via public/ private partnerships and/ or NGOs. In other words, increasingly it becomes more and more a risk for a scientist to hang his/ her hat on federal funding. Many of my colleagues were simply phased out and forced into early retirement when they could no longer secure federal grants after sequestration. Sadly, they had no plan B, and I think many of us do not.

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