Friday links: worst field experience, social media ecologists vs. actual ecologists, and more

Also this week: “your personal scientific watchdog”, the need for speed (of phenotypic change), against work-life balance, shake up your lab meetings, nuance vs. theory, “silverbacks” vs. silverbacks, and more.

I enjoyed this post by Andrew Hendry, which gives the history about Andrew and Mike Kinnison’s efforts to quantify the speed of phenotypic change in populations. He ends by noting that his student Sarah Sanderson

generated a list of all studies in the database (we have some others still being entered), which we provide hereIf you study phenotypic change in contemporary time, it would be fantastic if you could skim this list to see if your study is included. If not, we would love it if you could contact us to tell us about your study so that it can be included. Importantly, the database will – when reasonably finished – be provided online for all to use, which can only increase its (and your study’s) value to the scientific community.

Sticking with the evolutionary theme, videos from this summer’s Evolution meeting are available at this YouTube channel.

On twitter, Jacquelyn Gill told the story of her worst field experience, which happened in . . . . Indiana?! Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Here’s the first tweet in the thread (they’re threaded, so you’ll see them all from that link).

NSF’s DEBrief blog has a heads up for those working on NSF proposals: there’s a new collaborators & other affilliations template. (Also notable: Fastlane will be down June 30th-July 4th.)

This idea for a lab meeting where people think about how to structure their papers (and maybe of additional experiments that need to be done!) sounds interesting and worth a shot. The exercise reminds me of some suggestions from Stephen Heard’s excellent book on writing. And, if you’re looking for other ways to shake up lab meeting, here’s an old post of mine with some ideas.

Joan Strassmann had an interesting post describing a workshop she participated in on improv for science communication. It sounds really neat! I’ve done the half-life activity (having 1 minute, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds) to convey one’s message and it’s really effective. The other activities she describes sound really interesting, too!

From Jeremy:

The Canadian government commissioned a blue ribbon panel on the future of fundamental research in Canada–and has ignored it. Which makes me unhappy because I liked the report. It called for more funding for basic research and for spreading funding among many investigators. The Canadian government would rather spend money on applied research priorities of its own choosing and concentrate funding in the labs of star senior researchers. The best line from the linked piece:

[I]t does no good to retain end-of-career stars if there is no mechanism for letting oddballs flourish.

Because the scientists you want to attract and retain are tomorrow’s star senior researchers–who are today’s oddballs.

The case against work-life balance. I actually disagree with much of this; at best I think it’s good advice for only a small minority of people (I like Meghan’s advice much better). I know plenty of young successful people in and out of academia who are purpose-driven in the sense of the linked post but who don’t work the long hours the post recommends. But it’s better than most pieces I’ve seen arguing for the same conclusion.

On scientific objectivity, contrarianism, and politics in conservation. Mark Vellend features. (ht @JeffOllerton)

Game theoretician Ariel Rubenstein on why game theory has no direct practical applications–and why it’s worth doing anyway. Very interesting interview. Really, it’s about why do any research that doesn’t have direct practical applications. Related: my old post on why do fundamental research in a world with pressing applied problems.

Against requiring doctor’s notes for deferral of exams or other assignments. Includes some alternative suggestions to achieve the same goals. [From Meghan: I’m going to piggy back a question I’ve been thinking about on this link: Are there any studies that look at whether requiring some form of documentation — not necessarily a doctor’s note — helps some students get connected with help sooner? This is one of the most compelling reasons I’ve heard for not going fully to a no-documentation-required policy. Also related to Jeremy’s link is this great Tenure, She Wrote post calling on faculty to be empathetic to students whose grandmother died during finals week — even if their grandmother didn’t actually die. That was motivated by a satire piece in the Chronicle that I haven’t read but that sounds like it was mean instead of funny. Terry McGlynn also had a good response to it.]

In the social sciences, “nuance” is on the rise and “theory” is (mostly) on the decline. Interesting little text-mining exercise. It would be fun to do something like this for ecology. What terms do you think such an analysis should include for ecology?

My name comes up in a Nature piece on conference networking. Some good tips here, though I’d place more emphasis on why you network at conferences. It’s actually not to market yourself.

And finally, how actual silverbacks answer questions after their talks. 🙂

14 thoughts on “Friday links: worst field experience, social media ecologists vs. actual ecologists, and more

  1. From “The Case Against Work-Life Balance”: “Don’t think for a second that elite marathoners have trained to the point that a sub-six-minute mile pace is comfortable. It’s incredibly painful. What separates the truly elite is having found a purpose that makes the sacrifice acceptable.” This is mostly wrong. Elite marathoners HAVE trained to the point that a sub-six-minute mile pace is comfortable. And what separates the truly elite is their tenacity, yes, but also their genetic gifts. I don’t like this analogy.

    • Yeah, that jumped out at me too as a very bad analogy.

      Being charitable, could you partially rescue the analogy by not referring to “sub-six-minute mile” pace and instead referring to “just over four minute mile” pace? That is, do we have a sense of how much the limits to the pace of elite marathoners are set on the mental side vs. the physical side? (Or maybe that’s a bad framing of the question?)

    • I agree that analogy is pretty dismal. Probably not a distance runner. More broadly, I wonder about the audience for that piece. It gave me the sense that what the author was really opposing is a potentially false ideal of work/life balance as holding a cushy job where you are well-compensated for limited work of little substance. To me, that’s sort of a straw man, or at least it doesn’t seem to apply readily to academic scientists, or really a lot of scientists I know outside academia. I think the sort of work/life balance conversations in the circles I’m part of, and on Dynamic Ecology, are more in terms of really driven people learning how to balance work time with things that promote physical/mental/emotional health, rewarding relationships, and non-work responsibilities. So yeah, really didn’t ring true for me either.

      • Yeah, I had the same thought. In fairness to the author, I’ve fallen into the same trap myself. If you really like X, you tend to worry about the possibility that the world will someday contain too little of X. Even if, currently, the world contains too much X, and there’s only a remote, purely hypothetical possibility that the world will ever contain too little X. Here, “X” is “driven people”.

  2. “We’ve been told over and over to choose life over work in order to achieve balance. I’m urging you, especially at the dawn of your career, to instead choose life over balance, and make the work so meaningful that you wouldn’t want it to exist as a distinct concept. This is how you ensure that your future remains yours.”

    Shyam is absolutely right about this, although I would say that *most* young professionals cannot grasp the concept. I think it is only after a great many years (perhaps 15+) that this realization takes hold. Seeing yourself this way requires maturity that only experience can bring. But once it happens, both your “work” and your “life” take on meanings you would never have imagined. “Balance”, or the concept of it, fades into obscurity.

    “Balance” in ones life is a delusion- it is a recipe or formula we attempt to apply to the inherent chaos of life. Instead, learn to embrace chaos, because it is really all we have from one moment to the next.

  3. «The Canadian government commissioned a blue ribbon panel on the future of fundamental research in Canada–and has ignored it.»
    Sooooooo, do we need to start a revolution from the base? I agree, I have not yet seen any adjustment towards greater investment in fundamental research, or dispersing funds. But the report came out only a short while ago. Should one give them time? Can we expect anything within a year? For the moment I am refusing most reviews of industry-funded projects, Chairs, in fact everything except Discovery grants (and only one / year because of the nightmare Common CV). Any strategies to suggest to bring this blue ribbon report back to their attention (and on a large scale)?

    • The linked piece discusses the government’s handling of the report’s release and its (lack of) early reaction. These at least suggests that the government is not merely taking time to digest the report, but rather doesn’t like its contents.

      I don’t have ideas for how to change the government’s mind on this. I don’t think that large scale organized protests would be either appropriate or effective.

  4. From the linked article:
    “So here’s what a serious government would do. Here’s what a government that thinks like a scientist, as Kirsty Duncan told the Globe she’s doing, would do. It would look at the circumstances that gave rise to one specific Geoffrey Hinton; notice that the trend of over a decade is steadily less attractive to comparable investigators at comparable stages in their careers; and conclude that it does no good to retain end-of-career stars if there is no mechanism for letting oddballs flourish.”

    This is a statement typical of the cries to fund more pure research, although the irony here is more delicious than most. Apparently someone who “thinks like a scientist” would look very closely at a single piece of survival-biased anecdata, extrapolate wildly, and then give away oversight of publicly-funded social good resources.

    I personally don’t subscribe to the idea that pure research is a particularly efficient way to achieve outcomes, although I reckon it’s probably a robust strategy. I think that, generally speaking, a mix of actions works best for uncertain optimisation problems. I look at the figure in that linked article, and I think it looks like a combination of pure and applied funding. My main observation is that the total amount invested in scientists appears to be dropping, and that our response appears to be infighting about which flavour of science gets the majority of the table scraps.

    • Yes, the example the author highlights is effective as rhetoric; the cited anecdotal example does indeed cut against the government’s preferred policy direction. But as you say one doesn’t want to base science funding policy on anecdotal examples.

      The difficulty is that, in this area, it’s not easy to find good data on which to base policy decisions. At least, that’s my understanding; happy to be pointed to rigorous data-based analyses on the ROI of basic vs. applied research.

      “I think it looks like a combination of pure and applied funding.”

      Yes, it is. The questions are whether it’s the optimal combination, and if not, whether current trends are moving the mix towards the optimum. As I read the linked piece, the main concern raised isn’t so much “does the government have the optimal funding mix” as “why is the government ignoring the report of its own blue ribbon panel on the optimal funding mix?”

      I have an old post attempting to justify fundamental research in a world with pressing applied problems. But I freely admit it’s very far from the sort of thing that would objectively determine the optimal funding mix:

      And here’s Brian’s old post suggesting that fundamental vs. applied research isn’t actually a single dimension: One way to defend the direction in which Canadian funding seems to be moving is the argue that it’s moving in the direction of “use-inspired fundamental research” (“Pasteur’s quadrant”) rather than in the direction of purely applied research (“Edison’s quadrant”).

      • I have a difficult time imagining a research proposal for funding that does not have some sort of applied dimension. I can for example envision a proposal wanting to investigate the accumulation of lint in belly buttons. But if the investigators fail to identify something of an applied nature in their work- like the potential of illness caused by toxins contained in Bangladesh clothing dyes- then why bother? It can’t be all that difficult for PIs to conjure up something meaningful for their research, can it? And then to insert that meaning into a proposal?

      • @ Elliot:

        I agree with Peter Adler’s old post arguing that it’s hypocrisy for fundamental researchers to pretend that their work has an applied rationale that it actually doesn’t: (I emphasize that I am every bit as hypocritical as the next ecologist when it comes to justifying my work.)

        As for why bother researching something that has no applied rationale, here’s my answer:

        What that post doesn’t talk about is how to distinguish good, important fundamental questions from questions that are of merely personal interest to the investigator. Here are a couple of old posts on good and bad reasons for choosing a fundamental research project:

      • Peter makes some great points, although I would add that prediction would not be the only means by which ecological research would have an application. I believe your post covered a lot of the ground Peter did not cover on the topic. I found your analogies to Newton’s works interesting, as I have long been a scholar of Newton. While he did not necessarily reference applications in his publications, I believe they were implicit, especially given the historical context of his era. It was also likely a time when science did not make such clear distinctions between the fundamental v. applied as we do today. Your post I think reveals that there really is not a clear line between the two.

        There is however, as you have eluded, a true difference between the icing on the cake v. the meat & potatoes. Scientists should be called out for intellectual laziness when they throw out loose justifications for their research. On the other hand, I believe that given a little rigor, applied components can (and I would argue should) be added to fundamental questions. Of course, that would also require funding agencies to insist upon and then fund these additional components.

    • The economists (bless them) have used empirical data to look at some of the key parameters you’d need to know to estimate an optimal mix of pure and applied research. There’s a good review of this whole issue by Dave Pannell from UWA (1999; “On the balance between strategic‐basic and applied agricultural research.” Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 43: 91-113).

      First, the return on investment for pure vs applied research. Huffman & Everson (1993) worked out that the marginal rate of return on another dollar of US public investment into crop research was 62:1 for pure research, and 40:1 for applied research. For livestock science it appeared that applied research delivered negative ROI, while pure research delivered a 83:1 rate of return.

      Second (and important for the first), you’d want to understand the lag between investment and return. With geometric discounting, you’ll need a much higher ROI for pure research, if it takes an additional two decades to deliver social benefits. Depending on how you model the lag, applied R&D investment seems to deliver benefits within the first 10 years, peaking between 15-30 years, and measurable for as long as 50 years. I haven’t seen this differentiated for pure vs. applied research.
      (see paper:

      Third (and related to the second), you’d need to estimate the rate of knowledge depreciation, as new technology is superceded by new and better techniques. Pure research would seem particularly susceptible to this, as it is generally justified by a larger payoff over a longer time span. Alston reviews estimates for industrial R&D, finding that: “Adams (1990) estimated an annual depreciation rate for basic research of 0.09 to 0.13, while Nadiri and Prucha (1993) estimated a rate of 0.12”.
      (see paper: Alston, Julian M., Philip G. Pardey, and Vernon W. Ruttan. “Research lags revisited: concepts and evidence from US agriculture.” Economic History Association meeting, New Haven CT. 2008.)

      Incidentally, Newton was both a pure and applied scientist, in that he made his living by both working in an academic institution, and from working at the Royal Mint. As well as mathematical ideas, his Principia contains direct applications of the techniques to questions that seem driven by England’s particular commercial and military interests. In Book 3, he works on estimating the relative magnitude of tidal influences in the Bristol channel, on ballistic trajectories in a viscous fluid, on axisymmetric cross-sections of least resistance for projectiles & vessels. I often think that our concept of a “pure” scientist is narrowly defined by the independently wealthy gentlemen naturalists of the late enlightenment. Charles Darwin comes immediately to mind. Find any scientist of that period who wasn’t independently wealthy (e.g., Michael Faraday), and they were doing plenty of incredibly applied research. Take any scientist from any earlier age (e.g., Leonardo da Vinci), and they were as likely to be working on ballistics or lead-gold conversion as they were to be undertaking pure research.

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