The George Mercer Award is given annually by the ESA to an outstanding research paper published in the previous two years (so, 2016 or 2017 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.). 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?
So, what papers do you think should be in the conversation for the Mercer award this year? Here are three just off the top of my head, but I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of great papers by young authors so please add your favorites in the comments. And then follow through and nominate them!
- LaManna et al. 2017 Science. A rare beast in ecology: a discovery of new and important large-scale patterns in empirical data (a latitudinal gradient in the strength of negative intraspecific density dependence, and in the degree to which density dependence and species abundances are correlated). Further, those patterns suggest an explanation for maybe the most famous pattern in all of ecology: the latitudinal gradient in species richness. There are challenging statistical issues in using observational data to estimate density dependence and so I’m not sure if everyone is yet totally convinced of the results. But this is clearly an important paper even if it’s not the final word.
- Usinowicz et al. 2017 Nature. Speaking of latitudinal gradients in the strength of coexistence mechanisms: Usinowicz et al. use long-term monitoring data on seed recruitment in 10 forest plots spanning a long latitudinal gradient to estimate the strength of the temporal storage effect in each plot. They find that there’s a latitudinal gradient in the strength of the storage effect; it’s stronger at low latitudes because seed recruitment is more asynchronous there. This weakens interspecific relative to intraspecific competition and so promotes species coexistence. As with LaManna et al., there are challenging statistical issues here (it looks like they’re estimating a lot of parameters), and I haven’t yet dug deep into their data and supplements to satisfy myself that they’re actually estimating the storage effect and that their estimates are accurate. But if this is right it’s a very important result.
- Hart et al. 2016 Ecology Letters. The Mercer award has never gone to a pure theory paper as far as I know. If it ever has it’s been a long time. Which doesn’t seem quite right. I mean, it often goes to papers that test or apply theory but don’t develop it. So why can’t it also go to papers that develop theory but don’t test or apply it? Hart et al. use simple models to demolish the common intuition that intraspecific variation should generally promote species coexistence by “blurring” interspecific differences in competitive ability. In fact, intraspecific variation usually inhibits species coexistence. This illustrates one of the most important tasks for theoreticians: correcting widespread pre-theoretical intuitions and replacing them with new, better intuitions. Before you read Hart et al. it’s hard to imagine how it could be right. After you read it, it’s hard to imagine how it could be wrong. The main limitation of the paper is its focus on purely ecological effects of intraspecific variation, thereby ignoring, e.g., selection depleting variation over time and eco-evolutionary feedbacks. But every paper has limitations, so nobody should hold it against Hart et al. that they don’t yet have a complete theory of intraspecific variation and coexistence. You can’t do everything in one paper.
- Weiss-Lehman et al. 2017 Nature Communications. I love this sort of thing: taking full advantage of the power of a model system to do an experiment that teases apart the subtle (but very general) mechanisms underpinning a striking pattern. Weiss-Lehman et al. use an incisive microcosm experiment with flour beetles to explain why populations undergoing range expansion evolve both a higher mean rate of spread and a higher variance in spread rate. Randomly shuffling the spatial locations of individuals within populations without altering population density or demography revealed that spatial evolution is a key driver of the mean and variance of range expansion speed. And they didn’t stop there; they also did phenotypic trait assays to directly test for spatial evolution of movement propensity and demographic parameters. Likely to become a future textbook example of eco-evolutionary dynamics. Last year another great microcosm experiment on the same topic became the first microcosm paper to win the Mercer award (Williams et al. 2016). The Mercer’s never gone to papers on the same topic in consecutive years as far as I can recall (too lazy to check). But that doesn’t take anything away from Weiss-Lehman et al., plus there’s a first time for everything. (UPDATE: and see the comments; the post neglected to mention Ochocki & Miller 2017 Nature Communications, a third outstanding paper on this topic. All three papers were done in loose collaboration.)
This year our very own Meghan Duffy is chairing the Mercer Award subcommittee. She would love for you to nominate a paper! As we’ve discussed in the past, the Mercer Award subcommittee is not overwhelmed with nominations and takes every nomination very seriously no matter who it’s from. So you should definitely go ahead and nominate a paper, even if you’re a grad student or postdoc. Your nominee might well win! Plus, writing a Mercer award nomination letter is a good way to practice explaining to your colleagues why some bit of science is really great. Which is something you need to be good at if you expect to get grants and publish papers in selective journals.
If you’re not sure how to write a Mercer award nomination letter, here’s what you do: in 1-2 pages, summarize the paper for a broad audience (remember: possibly none of the committee members will be experts on the paper topic), and place it in a broader context to explain why it’s exemplary/novel/interesting/important science. Each of my little blurbs above could be expanded into a nomination letter.