Friday links: big NSF-DEB change, biggest puzzles in biology, making REU programs better, and more

Also this week: Meghan wins an award, the future adjunctification is here it’s just not evenly distributed, renaming Dynamic Ecology, if your study species revolted, and more.

From Jeremy:

Steven Frank, for my money the deepest thinker in evolutionary biology, on the biggest puzzles in modern biology. His list: why are so many males sterile, why do some age-related diseases have global causes while others (like cancer) start locally and then spread, why are genome regulatory networks overwired, and why do complex evolutionary innovations arise abruptly? Here’s a newly-identified puzzle in ecology that really interests me: why does community production rate scale with community density as a power law with an exponent of 0.75? (Hatton et al. 2015) It’s puzzling because the obvious answer (“because individual production scales with body size as a power law with an exponent of 0.75”) can be ruled out. More on this in a future post.

Meghan got the President’s Award for Public Impact from the University of Michigan this week! Congratulations! She got to have breakfast with the university President and everything. 🙂

Terry McGlynn with thoughtful, constructive criticism of whether NSF REU programs achieve the goal of helping students from underrepresented groups go on to research careers. Includes some ideas for improvement, one of which NSF DEB is already piloting.

Lots of discussion online recently about adjunctification of US academia (e.g. this Bloomberg News piece, which links to other recent pieces). For context, I’m reupping this piece, which I’ve linked to before. It’s a deeper dive into the data than you usually see in news articles about adjunctification, and it’s useful because it shows how the headline numbers on adjunctification could easily be misinterpreted. The key takeaway is that adjunctification isn’t evenly distributed across US higher education. Rather, the growth of adjuncts as a proportion of all faculty in the US has been driven largely by the boom in community colleges that started in the 1970s, and the boom in for-profit universities that started in the 1990s (and may now be receding, thank goodness). Adjuncts comprise most of the faculty at those two types of institutions. Full-time faculty at non-profit 4-year colleges and universities are mostly not being replaced by adjuncts (yet; one wonders what will happen in future if enrollment declines continue, as they likely will). These data of course don’t speak directly to the plight of adjuncts, or suggest any solutions on their own, but I think they’re a piece of the puzzle.

RIP portable peer review. I agree with this. Related recent discussion.

Some notes on the finances of China’s top universities.

Interesting tidbit: Am Nat papers default to double-blind review, but authors can opt out. Which 18% of them do, mostly because they want to talk about their own previous work.

This week in inside baseball: Terry McGlynn suggests a new, more descriptive title for Dynamic Ecology. Which Twitter needs an ellipsis to display. 🙂

And finally, if your study species revolted. This is what would happen if my study species revolted. 🙂

From Meghan:

Big news for US folks: NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology has moved to a no deadline model. They will not accept preproposals this January, which is a faster change than I expected. The DEBrief post is here. I think this is the right thing to try, but do wonder how this will play out over the next year or two. When some Geosciences program tried this model, proposals dropped substantially, presumably because many people are very deadline motivated. This is good because it allows for life events, gives people flexibility for working around other obligations, and allows people to wait until they feel a proposal is really ready before sending it in. One of the main concerns I’ve heard so far is about the potential for strife between collaborators — for some people, those hard deadlines are the motivation they need to really focus on the proposal. And, as I said, I wonder how it will play out in the short term as everyone adjusts.

8 thoughts on “Friday links: big NSF-DEB change, biggest puzzles in biology, making REU programs better, and more

  1. Interesting to ponder puzzles, and I agree with Steven Frank that it’s super hard to identify good ones. I wonder if it’s even harder to identify ecological ones. Evolutionary ones always start with “Natural selection ought to have done X, but instead we see Y”, and the work since there is one overarching theory that leads to clear expectations. Are ecological puzzles likely to be more “local” (i.e., some specific system does something weird), as opposed to widespread things like sterile males? Just pondering on Friday morning…

    • Your comment is basically a short version of my upcoming post.

      I do think ecology has some “global” puzzles. “Why is the world green” is a classic one. And conversely, evolution has some “local” puzzles. For instance, only a relatively small number of species that have sterile worker castes, or engage in other behaviors that could be regarded as altruistic. I’m not sure whether ecological puzzles are “local” more often than evolutionary puzzles are. But yes, whether evolution’s puzzles are local or global, they all do come down to “Natural selection ought to have done X, but instead we see Y”. Whereas ecology’s puzzles take a range of forms.

      • Looking forward to that post. I suppose the hope is that it’s just our limited imaginations failing to see global ecological puzzles that will look obvious sometime in the future after some brilliant people identify and solve them…

      • Sometimes it’s unclear whether a puzzle is an ecological one or an evolutionary one. “Why is the world green?” seems to me more evolutionary than ecological, but that may reflect the different ways in which Jeremy and I think of “ecology”. Likewise, “why is there a trend of increasing numbers of species of (most) groups with latitude?” can be framed either as an ecological or an evolutionary question, and the most likely answer is probably that it is the result of a combination of ecological and evolutionary processes.

        This is one of the reasons why I see no clear distinction between “ecology” and “evolutionary biology” as disciplines, and chimes with the recent DE post about whether or not ecology is a “coherent” discipline.

    • I just had a paper go through the review process at Biotropica (originally submitted there so no comment on portable peer review) and it was a really great experience. The editors and reviewers were very thorough and I got a sense that the subject editor/EIC especially were conscious of the fact that, as a grad student I’m still learning to write good papers, and they were helpful. The paper we originally submitted was not very good, but they liked the topic enough to stick with us through a few rounds of reviews until it was accepted. For people with relevant papers, Biotropica is definitely a great option!

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