Friday links: does ecology need more theoreticians, tell me again what “open science” is, and more

Also this week: how college student study time is like energy and momentum, interesting interview with Dan Janzen, Alan Turing vs. money, rhino bonds, drinking with your scientific heroes, and more. Lots of good stuff this week!

From Jeremy:

Tell me again what “open science” is? Does it mean doing publicly posting the raw data and code to reproduce all your statistical analyses and figures? Posting preprints? Open access publication? Discussing and critiquing science in public? Encouraging and valuing participation in science by everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background? Or what? Very interesting read for me, as someone who doesn’t self-identify as any flavor of “open scientist”. Extended quotes, to give you the flavor and encourage you to click through:

Further, as in any other enterprise, if you monomaniacally push a single value hard enough, then at a certain point, tensions will arise even between values that would ordinarily co-exist peacefully if each was given only partial priority. For example, if you think that doing reproducible science well requires a non-negotiable commitment to doing all your analyses programmatically, and maintaining all your code under public version control, then you’re implicitly condoning a certain reduction in diversity within science, because you insist on having only people with a certain set of skills take part in science, and people from some backgrounds are more likely than others (at least at present) to have those skills…

In highlighting the ambiguity of the term open science, I’m not just saying hey, just so you know, there are a lot of different activities people call open science; I’m saying that, at this point in time, there are a few fairly distinct sub-communities of people that all identify closely with the term open science and use it prominently to describe themselves or their work, but that actually have fairly different value systems and priorities…

The bigger problem though, is that at this point in time, open science isn’t just a descriptive label for a set of activities scientists often engage in; for many people, it’s become an identity. And, whatever you think the value of open science is as an extensional label for a fairly heterogeneous set of activities, I think it makes for terrible identity politics…

For the most part, I think I’ve succeeded in eliminating open science from my discourse…I haven’t, so far, found myself missing the term “open”, and I don’t think I’ve lost brownie points in any club for not using it more often.

Writing in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Rossberg et al. argue that ecology needs to train more and better theoreticians. Interesting piece. Without wanting to criticize the piece or its authors at all, I’d note that there’s a strong tendency for ecologists who do X to think that many/all ecologists need more and better training in X, no matter what X is (see here and here). Ecologists tend to think their own skills and interests are undervalued and that others’ skills and interests are overvalued (just like different subsets of the “open science” community, apparently…). Natural historians think everybody needs more natural history training, stats gurus think everybody needs more statistical training, etc. I’d be very interested to be pointed to a piece in which an ecologist who does X argues that what ecologists really need is more training in some other thing that’s not X. Like Charles Darwin’s famous remark that “I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics; for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.”

Unreviewed preprint of a massive study showing that various online and text message “nudges” have at most a minor effect on how much time college students spend studying, and no effect on their academic performance. The main effect of nudging students that they need to study more to obtain high grades is to cause students to lower their grade expectations. (ht @page_eco)

A while back we linked to the list of scientists nominated to appear on the new British 50 pound note. The winner has been announced, and in retrospect I feel kind of silly not to have predicted it: Alan Turing.

An argument that knowledge workers (a category that includes academics) should train their brains like athletes train their bodies, by following learning plans. I like this idea.

Sean B. Carroll’s popular book, The Serengeti Rules, about the general principles underpinning the balance of nature, is now a documentary. Featuring Bob Paine, Jim Estes, John Terborgh, Tony Sinclair, and Mary Power. Sounds like Meghan will need to add this to her list of videos for teaching ecology.

Interview with Dan Janzen. Come for the backstory of his classic 1966 paper, stay for the mind-blowing anecdotes about how different the faculty job market was back in the 1960s. Here’s some statistical context for those ancedotes. (ht Meghan)

Rhino bonds. That is, $50M USD worth of bonds that pay off with interest if African black rhino populations increase over a 5-year period. Further details here (link goes to a proposed version of rhino bonds from a few years ago, that now seems to be ready for implementation). Anyone know more about this? As best I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong!), these bonds aren’t really conventional bonds at all. You’re not giving money to a widget manufacturer to build a new widget factory, and then once the factory is built the widget manufacturer pays you back with interest from the profits arising from increased widget sales. Rather, rhino bonds are a way for the “outcome payers” to buy additional conservation effort, but only if it works. (Presumably the “outcome payers” here are the Kenyan and South African governments, judging by the proposal in that last link?) Bondholders pay money to conservation groups to do rhino conservation. If rhino numbers go up, the outcome payers pay back the bondholders, with interest. If rhino numbers go down, the bondholders don’t get paid back, at least not entirely. Assuming I’ve got that right, I have…questions (which may well just indicate that I’m ignorant or confused, so please feel free to set me straight in the comments). Like, this is effectively a bet between the bondholders and the outcome payers as to whether rhino conservation will work, right? The governments are basically saying “We’d like to increase rhino numbers, but we don’t think it can be done for $50M. But if you think it can be, go ahead and try. If you pull it off we’ll pay you back with interest.” To which, given the long-term steep decline in black rhino abundance, aren’t the outcome payers going to have to offer a pretty high interest rate to get any bondholders willing to take the other side of the bet? That is, won’t the governments end up paying a lot for a success here, relative to the $50M cost of the success? Or maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Maybe you should think of it as the government offering a monetary prize for successful rhino conservation, but anyone who wants a share of the prize has to contribute to the $50M up-front investment required to have a shot at the prize. Which I admit is a slightly weird way to think about it (but is it wrong?). There are even weirder ways to think about it (sorry, I am a machine for turning coffee Pepsi into theorems weird analogies). I mean, you could think of this bond is as a conservation donation with a money-back guarantee (with interest)–but only if the donation achieves its goals rather than failing to achieve its goals! I dunno, I feel like I must be missing something here. Smart experienced people from the ZSL were heavily involved in developing this, so there must be some rationale for it that I’m just not quite grokking. Looking forward to learning from your comments. (ht Marginal Revolution)

You can drink beer with your scientific heroes by buying these pint glasses featuring everyone from Charles Darwin to Mary Anning. There’s also an amusing “beards of science” one. And if you don’t drink beer, that’s ok, they have nerdy t-shirts and coffee mugs and etc. (ht a friend)

And finally, um. (ht Matt Levine)

10 thoughts on “Friday links: does ecology need more theoreticians, tell me again what “open science” is, and more

  1. Hi Jeremy, the rhino bonds concept has me confused too.

    Here is how I see it: investors put up principle capital. If the rhino population increases after a predetermined time period, the the investors get their principle back, plus some form of return (which is determined by the interest rate and contributions from outcome payers: governments or philanthropists). So, in this sense, we seem to interpret it the same way.

    Where we disagree is that it is a bet, because the investors (i.e. the bond holders) actually have a say on the outcome. They can intervene to protect their investment.

    So, imagine $50 million is invested. That needn’t be used for rhino conservation interventions. Instead, the bond issuer can just sit on it and wait for the bond to mature. If the rhino numbers dip below the agree threshold, they can immediately use the $50 million for conservation interventions (i.e. the funds are available for captive breeding or anti-poaching).

    If, however, the rhino population stabilises, the original $50 million plus interest gets returned to to investors, and the bond issuer only has to pay the investors the the portion that makes the investment worthwhile (i.e. the expected return above and beyond inflation). This might be something like 2-5% above inflation (so approximately $1-2.5 million).

    The higher the rate of population declines, the higher the risk to the investor, and – as you wrote – the higher the returns that should be offered by the bond issuer. For black rhino, the promised returns will be quite high, because the likelihood of population decline (and the probability of defaulting on the investment) is also high. Thus, it would be in the best interest of the investors to contribute to conservation interventions to protect their investment. The risk of population declines is transferred from the bond issuer to the bond purchaser (i.e. from outcome players to the private sector).

    That’s the simplified version. In practice the bond issuer will probably use the invested principle capital to fund conservation interventions that are able to generate revenue (e.g. revenue from the sale of game or from ecotourism). If I understand this properly, protected-area bonds work in this way.

    While this all sounds very smart, the downside is that it becomes theoretically possible to develop financial derivatives to hedge these risks. For instance, it may become possible to profit from species declines by selling options to the investors buying rhino bonds (i.e. similar to the types of derivatives where people profited from the collapse of the housing market).

    I might have this wrong too, so I’m keen to hear what others have to say.

    • “Where we disagree is that it is a bet, because the investors (i.e. the bond holders) actually have a say on the outcome. They can intervene to protect their investment.”

      Yes, I actually agree with that, should’ve made that clearer in the post.

      “The risk of population declines is transferred from the bond issuer to the bond purchaser (i.e. from outcome players to the private sector).”

      I guess that’s the right way to think about it. That’s what I was trying to get at when I said that the outcome payers were only paying for success, but you articulated it better than I did. The governments don’t want to pay for failure, only for success. But the price of only paying for success is that you have to pay extra for success.

      “While this all sounds very smart, the downside is that it becomes theoretically possible to develop financial derivatives to hedge these risks. For instance, it may become possible to profit from species declines ”

      Yeah, I was wondering about that too. I’ve seen a lot of snark online about poachers shorting rhino bonds. I would guess that, in practice, there’s not really a practical way for poachers or anybody else to profit by simultaneously shorting rhino bonds and poaching rhinos. If only because the amount of money at stake is too small and the market for these bonds is insufficiently mature. But then again, maybe that’s wrong (or is right now, but will become wrong in future). Matt Levine’s newsletter talks a lot about how, in the much bigger and more mature credit default swaps market, there are shenanigans analogous to poachers shorting rhino bonds. For instance, hedge funds that own enough CDS on a company’s debt (basically, insurance against a default) would profit from a company’s default on that debt. So they might offer the company a share of those profits in exchange for the company defaulting on its debt.

    • “In practice the bond issuer will probably use the invested principle capital to fund conservation interventions that are able to generate revenue (e.g. revenue from the sale of game or from ecotourism). ”

      I was wondering about that. The main threat to rhinos is poaching, right? If you’re going to raise rhino numbers in just 5 years (not a very long time relative to the generation time of rhinos), I suspect that pretty much the only way to do it is to stop poaching, right? Improving rhino habitat isn’t going to work fast enough. (would expanding captive breeding work fast enough?) And funding an expansion of ecotourism that will eventually bring in revenue that can then be put towards rhino conservation definitely won’t work fast enough.

  2. I think part of why I’m confused about the rationale for rhino bonds is that the ZSL documents I’ve seen online, and some quotes from ZSL folks in news articles, talk about the need to attract new private dollars to support conservation efforts. But insofar as these bonds actually achieve the conservation goals they’re funding, they’re *not* attracting new private money to conservation. They’re attracting new *government* money. They only attract new private money to conservation to the extent that those conservation efforts *fail*. So I think it’s more accurate to think of rhino bonds as governments wanting to pay only for conservation success (or maybe, being willing to pay more for success than for failure), and being willing to pay extra for success in order to have the privilege of not paying for failure (or paying less for failure).

    • Yes, I have this same interpretation. It isn’t so much about attracting new funding, but more about redistributing the financial risk to the private sector.

      That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the huge sum of money that is floating around in private conservation operations across Africa (see for example: https://singita.com/). I was lucky enough to visit a new private protected area in Mozambique earlier this year and was awe-struck by the millions of dollars worth of game-fencing and Toyota Land-cruisers. There is serious long-term investment happening.

      It might be that these operations (or their parent companies) are the ones that would buy the conservation bonds? They are already investing huge sums into establishing private protected areas, setting up anti-poaching units, managing breeding programs and selling game at auctions. So, they already to a large part control the population trajectories of many big game species. Perhaps they see the rhino bonds as lower risk and money for what they are already doing anyway (its unclear whether the five pilot sites are in public or private protected areas, so I might be getting this completely wrong).

      Many private game-ranches are getting rid of their rhinos (selling, not culling) because the cost of anti-poaching is more than they economic value of the animals. Perhaps a rhino bond is a way to tip the scales the opposite way?

      • “That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the huge sum of money that is floating around in private conservation operations across Africa (see for example: https://singita.com/). I was lucky enough to visit a new private protected area in Mozambique earlier this year and was awe-struck by the millions of dollars worth of game-fencing and Toyota Land-cruisers. There is serious long-term investment happening.”

        Interesting, I didn’t know that.

  3. The conservation “bond” is…weird. Five years seems like a silly timescle for conservation of a large mammal, and the fact that the bond pays only on expiry isn’t going to make it more popular.

    What if a gov or group of govs just paid orgs $x per individual over a certain starting point? Then orgs could float a more standard bond that pays investors on a regular sched, and orgs use the $$ from the bond sale to do conservation work

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