About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

Science, advocacy, and honesty

About a year ago, shortly after the March for Science, I wrote a three part series on living as a scienitst in a post-fact world (how we got there, why humans rarely use facts to decide what to believe, and why/how scientists should engage with policy). Peter Adler wrote a spirited rebuttal “Response to a post-fact world: in defense of the honest broker“. I responded at the time in the comments. But Meghan’s recent review of the Merchants of Doubt got me thinking about this again. So did an opportunity to shadow my representative in the Maine legislature for a day with my son. During that day I was introduced to one of only two scientists in that body out of 185 people (House + Senate).The two main topics of debate, solar energy fees and legalizing marijuana, both had substantial areas where science could have been informative, but seemed to have little to no impact on the debate, and for that matter the debate seemed to have little to no impact on the actual outcome. Rational discussion of facts is not really how policy gets made. So I want to return to my post-fact world claim that scientists need to become more engaged in policy and Peter’s rebuttal. In particular, I want to suggest that scientists get so muddled in how to relate to policy because we confuse two separate axes.

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Poll on some nitpicky paper style guide questions?

A good writer knows the conventions that their reader expects. Then they slavishly follow these conventions 95% of the time so the reader doesn’t get distracted by convention violations and instead keep their attention on what you’re trying to communicate. A good writer also occasionally and very deliberately violates these conventions as a sort of exclamation to highlight and emphasize points. Continue reading

Are you in science to understand, describe or predict?

I am convinced that most people become scientists not for the big overarching aims of science, but for personal reasons. Because I love the outdoors, plants, working with data, and a very flexible independent job would be four of mine. Others love working with their hands, a certain form of status, just love their species, etc. But none of these are the overarching goals of science. And even if I don’t think overarching goals are why we get into science, I do think most scientists are bought into the overarching goals of science as well. Certainly I think most scientists see themselves as truth-seekers. Can we be more specific about the overarching goals of science? I am going to argue that there are three major overarching goals of science:

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In praise of courtesy p-values: perfectly correct p-values vs. pragmatically approximate p-values

According to a text mining analysis of the papers ecologists publish, the number of p-values per paper has increased about 10-fold from 1970 to 2010. Where 0 p-values was sufficient to get a paper published in 1930, about 1 p-value per paper was expected to be published in 1970, and now about 10 p-values per paper are needed in the 2010s (Low-Decarie et al 2014 Figure 2). Our science must now be at least 10 times as rigorous! The only thing in the way of the p-value juggernaut is AIC which has been gaining at the expense of slowing down p-value growth. I’ve already shared my opinions that AIC is appealing to ecologists for some not so good reasons. Here I want to argue that we have gotten into some pretty sloppy thinking about p-values a well. Continue reading

Intellectual Property law 101 for academics

Academics generate a lot of intellectual property (IP for short). Arguably it is the main thing we do aside from teaching. And the IP landscape is changing rapidly both in and out of academia. This is yet-another-thing academics are supposed to be excellent at without any formal training. I don’t have extensive training, but I spent 10 years working in the software world and often was the lead business person working with lawyers to negotiate software contracts. So I have thought about these topics and how they are evolving. They seem to be evolving in some directions that don’t make sense to me. So I thought I would write a brief guide to the issues and raise some of the concerns I have. Continue reading

Writing with a point of view vs writing to discover a point of view

I have been working on writing one book and helping to revise another one recently. For a while I found it really hard going because I expected it to work like writing a paper (or blog post) is for me now. But gradually I came to realize that I needed to write in a different way and that in fact there were other situations when I wrote that way. I have gotten very used to writing with or from a point of view, where as for the book I was needing to go back to the way I wrote my very first papers – writing to find my point of view.

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Doing Ecology in Brazil: the feeling of being almost there (and should we really want to be ‘there’)?

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Thiago Silva a professor in the Geography department of São Paulo State University (UNESP), in Rio Claro, Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is currently the last post on this topic (for a while at least). There have been a lot of common themes but also a lot of diverse perspectives. I encourage you to read them all!

So I had about 2400 words written about “Doing Ecology in Brazil”, after receiving Brian’s invitation to write this guest post (Thanks!). And I went on and on detailing the problems with funding, infrastructure, bureaucracy, and so on. Some of it echoed previous posts from Isabela, Pavel, Falko, and Marco, some was new. You can read it here, if you’d like, and it might help give context to what I say below. But as I wrote it, I kept having the feeling that “there was something else”, and when it hit finally hit me, I wrote this instead.

It is very noticeable that the posts were mostly negative, and focused on problems and frustrations. And from the start, I kept asking myself – “Why is this question being asked?”. No one would even think about asking “how much do scientists in the developed world contribute to ecological research?”, so the subtext is that scientists in developing countries are lacking in some aspect, and that begs questioning the importance of their contribution.

And it is true, we are lacking. In funds, in infrastructure, in opportunities, in stability, and so on. Everyone made that very clear. Although, let’s be honest, myself and the writers of the previous posts are still very privileged. Both Brazil and South Africa are part of the BRICS, and Brazil is the 9th largest economy in the world. We often receive exchange students from African countries at my university, and if you can ask them about research in Brazil, the picture will be way different. I remember witnessing a very heated argument between a bus driver and an African exchange student, who would just not accept the complaining by the driver and kept insisting that we had it great in Brazil. But we don need to go that far; just ask anyone working at a satellite campus of a smaller Brazilian university, somewhere in the interior of the poorest Brazilian states. Their reality is way, way far from ours. That was the second thought I kept having: how can I be so negative about being a researcher at a university consistently ranked among the best in Brazil, located in the state which alone contributes with about a third of the country’ s GDP and has a state science foundation with a budget comparable to the entire federal funding agency? Am I just ungrateful? Am I just being a Xennial?

And then it hit me. The dominating feeling of frustration that echoed in all the posts comes exactly from not being at either tail end of the curve. If we imagine Ecology or any science as a race*, our countries are not be leading, but we are close enough to see the leading racers. We are close enough that our universities, funding agencies, and even our peers expect us to race equally. And when we continuously fail to meet these expectations, we feel frustrated, and inadequate, and see ourselves as imposters.

But this is the thing, we aren’t failing because we’re not good enough, but just because we don’t have the same support system as scientists in the developed world (which was what I was initially writing about). We can’t get grants as large, and when we get we’re not paid on time or get the amount due. When we finally do get paid, then our money buys us less. And even when we can afford it, we get held back by paralyzing bureaucracy. And if we do manage to afford and have it, it will likely become impossible to maintain it because of the rollercoaster. And this is just the funding aspect.

Educational gaps also make a huge difference. We don’t speak the consensus language of science natively, nor are properly educated on it when young. Our entire education system is inferior at all levels, from primary to higher education, so we all need to work extra hard to bring ourselves to the level of the ‘developed world’. And this problem continues even after you “make it’; your supervised students will also be ‘behind’ students in the developed world in reading, writing, and overall learning. Look at the stats given by Falko. That means investing significant more time in mentoring and supervising students, so they can themselves become good scientists and make important contributions.

On top of this, there is the significant administrative overhead, as we receive much less support from our institutions, and most departments are understaffed. We have no grants offices, so each PI must manage every cent spent, keep track of every single receipt, and fill every single line of the insanely complex accounting spreadsheets. Even at the best research universities in Brazil, we have teaching loads similar to American teaching universities, but are expected to do research like we were at a R1 university. Oh, and with no TAs. If you follow Terry McGlynn’s accounts on working at a teaching university that serves underprivileged students, you have the picture of how it is to work at any Brazilian university. Except you still have the high-level research expectations.

So that is the gist of being an ecologist (or any scientist) in a wealthy developing world country. You haven’t really made the jump to the developed world, but you’re expected to act and deliver as if you had, even though about everything else in the system is lacking. And not just by your employers and funders, but mostly by your colleagues in your country and outside it. You will be seen as ‘less productive’ because you don’t have as many papers, even though it costs you many more hours of work and money to produce and document that same piece of knowledge. You will be seen as ‘less competent’ because you publish stuff on your small national journals, even if it is just because you cant afford to pay as often for revisions/translations and/or publication fees, so you can publish your work of the same quality on the consensus “Plan B” open access journals of the develop world.

And the worst of all is knowing that you could do all these, and be producing as much good ecological knowledge, if you had the same support system. Is the feeling of not being able to answer this really cool question because you can’t afford that one extra lab analysis or have the assurance that you’ll actually receive the grant that was awarded to you. Is seeing that question being answered by someone else, while the unfinished manuscript is still lingering on your computer, which you could have finished if only you had received that one piece of equipment in time, or the help of a TA, a research assistant, or a grant manager to free up some of your time.

And this shared frustration gets me both worried and angry. Worried because the pattern I’ve been observing is that to be “internationally recognized”, Brazilian scientists progressively sacrifice their humanity and that of the people around them. With every up-tick on impact factor and H-index comes an increase in questionable grant spending practices, questionable publishing practices, and more treatment of students, assistants and even colleagues as slave robots, fodder to be sacrificed to the publishing and funding gods. All of a sudden, being a ‘recognized scientist’ becomes more important than the science itself, and if that is what my future holds, I’ll pass. I know a lot of my senior, ‘recognized’ colleagues would criticize me, saying I just need to ‘man up’, and do what it takes, but as I’ve been saying more and more lately, if being a ‘leading scientist’ means betraying what I believe in, then I guess I’ll never be one .

And I get angry, because at the end, we’re chasing and being judged by standards that were not decided by us, which are based on working conditions and realities that are not ours, and that are even being increasingly questioned from within. After living in Canada for six years for my PhD, I returned to Brazil following a very unsuccessful foray into the North-American academic job market. At the time, I rationalized this ‘failure’ to myself by saying “Well, at least you wont have to work so hard”. And yet, now I find myself working as hard or harder, while ‘achieving less’ by the conventional standards, and I feel increasingly frustrated and betrayed by the system. But a lot of that is my own fault, by accepting and pursuing standards that should not apply to me.

So maybe we should stop asking the question that in truth is “how much do scientists from developing countries contribute to ecological researchby the standards of the developed world?” and just realize that of course we do contribute as well as any scientist, to the best of our ability, and often in important ways that aren’t recognized by the current standards. And we should be proud of that, and stop measuring ourselves by the standards of others. The best perk of being a developing anything is having the opportunity to learn from the experiences and mistakes of the developed, so we can skip steps and do better without having to copy or repeat them.

I would like to thank Annia Susin Streher for reviewing this first version of my rumbling, and both her and Tadeu Siqueira for long and repeated lunch and beer discussions over these issues.

* This is just a metaphor. We shouldn’t see science as a competition, and the fact that people do so is a large part of the problem.

Guest post: ecology done and being done in Latin America

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Catherine Hulshof, a professor in Puerto Rico. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries followed by several first person accounts. Catherine had a very different perspective from anything we’ve heard so far on the topic that I thought was important to express. She has a blog here.

There are two perspectives of science in developing countries. The first perspective provides examples of scientists who ‘did science correctly’ to demonstrate that these regions contribute to global knowledge. The second perspective considers science a product of social, cultural, and political values of a particular place and time and, because of this, is subject to fashion.

Unwrapping these two perspectives requires a history of a people who long ago catalogued all living species, their varied uses and ecological interactions in some of the most biodiverse places in the world.

It’s easy to forget this because the oral tradition is dead or dying and the biodiversity catalogues preserved in stone codices, paintings, or stelae were systematically destroyed. The famous 1552 ethnobotanical herbarium from Mexico was kept secret in the Vatican for 400 years (Domínguez et al. 2015).

What was substituted were descriptions of the natural world written by priests, monks, and other colonists sent from Spain, France, and England to inventory resources for the empire. These explorations gave rise to the first universities in the Americas, like the Universidad Santo Tomás de Aquino, established in 1538, 150 years before Harvard.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the success of mining and agriculture in Latin America was married to rapid scientific growth. This success funded the construction of botanical gardens, natural history museums, universities and other specialized laboratories like the Real Seminario de Mineria in Mexico (where Alexander von Humboldt visited and taught for several months).

How easily forgotten are the scientists who accompanied our von Humboldt, Bates, and Darwin.

The booming mining, agriculture and scientific sectors demonstrated the strength of the Spanish colonies and independence followed. In many ways, scientists (who were already among the Creole elite) led the independence movement, becoming congressmen and writing constitutions. The Mexican Constitution, for example, makes reference to scientists like Rousseau, Newton, and Benjamin Franklin, reflecting the prominent role science played in shaping these nations.

The 19th century was another major period of growth for science in Latin America. Immigration of scientists fleeing Europe during wartime, international funding from institutions like the Rockefeller and Kellogg Foundations, combined with the adoption of more inclusive education policies, were major instruments for strengthening the scientific sector.

Today, many of the same institutions that were founded before and after independence still support modern science and have produced generations of scientists, Nobel Prizes, and scientific literature, predominantly in Spanish.

That’s the differentiating factor between the two perspectives of science in developing countries. English is the dominant language of science. It wasn’t always English. It may not always be English. At times it was Latin, others German, further back Arabic. We live in the Information Age but access to information is not equal. This is one of the greatest tragedies of science.

Multilingual scientists have a major advantage because they can connect different narratives. Narratives that are too easily lost if not written in the modern science vernacular.

Narratives like that of Hipólito Unanue y Pavón a naturalist who wrote detailed botanical accounts of the Peruvian flora. Or Hipólito Ruiz López, considered the Peruvian Linnaeus. And José Celestino Mutis whose botanical collection was only rivaled by Joseph Banks’ in London and who collaborated with Alexander von Humboldt. Or José Antonio Alzate y Ramirez who published the first scientific journals in Mexico. Or what about Francisco José de Caldas who invented the hypsometer and measured altitude with von Humboldt. Or botanists José Mariano Mociño and Jose Longinos Martinez who promoted the natural sciences in Guatemala. Or Agustín Stahl, the famous Puerto Rican naturalist. And Costa Rica’s Clodomiro Picado Twight who pioneered snake research and antivenin development and whose work on molds predated Alexander Fleming’s. Or Cuba’s naturalist Felipe Poey y Aloy. Or Carlos Chagas of Brazil’s Instituto Oswaldo Cruz who discovered the parasite and insect responsible for Chagas disease. And Cuban Carlos Juan Finlay who identified the yellow fever vector decades before U.S. scientists. And of course the Peruvian physiologist Carlos Monge who studied the effects of high altitude on humans and animals and created the Institute of Andean Biology. Or Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanist who discovered 500 new plant species. Or Miguel Álvarez del Toro a famous ornithologist from Mexico who founded the Instituto de Historia Natural in Chiapas. Or more contemporary scientists like Mario Molina who received a Nobel Prize for his work relating the environmental effects of CFCs, Rosalina Berazaín Iturralde a leading botanist in Cuba, Cleofé Calderón a grass and bamboo specialist from Argentina, Colombia’s Juan Posada a leading plant ecologist or Susana Caballero a marine biologist, or Ariel Lugo from Puerto Rico who popularized the idea of novel ecosystems, or Carla Restrepo a tropical ecologist with a charismatic path to science or Sandra Díaz in Argentina, recognized globally for her foundational work by a long list of awards (including a Peace Nobel Prize).

The list is endless.

The contributions of ecologists from developing countries are not periphery to or separate from those of developed countries. On the contrary, collaboration between scientists gave rise to entire branches of science, ignited independence and the development of new nations, and is pioneering our understanding of biodiversity and global change in the 21st century.

We’ve heard accounts of doing science in the midst of political and financial instability (from Brazil here, here, here; from South Africa here; from Puerto Rico keep an eye out here). Despite interruptions and reduced funding, institutions like Colombia’s Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt represent the next generation of science in Latin America.

During the Dark Ages, science declined in Europe and flourished in Islam. During the last half of this century, science investment declined in the United States and is flourishing elsewhere. Developing countries are perfectly positioned to lead some of the world’s most challenging ecological questions in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Indeed, these regions are most affected by the fashions of the developed world.

For more detailed accounts of the history of science in Latin America check out:

  1. Glick, T.P. (1992) History of Science in Latin America. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  2. Quipu, Revista Latinoamericana de Historia de las Ciencias y la Tecnología
  3. Domínguez, F., Alonso-Castro, A. J., Anaya, M., González-Trujano, M. E., Salgado-Ceballos, H., & Orozco-Suárez, S. (2015). Mexican Traditional Medicine: Traditions of yesterday and Phytomedicines for Tomorrow. In Therapeutic Medicinal Plants: From Lab to the Market, 1.
  4. A great interactive teaching resource from the Smithsonian Institution highlighting Latino Natural History

Thanks to Maga Gei for feedback on these ideas!

Poll results on statistical machismo

An ongoing theme to some of my posts has been the notion of statistical machismo. As noted recently, statistical machismo is not really about using (or not using) complex statistics. It is about using more complex statistics for bad reasons (e.g. to impress people) or forcing other people to use more complex reasons again for bad reasons or out of the ill-conceived notion that there is always one correct, best way to do statistics. The discussions on the last posts raised interesting questions about whether statistical machismo is really a problem or if it occurs just as often in the other direction (forcing people to use simple statistics). So of course that called for a poll . I am going to report on the results here. Continue reading

Guest post: Doing ecology on a rollercoaster in Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Marco Mello a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the fourth of several on this topic. Marco is the most senior of all of the guest posts solicited and I think you will notice the long term perspective in his post. I am indebted to Marco for inviting me to speak at the 25th anniversary celebration of the ecology department at his university and for getting me excited about the great ecology happening in Brazil. Marco also blogs at Surviving in Science (in Portuguese but Google Translate is pretty effective).

Have you ever tried to write a paper in a rollercoaster? Let me tell you how it is to do science in a developing country, where the long-term funding policy changes constantly. Continue reading