About Jeremy Fox

I'm an ecologist at the University of Calgary. I study population and community dynamics, using mathematical models and experiments.

Guest post: advice for winning more awards

Note from Jeremy:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Pamela H. Templer, both professors at Boston University. I appended a few additional thoughts of my own at the end.

Besides flowers and birds, the spring also brings a succession of announcements of university honors, professional society awards, and fellowship awardees for the coming year. When we were graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors, the whole process seemed like a mystery, in terms of why someone was recognized with an award, and other people remained unrecognized.  We wondered: Why were these people selected, and not others?  And how did they get nominated? And how did they hear about these awards?

Over the past decades, we have become familiar with the process of winning awards. It is a lot less mysterious than it seems, and there are many ways to participate. We believe that if people are more aware of how awards are won, the process will become both fairer and more transparent. So, we would like to share some of our insights with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of people nominated and chosen to receive awards. Here is our advice:

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What ecological questions or topics require no further research?

Recently ran across an interesting remark from Dan Davies: the question “Does the MMR vaccine cause autism?” is one of the few on which scientists have concluded that no further research is needed.

Which got me thinking: what ecological questions or topics require no further research?

There are many boringly obvious answers. For instance, we don’t need any further research to know if species richness tends to be higher in the tropics, or tends to increase with area. Ok, maybe we need more research into why those patterns are observed, or the precise quantitative shape of the richness-latitude or richness-area relationship, or etc. But we don’t need any more research merely documenting the existence of those qualitative patterns. They’re already well-established facts. “Is anthropogenic climate change occurring?” is another boringly obvious answer. There are many topics related to climate change that require further research. But the basic fact that the climate is changing because of human activities doesn’t need any further research to establish it.

So what are the less obvious answers? What ecological question has only recently been answered so definitively that further research isn’t needed? You tell me! The more interesting/important the question, and the more recently it’s been definitively answered, the better. You get bonus points for boldness if you can make a good argument for cessation of research on a question that’s still actively being researched. (As opposed to a question on which active research has already ceased because everyone agrees that the question has been definitively answered.)

The first (slightly) less obvious answer that occurs to me is “the shape of the biodiversity-ecosystem function relationship”, in experiments manipulating species diversity within a single trophic level, in which the function of interest is the total productivity or biomass of those species. But that’s still a fairly boring answer; I think most ecologists would agree that issue was resolved years ago. But other people have more interesting answers. Over at Ideas For Sustainability, Joern Fischer suggests that there’s nothing really new to learn about conservation and sustainability. He argues that what’s needed is action, not adding unimportant nuances to existing knowledge. And here’s a related old post in which I asked “What ecological controversies are now settled?”

It’s perhaps worth noting that the question “Does the MMR vaccine cause autism?” is one that few scientists thought needed any research in the first place, as far as I know. Which if so would explain why nobody now thinks any further research is needed. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any similar cases in ecology. Though I bet there are some that I’m just not aware of.

A final thought: are there ecological questions that don’t require further research because we already have a definitive answer, and that definitive answer is “it depends” or “it’s complicated” or “it varies idiosyncratically”? In an old post, I argued that we don’t need any more research on whether the local-regional richness relationship is linear or saturating, because we now know the answer is “it varies idiosyncratically” and because there’s good theoretical reason to expect idiosyncrasy.

Note that I’m not looking for cases in which no further research is needed because the question is ill-posed or unanswerable. Nor am I looking for cases in which no further research is needed because nobody cares about the question any more, even though it has yet to be answered.

Looking forward to your comments, as always.

 

A statistical profile of how Twitter users engage with Dynamic Ecology

We interrupt your regular scheduled important content for boring trivial content. Below is a quick statistical profile of how Twitter users engage with @dynamicecology. It’s mostly just me making notes to myself, but in the unlikely event you care too, have a look.

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Faculty: you should attend your institution’s graduation ceremony, it’s great

Last week I attended the University of Calgary convocation–the graduation ceremony–for the Faculty of Science.* I didn’t used to. When I was first hired at Calgary, and for many years after, I didn’t attend convocation. I didn’t see any point in going to a boring two hour ceremony, the bulk of which would consist of watching students I didn’t know walk across the stage. I also thought I was too busy.

I was wrong on all counts.

I only realized I was wrong a few years ago, when a colleague told me that she always attends convocation. Because there’s no prouder feeling you can have as a professor than seeing students–especially, but not exclusively, the ones you taught–receive the degrees they worked so hard to earn. And because it really means a lot to the students to be able to shake hands with the professors they know as they finish crossing the stage. She was right.**

A graduation ceremony also reminds (and reinforces) to everyone in attendance how valued and valuable the college or university is as an institution. That’s a really enjoyable–and important–thing to remember. It’s pretty easy to forget that as you go about the day to day business of being a prof.

Plus, convocation is not even boring, honestly. The bit where the students walk the stage as their names are called is basically people watching for the audience. I find it relaxing. And it helps that Calgary does it right and encourages audience members to cheer as students walk the stage, rather than making everyone sit in somber silence.

So now I always attend convocation, and if you’re a prof I encourage you to do so too.*** I acknowledge that there are other, private ways for you to mark the graduation of the students whom you know. But they aren’t mutually exclusive with attending convocation. And it’s understandable if you feel as I once did–that it would be boring and you’re too busy. But if you feel as I once did, then I think you’re the sort of person who would benefit most from attending. You need a reminder of how awesome it is to be part of an institution that’s bigger than any one person and makes the world a better place. Attend your institution’s convocation; you won’t regret it. 🙂

*Calgary is a big university, we subdivide the graduating students into several convocation ceremonies.

**Also, this generation of students grew up on Harry Potter, so they all love academic robes. Their graduation ceremony is the closest they’ll ever get to being in Hogwarts. 🙂

*** “Encourage” is a key word here. I’m not slamming any prof who doesn’t attend convocation. This post is meant as encouragement of the sort my colleague once gave me, not as criticism. Nobody should use this post as an excuse to go onto social media and rip anybody. (And I assume and hope nobody would, but just in case…)

Poll results: what are the biggest problems with the conduct of ecological research?

Recently I polled y’all on which of the many purported problems with the conduct of ecological research are actually problems. For each of 24 purported problems in ecological research, respondents were asked if it was a serious problem, moderate problem, no/minor problem, or opposite of a problem.

Here are the results! They’re very interesting! You should totally read on!

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