The story and lessons of the NutNet experiment: an interview with Elizabeth Borer

The Nutrient Network (“NutNet“) is a long-running, pioneering globally distributed field experiment. It now involves hundreds of researchers at hundreds of sites around the world, it’s published a bunch of important and influential papers, and it’s served as the inspiration and model for many other distributed experiments. I’m a huge fan of NutNet, not just because of all the great science that’s come out of it, but because it’s a new and very interesting model for how to do science (at least, new to me…) I’m also a fan of NutNet because it’s a very different sort of science than anything I do or would have even thought of doing. When I look at someone else’s protist microcosm experiment, I look at it with the eyes of a connoisseur, because I do protist microcosm experiments too. But when I look at NutNet, I’m just amazed, it’s like I’m looking at a magic trick or the Sagrada Família. How does someone do that? How does someone even think of doing it?

To answer those questions, I asked one of the someones who did it. 🙂 Elizabeth Borer is one of the co-founders of NutNet. In the same spirit as my interview a few years ago with Rich Lenski about his Long-Term Evolution Experiment, I emailed Elizabeth a bunch of questions about NutNet and she was kind enough to answer them. I hope you find her answers as interesting as I do (seriously, they’re super-interesting)!

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What’s the “greatest” scientific fraud of all time? (UPDATE: comments now closed)

There are some crimes for which disapproval of the crime and those who committed it is mingled with grudging admiration. Because the crime was extraordinarily clever, audacious, or otherwise impressive. Think of the fictional casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven. Or in the real world, think of Alves dos Reis.*

So, what’s the closest any scientific fraud has come to Ocean’s Eleven or Alves dos Reis? What’s the “greatest” scientific fraud of all time? Where “greatest” is in scare quotes because scientific frauds aren’t actually great–they’re bad! But I don’t think that condemning their badness is mutually exclusive with acknowledging that a few of them were clever, creative, audacious, etc.

A few opening bids:

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Scientific fraud vs. financial fraud: is there a scientific equivalent of a “market crime”?

A little while back I read Dan Davies’ very good popular book on financial fraud, Lying For Money. Which prompted me to start a series of posts about the interesting analogies (and in some cases, disanaologies) between financial fraud and scientific fraud (see here, here, and here). Today, the latest post in the series: is there a scientific equivalent of a “market crime”?

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When, and why, the US and Canadian ecology faculty job market first got so competitive

Continuing to resurface old posts that will give current ecology faculty job seekers in the US and Canada some data and context for the current job market. Today: by some important measures, the US and Canadian ecology faculty job market has been about as competitive as it currently is since the early 1980s. Yes, really.

So, job seekers: don’t assume that that current ecology faculty have no idea what it’s like out there for you! Almost all current US and Canadian ecology faculty experienced a very competitive job market themselves back when they were looking for their first faculty jobs. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll give you good job seeking advice, or advice you’ll perceive as good (which isn’t the same thing…). But it does mean that, if they do give you bad advice, or advice you perceive as bad (which isn’t the same thing…), it’s almost certainly not because they lack personal experience with a competitive job market.

Are there any measurable predictors of how many interviews or offers an ecology faculty job seeker will receive in the US or Canada?

The faculty job market is going to be really bad this year due to the fallout from Covid-19. My heart goes out to anyone on the market this year. But still, there are some jobs out there, and so I’m sure folks on the ecology faculty job market would like good information about the market. I spent three years compiling a lot of data on the US and Canadian ecology faculty job market, summarized and linked to here. But few folks seem to click those links. So over the next few days I’m going to re-post some of the links that remain relevant and useful.

Today: as an ecology faculty job seeker in the US or Canada, is there any way to estimate how “competitive” you’ll be? That is, is there any way to predict how many interviews or offers you’ll receive? Turns out that most of the predictors on which people focus–number of publications, number of courses taught, years of postdoctoral experience, etc.–are useless. There are only a couple of measurable predictors that have a bit of predictive power: number of applications you submit, and…one other one that I’m going to make you click through to discover. If you click that last link, please be aware that it’s a long nuanced post that resists easy summary. You really ought to read the whole thing carefully if you’re going to read it at all.

Before anyone asks, no, I don’t think the comparative lack of faculty jobs this year will cause this year to deviate from the recent years with respect to the questions addressed in the linked posts.

If you are on the ecology faculty job market this year, I hope you find the linked posts useful. Best of luck in your search.

In contrast to some other fields, TT faculty hiring in ecology doesn’t have much to do with where you got your PhD. Here’s the data.

The faculty job market is going to be really bad this year due to the fallout from Covid-19. My heart goes out to anyone on the market this year. But still, there are some jobs out there, and so I’m sure folks on the ecology faculty job market would like good information about the market. I spent three years compiling a lot of data on the US and Canadian ecology faculty job market, summarized and linked to here. But few folks seem to click those links. So over the next few days I’m going to re-post some of the links that remain relevant and useful.

Today: as an ecology faculty job seeker in the US or Canada, should you worry that your fate has already been sealed by where you got your PhD? That is, should you worry that it’s only graduates of “top” departments who get tenure-track jobs? Or that “top” departments only hire graduates of other “top” departments? There are fields in which you should worry about those things. And according to my unscientific poll data, many ecologists do worry about those things. But they shouldn’t worry, because ecology is NOT one of those fields. As the data in that last link show, faculty hiring in ecology in the US and Canada has very little to do with where you got your PhD. Search committees in ecology have lots of information with which to evaluate applicants. They don’t rely on crude proxies like “did you get your PhD from a ‘prestigious’ university?” And the place where you got your PhD isn’t correlated with any of the (many!) variables that faculty hiring committees in ecology do look at when evaluating applicants.

(aside: same goes for bachelor’s degrees. For instance, I hope nobody thinks that most future ecology profs got bachelor’s degrees from “elite” liberal arts colleges or the Ivy League. Or that liberal arts colleges mostly only hire profs with bachelor’s degrees from liberal arts colleges. Because those things aren’t true, at all. Fortunately, our past poll data suggests that few people believe those things.)

The broader lesson here is that different fields–and even subfields–are different! When it comes to anything related to faculty hiring, you should be very hesitant to generalize from data about all of academia, or about a field different than you own, to your own field.

If you’re on the ecology faculty job market this year, I hope you found this post useful. Good luck, I hope everything works out for you.

How much do TT ecology faculty job seekers customize each application? And how much customization do search committee members want to see? Here are the data.

The faculty job market is going to be really bad this year due to the fallout from Covid-19. My heart goes out to anyone on the market this year. But still, there are some jobs out there, and so I’m sure folks on the ecology faculty job market would like good information about the market. I spent three years compiling a lot of data on the US and Canadian ecology faculty job market, summarized and linked to here. But few folks seem to click those links. So over the next few days I’m going to re-post some of the links that remain relevant and useful.

Today, data from polls of tenure-track ecology faculty job seekers, and from people who’ve recently sat on search committees for tenure-track ecology faculty positions, on customization of individual applications. How do job seekers customize each application to the hiring institution, in what ways, and how long does it take them to do so? In what ways do search committee members want to see applications customized? And how do the answers vary between more and less research-intensive institutions? Click through for the answers.

If you’re on the ecology faculty job market, I hope you found this information useful. Best of luck in your search.