Ask Us Anything: PhDs from outside N. America and Europe, and the current status of classic ideas in life history theory

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next two questions, from Johan Argovis and Carlos Trigueros, respectively:

  1. When seeking a faculty position in N. America, is it a disadvantage to hold a Ph.D. from outside N. America or Europe?
  2. What’s the current status of Grime’s CSR theory and r-K selection in ecology? In particular, why is r-K selection regarded as obselete or incorrect?

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Late Friday link: the GOP tax bill would tax grad student tuition waivers

Don’t want to wait on this until next week, because anyone who wants to act on it needs to do so quickly. The GOP tax bill proposes taxing graduate student tuition waivers as income. This would mean that many grad students would be taxed on a nominal total income of >$50,000, meaning that their actual take home pay would no longer be enough to live on.

Academic scientists are among those best positioned to convey to Congress just how bad an idea this is and how disruptive it would be.

I emphasize that I’m passing on the news without having dug into the details of the bill myself, so it’s possible I’ve overlooked some crucial details. If I’ve made an error or missed something, I’ll correct the post as needed.

Guest post: doing ecology in South Africa

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Falko Buschke a tenure-track faculty member in South Africa. 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 second of what I hope will be several on this topic.

My mind started racing when I was approached to share my experiences as an ecologist from a developing country, South Africa. There were so many things I could write about that I soon became overwhelmed. So, rather than touching on several issues, I will focus on the single biggest obstacle I face as an early career researcher in a developing country.

But before that, here is a short list of topics I chose not include:

The reality is that these types of issues have become commonplace in South Africa and I suspect that they may be even more prevalent in other less-developed countries. But despite these serious concerns, folks from developing countries are resilient and manage to get on with doing good ecology.

Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle I face as an early career ecologist from a developing country is not one of these macro-level political or economic issues. My biggest roadblock is academic isolation and the accompanying feelings of inadequacy.

Before I go on, I need to describe my background because the easiest way to patronise folks from developing countries is to assume that we are all the same. I grew up in a rural part of South Africa, where only four out of every ten people complete high school. However, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world and I was fortunately born as one of the few ‘haves’, rather than one of the many ‘have-nots’. I went to a good school and completed my BSc and masters at the closest university: a mid-ranking institution by South Africa standards. I then received a scholarship from the for a PhD in Belgium. After defending my PhD in 2014, I returned to South Africa to be closer to home and started in my current lecturing position (at the same mid-ranking university of my undergraduate studies).

Having spent time in Europe, the thing I miss most is the comaraderie. I went from being part of a huge research lab to being the only ecologist in my current department. Gone are the lunch-time discussions about ecology. Gone are the Friday afternoon seminars by visiting speakers. Gone are the envy-soaked congratulations to my peers who had their papers accepted by Science, Ecology Letters or Global Change Biology.

Now, the closest substitute for this cohort of like-minded ecology geeks is the comment section on Dynamic Ecology, which, while great, can’t replace the real thing.

I suppose many ecologists experience isolation after leaving graduate school, but I suspect it is worse in developing countries. A major worry of mine is building a research group because there isn’t a long queue of aspiring ecologists ready to join my team. Sadly, this is not due to a shortage of enthusiasm or ambition, but rather a bankruptcy of science capital. In an unequal country like South Africa, it is frightening how few of the students I now lecture had exposure to real science before they reached university.

My university did a study and found that only 60% of incoming undergraduates had the literacy levels expected from university students. Even more alarming was how 80% of students lacked the numeracy skills needed to succeed at university. This is a symptom of a schooling system crumbling under widespread national poverty. Poverty also means that the few students with sound science backgrounds tend to gravitate towards more lucrative fields like medicine or engineering, further limiting the number of new ecologists.

Good mentors are also hard to find. This is illustrated by what a friend of mine experienced during his first lectureship at one of South Africa’s leading universities. He was so excited to work in a department with some world-class ecologists, but left after a realising how these top ecologists were too busy with international collaborators to even notice the arrival of a new researcher. This dilemma is especially sad because it reinforces the perception that to be a good ecologist, you need to work with foreign collaborators. This alone is not the problem – the best ecology should be relevant internationally – but it feeds the misconception that ecology does not have value unless it includes inputs from abroad. Put another way, it reinforces the view that South African ecology is second-rate.

Being an early career ecologists is hard anywhere in the world. Insecurity is rife and we all feel like impostors sometimes. Coming from a country outside the traditional hubs of North America or Europe, makes feeling like an outsider much worse. Of course, many of the barriers I face are imagined; fed only by insecurity. But some barriers are real. All I hope is that readers of Dynamic Ecology get a small glimpse at being an ecologist in a developing country. Hopefully, you all see that we are real scientists working hard to improve ecology as a whole. We’re not asking for special treatment, we just want to be taken seriously as ecologists in our own right.

 

Guest post: doing ecology in Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Pavel Dodonov, a postdoc in Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question (from Pavel in fact) 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 first of what I hope will be several on this topic.

Brian invited me to write this post on my own “experiences, questions, challenges, opportunities, etc on doing ecology in a developing country”, namely in Brazil, and I gladly accepted. In order to have a more representative view, I also asked some friends about their own impressions; still, it is likely that my post is too optimistic, especially considering that I did all my studies in a university in São Paulo state, which is the most developed state in Brazil. Plus, being the son of a university professor, I come from a fairly privileged background, which made things easier for me.

I have a degree in Biological Sciences and a Masters and PhD in Ecology, all from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), and currently I’m a post-doc at the State University of Santa Cruz, in Bahia. During my PhD I spent six months in Canada, including four months at Dalhousie University in Halifax (NS) and two months doing fieldwork at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba. This was a fantastic experience for several reasons – Canada is beautiful; I was able to work more closely with my cosupervisor; doing fieldwork in a totally different environment was quite awesome; but, most of all, it made me realize that we in Brazil are not as far behind in Science as we often think we are. During the two-month field season I noticed that my own ecological training was on the same level as of the other people working there, and in Halifax I was able to help some people with statistical analyses. So my first impression is that we do have good knowledge and training here; what we often lack is self-confidence and a more publication-oriented thought, or more confidence in our ability to write papers for high-ranking journals. Yet I know many great researchers here, publishing in high-ranking journals including Nature or Science, driven by scientific curiosity and applied conservation issues and performing really fantastic research.

Still, there are many difficulties, some of which I present below:

Language:

The main difficulty for doing ecological research may be the language. English is the lingua franca of science – but, even though we have English as a school subject, it is really basic and often not well taught. English is needed not only to read and write manuscripts, but also because many important text books have not been translated and because software often does not have support in any other language. Even learning R without understanding what the function names mean seems quite hard.

There are English courses and schools, but they are often too expensive for people with lower income. Yes, it is possible to learn English by yourself, but it demands a lot of time and dedication which many people just don’t have. Basic English knowledge is a requirement to entering at least some grad courses, and recently (in 2012) the Brazilian government started the program “Inglês sem Fronteiras” (“English without Borders”), providing free online courses and free TOEFL exams for students and staff. Still, it’s not the same as having good English education since childhood.

Funding:

Actually, I’m not quite sure how hard it is to get funding here as compared to, for example, Canada or the USA. We have some advantages: the good universities, including grad courses, are free – so no debts acquired to pay for your education. On the other hand, one usually has to go to a good school to pass the university admission exams, and these schools are quite expensive. The good news is there have been several initiatives to make the universities more socially inclusive, including racial quotas or quotas for people from public schools. There are also bolsas, which can be broadly translated as scholarships, from the undergraduate to the post-doc level; some of them are directed at lower-income people whereas others analyze solely the applicant’s grades, curriculum and research project. These bolsas may be granted by the University, by State funding agencies or by Federal funding agencies. As a reference, those given by the main Federal agency, CNPq, are of about 125 USD per month for undergrads, 470 USD for Masters students, 690 USD for PhD students, and 1280 USD for post-docs, and may or may not have additional resources for fieldwork, conferences, equipment etc. There is also funding to send students abroad – the Ciência sem Fronteiras (Science without Borders) was a really fantastic program for this – and to bring researchers for conferences or research projects. But now we’re facing severe cuts in funding for science, so the future of Brazilian science as a whole may be at stake.

Equipment:

Acquiring equipment is often hard, due to importation taxes and the not really effective mail delivery. And I’m not speaking solely of expensive equipments; basic stuff, including flagging tape and rite-in-the-rain fieldbooks, is quite hard to come by, so I sometimes ask my cosupervisor to bring flagging tape from Canada. When equipment gets broken it also takes a long time to be replaced, often delaying one’s research for months. The good part of it is that we’re good in improvising and “doing more with less”. In addition, there often isn’t enough funding to pay for gas etc, or for some reason you’re not allowed to use your funding for it, so paying from your own pocket to do research is not uncommon. My own research was only possible because I had a car and was not afraid to use it.

My car during my Master’s field work at a cerrado site

There are many well-equipped laboratories, with equipment acquired from different funding sources throughout the years. Conversely, there are other universities with a lack of things like toilet papers and doors in the bathrooms, and even the best universities may lack drinking water in some buildings. So, as for all else in Brazil, there’s huge variation in university infrastructure.

 

Safety in the field:

For some strange reason first-aid or survival courses are neither mandatory nor common, not even in large projects such as the BDFFP. In many sites there are issues with poachers or criminals – I have a friend who had to be escorted by the police due to poacher activity, and another who had to stop fieldwork for a week or two because of gunfire in the area.

 

Other fieldwork issues:

This likely applies to other countries as well… Dealing with people is not trivial, and it may happen, for example, that the management of a protected area changes during your fieldwork and the restrictions to your research change as well. Private owners not always respect what was agreed on; tags, equipments etc may be stolen by people living or passing through the area; when working in areas of traditional or indigenous communities, it is often not clear to whom as for permission, and your study may be interrupted at the final and most important stage. These are all true stories.

 

The good things

Still, not all is bad. Working in an ultra-biodiverse country is amazing;  we sometimes get to see maned wolves, golden-headed lion tamarins, toucans and hear the howler monkeys howl even when we’re working with plants, and a lot of fieldwork can be done in closeby areas. A significant part of my own research was carried out at a Cerrado fragment within the university.

Golden-headed-lion-tamarins at a university campus in Bahia.

There are also great opportunities to work with environmental education with the people living at or near your study sites. There are opportunities to hire local people to help with the fieldwork – people who are much better than we are at doing the hard work. It is of course necessary not to treat them as cheap work force – still, I think they receive as much as a biologist would receive to do the same work. I myself always relied on volunteer help from friends and colleagues, and provided volunteer help for many people as well, but in some cases – climbing trees, placing transects in really difficult sites, driving long hours and so on – volunteer help is not enough, and even for simpler taks finding help is never easy.

 

Finally, we sort of have our own blogosphere, in Portuguese! For any Portuguese-speaking people reading this, some recommended blogs are Marco Mello’s “Surviving in Science”, Renata Muylaert’s “A Biologist”, Rafael Loyola’s “Zen Scientist”, Agusto Ribas’s “Recology”, and my own “Another Ecology and Statistics Blog”. (An aside from Brian – Google Translate makes it possible for an English speaker to read these blogs in a matter of seconds, believe me it is worth the slight extra effort).

Many thanks to Raquel Miatto, Renata Muylaert and Milene Eigenheer for helping me with this post, and to Brian for the invitation and the great post on this subject a while ago.

Guest post: a career as a research lab manager

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Ann Rasmussen. Thank you to Ann for taking the time to write this post.

This post is part of our series on non-academic careers for ecologists. Ok, this one’s actually about an academic career. But when most people (including me!) think of academic careers, the first thing they think of is a tenure-track faculty career. So we thought it would be useful to readers to also have some posts on other sorts of academic careers.

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Friday links: inreach vs. outreach, Steinbeck vs. the title of your next paper, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: the realized niche is “all shit”, world’s greatest faculty job application cover letter, the sixth mass extinction speciation, MIT diplomas vs. Bitcoin, debating systematics, scientific mavericks, Rand Paul vs. peer review, and more. Lots of good stuff this week! Stick around to the end for a joke involving Shirley Jackson and Peter Chesson. Like our tagline says, “the fox knows many things”–and he also likes to show off his half-remembered liberal arts education by making weird jokes. 🙂

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What statistical or other scientific technique is used best, relative to how widely it’s used?

The starting point for this post is an old remark of statistician Jeff Leek (sorry, can’t find the link just now) that no statistical technique works at scale. He was defending frequentist statistical techniques like P-values and confidence intervals against the accusation that they’re widely misunderstood or misused, and we should therefore use Bayesian approaches instead. Jeff’s counter-argument is that if Bayesian approaches were used as widely as P-values and confidence intervals currently are, they’d be just as widely misunderstood and misused.

Does that argument generalize? Is it true that any statistical or other scientific technique gets used increasingly badly on average as the number of people using it rises? Or are there some for which the quality of the average application holds steady or even improves as the number of users increases? And are there some techniques for which the quality of the average application declines only slowly or asymptotically as the number of users increases, vs. other techniques for which the decline is much steeper?

I was also wondering how the relationship between average quality of application and number of users affects the number of users. Are there some techniques that are hard to use well, but because they’re hard to use well only end up getting used by a small number of people who use them well? Versus other techniques that are hard to use well but easy to think you’re using well, that end up getting used badly by lots of people? Or maybe the number of people using any given technique mostly depends on other factors?

Off the top of my head, I can think of some techniques that do work just as well “at scale” as they do for “early adopters”. Pipetting for instance. The vast majority of the time, when somebody pipets some liquid, they pipet the desired amount. And I doubt the pipetting error rate has increased appreciably over time as more and more scientists and trainees have been doing more and more pipetting. Same for weighing stuff using balances. Etc. What those examples of “scalable” techniques have in common is that they’re routine. The user doesn’t need to exercise any thought, interpretation, or judgment. So one working hypothesis is that the more thought and judgement a technique requires in order to work well, the worse it will scale to mass use.

If that working hypothesis is right, then the scalability of a technique won’t be solely a matter of how difficult it is to teach or learn the technique in any purely technical sense. For instance, my sense is that widespread abuse and misinterpretation of P-values is mostly not a matter of “purely” technical mistakes. It’s not that lots of people are miscalculating their P-values or don’t know what a P-value literally means. Brian made a similar point in his old post on why AIC appeals to ecologists’ lowest instincts. Unhelpful applications of AIC in ecology mostly aren’t a matter of people making purely technical mistakes in the calculation of AIC values, or being unaware of technical facts about AIC.

I emphasize that my interest in these questions is purely academic curiosity. I do not think that our choice of statistical or other scientific techniques should be dictated by worries about how well they scale up to mass use. And nothing in this post is a criticism of how people use or teach statistics or other scientific techniques. All we can do is use whatever techniques seem best, and teach others to do the same. Perhaps the only practical reason to discuss the issues raised in this post is to identify the “failure modes” of different techniques–the ways in which they tend to be misunderstood or misused, when they are misunderstood or misused. If you know the most common misunderstandings or abuses of a technique, you can aim to try to avoid or counter them in your own work and teaching.

Related old posts

Which big ideas in ecology were successful, and which were unsuccessful? The same questions this post asks about statistical techniques can also be asked about scientific ideas. Big ideas in ecology vary in how successful they’ve been. In at least some cases you can argue that the success, or comparative lack thereof, is related to how widely the idea was taken up.

Which ecological theories are widely misunderstood even by experts?

Techniques aren’t powerful, scientists are

Is statistical software harmful?