What currently widely-accepted scientific practices will someday be seen as unethical? (UPDATED)

Ethical norms change over time. What once was widely regarded as wrong can come to be regarded as acceptable, admirable, or even obligatory. And what was one widely regarded as acceptable, admirable, or even obligatory can come to be regarded as wrong. Norms can change so much that it becomes difficult to imagine how the old norms could ever have been seen as ok.

Hence my question: what currently widespread norms regarding the proper conduct or teaching of science will change dramatically in the next few decades?

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Ask Us Anything: the demand for field biologists

A while back, we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next three interrelated questions, from Jeff Hean plus a related fourth question from Andy Park:

  1. Why are biologists paid so little compared to other fields of science and the private sector?
  2. Why do the majority of advertised research positions, particularly in N. America and Europe, seem to require a modeling component these days? Especially when so much baseline empirical data still needs to be collected?
  3. In my personal experience, field biologists don’t make good modelers, and vice-versa. Do field biologists still have a place in ecology, in light of the high demand for young scientists who can “do it all”?
  4. Can we really call someone a biologist if their training has failed to teach them any taxonomic skills whatsoever?

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Poll: guess the gender balance of tenure-track asst. profs. of ecology hired in N. America in 2016-17

Many academic fields are staffed by a gender-biased mix of faculty (male-biased overall, though the magnitude and even the direction of the bias varies among fields). In order for that to change, new hiring has to be more diverse than past hiring. How diverse are new faculty hires in ecology? Good question–comprehensive data on the gender balance of recent faculty hires is lacking for most academic fields. And personal anecdotes and experiences provide only a very small sample. Every year there are hundreds of faculty hired in ecology and allied fields, but nobody hears through the grapevine about the outcomes of more than a small fraction of those hires.

So as I did last year, this year I’m once again compiling data on the gender balance of recently-hired tenure-track faculty in ecology and allied fields at North American colleges and universities. Read on if you want to know exactly how I’m doing it, otherwise skip to the next paragraph. I’m doing it by going through the quite comprehensive list of advertised tenure-track positions on ecoevojobs.net from the 2016-17 job season (ignoring those that obviously aren’t going to be filled by ecologists), and figuring out who was hired. I’m only checking positions that seem like they might well by filled by ecologists (so including positions in, e.g., plant biology, fisheries, wildlife, entomology, etc., but not, e.g., comparative anatomy or evolutionary genomics). I’m gathering data through a combination of approaches: digging through department webpages, emailing friends and department chairs to ask them to share publicly-available information (dept. webpages often aren’t up to date and can make it challenging to extract the information I’m seeking), googling for the press releases many colleges and universities put out at the start of the fall 2017 term listing their new faculty, and using the blog to ask people to send me publicly-available information. (I am not seeking or using non-public information.) To keep things manageable, I’m only focusing on tenure-track assistant professor positions, not non-tenure-track positions or positions at higher levels. I’m only including new hires who are ecologists, broadly defined to include, e.g., wildlife, fisheries ecology, conservation, evolutionary ecology, ecological physiology, microbial ecology. So if a position turns out to have been filled by, e.g., a straight-up evolutionary biologist, I don’t count it. Yes, this involves some judgment calls as to who’s an “ecologist”, but I’ve only encountered a few borderline cases. I’m including all colleges and universities, not just research universities. And I’m including the occasional position I stumble across that wasn’t included on the 2016-17 ecoevojobs.net spreadsheet (e.g., spousal hires, and positions that escaped the notice of the folks who contributed to the spreadsheet). I’m into the home stretch of compiling the data, having checked over 250 positions and identified over 150 new hires.

I’m identifying gender through names, and through photographs on department webpages, Google Scholar webpages, and personal lab webpages. I recognize that my use of a gender binary (men/women) isn’t ideal, but it seemed like the only practical choice. I would welcome advice on a better approach if one exists.

I’ll present the results in a post later this fall. But before I do, I’m very curious what you think I’ll find. So below is a poll, inviting you to guess the gender balance of tenure-track assistant professors in ecology and allied fields hired at N. American colleges and universities in 2016-17. Don’t worry if you’re not sure; the poll also asks you to quantify how confident you are in your guess. The poll also asks you a few optional questions about your background and attributes. I have some hypotheses about how people’s backgrounds and attributes affect their perceptions of the current academic job market in ecology.

Applications invited for the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator’s Awards!

The American Society of Naturalists invites applications for the Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigators Award. This year I have the honor of chairing the ASN YIA committee, along with Luke Harmon, Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, and Renee Duckworth. I think it’s great that ASN honors not just one but four outstanding young investigators from across ecology, evolution, behavior, and genetics.

The official announcement for award nominations is copied below, but I wanted to start out with some personal reflections on the recent applicant pool and award winners, along with a specific plea to encourage more topical diversity in our applicants.

Every year’s applicant pool is truly outstanding, and in many respects it’s an admirably diverse pool. I’m particularly glad about the high gender diversity of both the applicant pool and the award winners in recent years. But recent applicant pools have featured a predominance of evolutionary work (particularly on sexual selection and sexual conflict), and a relative paucity of ecology. Ideally, we’d like the applicant pool to include people working on the full range of topics of interest to ASN members. So without wanting to discourage applications from those working in areas traditionally well-represented in the applicant pool, let me emphasize that we welcome and encourage applicants working in any area of ecology, evolution, behavioral ecology, or genetics. The YIA committee is a broad-minded group that includes significant ecological expertise. All applicants from every field will be given full consideration.

Let me emphasize as well that the committee doesn’t favor applicants at a particular career stage, we don’t disfavor applicants who’ve applied before, and we don’t base our decisions on quantitative metrics. You can apply as soon as you are eligible and for as long as you are eligible, and we encourage you to do so. You’ll be considered fully even if you’re still in graduate school or only recently finished your Ph.D. Not all past awardees were in their final year of eligibility. And the committee will evaluate your application holistically and consider your scientific work on its merits, rather than by just counting your publications, or looking at your h-index, or etc.

Looking forward to receiving your applications. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me (jefox@ucalgary.ca). Below is the official call for applications.


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Choosing reviewers, recognition not recall, and why lists like DiversifyEEB are useful

Last week, I was assigned a paper to handle as an Associate Editor at American Naturalist. After reading through the paper and deciding it should go out for review, I began the task of finding potential reviewers. There were two people who immediately stood out to me as qualified reviewers. But AmNat likes to have a list of six potential reviewers to work from, so I continued through my standard process: 1) try to think of another person; 2) struggle with that; 3) think “surely I can write the editorial office folks and tell them we should just go with these two I already thought of because they’re perfect”; 4) decide I need to try harder before giving up; 5) after some more effort, end up at a list of six (or, in this case, seven) people who would be good reviewers, ranked in the order in which I’d like them to be asked. After going through that process, the two people I originally thought of were still on my list, but they were numbers 4&5. For some other papers, the initial people I thought of didn’t end up on my final list at all. And I have never had the first two people I thought of end up being the first two people on my list of six.

In other words: there were really good options who I only thought of after working at it for a while; those people were better options for this task than the people who initially occurred to me. To me, this is striking, but not really surprising. It’s what motivated the DiversifyEEB list that I created with my colleague, Gina Baucom. We all have biases, and those make it so that the people we think of first aren’t necessarily the best ones. And, moreover, our biases make it so that we’re more likely to think of well-known white men. That’s just how our brains work.

As I thought through this on my walk home, it reminded me of a story Kay Gross told me shortly after DiversifyEEB launched. Kay said that, many years back, she had a conversation with Margaret Davis. What Margaret told Kay is that, when she got a phone call asking her to recommend people for something, she would say, “Let me think about that and get back to you”. She did this because she had noticed that the first set of names she thought of were always men. But, if she thought it over more, she came up with more names and more diverse names. I found it especially interesting to learn that Margaret Davis had created a set of cards, adding a new card whenever she met an interesting woman scientist; during the time between getting the call and getting back to the person, she consulted that set of cards (her own personal DiversifyEEB list!) to think through people who were well-suited but who didn’t initially occur to her.

Back to the specific topic of finding reviewers: Charles Fox and colleagues have done a set of really interesting studies related to gender and the publication process. In one, they found that just 25% of the reviewers suggested by authors were women. In another, they found that only ~27% of the reviewers invited by associate editors were women. I initially thought that perhaps one solution to the problem of lack of gender diversity in reviewers would be to have more journals ask for lists of 6 potential reviewers — perhaps thinking longer about who should review something would increase the diversity of who they think of? But it turns out that Functional Ecology already asks their AEs to come up with 6 potential reviewers, so clearly that, on its own, will not solve the gender balance problem.

After more reflection, perhaps it makes sense that the lists are still pretty biased, even if they have more people on them: these potential reviewer lists still rely a lot on recall (that is, who I think of as I think about a particular topic), not recognition (that is, choosing from a list of names that might be suitable). And the original motivation for DiversifyEEB was learning (from Joan Strassmann) about psych research showing that the best way to come up with more diverse groups is to rely on recognition, not recall. (If you remember nothing else from this post, remember “recognition, not recall” as a strategy for increasing diversity!)

So, if you are an associate editor for a journal (or, really, in any other position where you are trying to come up with a list of scientists for something):

  1. It’s worth the effort to try to come up with a longer list. In that process, you are likely to think of people who are better options. This will lead to better reviews (or a better seminar series or candidate list or whatever it is you’re trying to do.)
  2. Once you have your list, consider the diversity of it. Does it include diversity in terms of race, gender, career stage, and institution type (including non-academic ones)? In some cases, your list might intentionally be lacking a form of diversity (e.g., a candidate list for an endowed chair probably won’t include many early career folks). But, in most cases, a lack of diversity will reflect our inherent biases. (We all have them! The key is to recognize them and work to counter them.)
  3. If your list seems to be lacking in diversity, try to find lists that will give you more ideas. DiversifyEEB is one, but you can also look other places (e.g., if you are trying to think of Darwin Day speakers, a scan of the editorial boards of journals like Evolution, AmNat, J. Evolutionary Biology, etc. might give you ideas). Another great strategy, especially for looking for reviewers, is to go to the webpage of the person you first thought of and look at their grad students & postdocs. This includes looking at recent grads who have moved on to other positions.

As I said above, the key is being aware of the biases we have, recognizing when outcomes indicate biases are at work, and working to counter them. Lists like DiversifyEEB are one way to try to do that, and I love knowing that Margaret Davis had created her own version of a DiversifyEEB list long ago! I’d love to hear from readers about what strategies you use to try to increase diversity when coming up with potential reviewers, seminar speakers, etc!

Why don’t we scientifically measure teaching effectiveness?

This post might as well be subtitled “A rant on the misuse of student evaluation of teachers”. I’ll just get that out of the way right up front.

One of the defining attributes of being a scientist is that we’re really good at the practice of quantifying things in a repeatable, meaningful way. Take journal impact factors as an example. We’re able to talk about them and pretty quickly agree that journal impact factor is a flawed and noisy but useful one-dimensional representation of a high-dimensional quantity, journal quality, but a rubbish measure of the quality of a single paper. Or say you’re on the committee of a student who tells you they want to measure competitive effects. You’re pretty likely to lead them down several conversations. Do they mean per capita effects on population growth rates? or per unit biomass impacts on biomass? or coexistence effects on other species? Conversely is their measurement of competitive effect likely to be strongly impacted by overall species richness or by productivity of the system? And what are the error bars on their measurement methods likely to be? If they are looking at biomass impacts are they measuring wet or dry biomass? How will this be standardized? How much variability can be removed by standardizing techniques?

Phew! We scientists sure make measuring something into a sophisticated exercise (and I hasten to note that is because experience has taught us it is important to do this). So how come both faculty and administrators are content to just take student evaluations of teachers on a 1-5 Likert scale so seriously?

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Friday links: growing up creationist, professors as buzzards, and more

Also this week: a fascinating deep dive into paleoartistic reconstructions of extinct dinosaurs, an external report on the NSF preproposal system, shrink-wrapped dinosaurs, the decline of public research universities in the US midwest, imposter syndrome, counterfactual history of science, do you have a conflict of interest with your Twitter followers, distracted boyfriend data analyst, and more.

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What kind of scientific crisis is the field of ecology having?

I have been thinking a lot about crises in fields of science. I don’t mean “grants are shrinking” crises or “we continue to treat subgroups abominably” crises. Nor am I talking about the fact we are documenting an ecological crisis on our planet. Those are real and important. But I mean here “the science we are producing and communicating is wrong” kinds of crises. I think these crises probably say a lot about science. Both in how they managed to go wrong. And in how the crises got recognized and fixed.

I am going to list five different crises in five different fields of science (four are recent, one is old), and then I am going to ask what kind of crisis ecology is most likely to have (or is having?). Continue reading