Tag Archives: scientific jobs

On Mauna Loa and Long-Term Studies

If there is one important element missing in many of our current ecological paradigms it is long-term studies. This observation boils down to the lack of proper controls for our observations. If we do not know the background of our data sets, we lack critical perspective on how to interpret short-term studies. We should have learned this from paleoecologists whose many studies of plant pollen profiles and other time series from the geological record show that models of stability which occupy most of the superstructure of ecological theory are not very useful for understanding what is happening in the real world today.

All of this got me wondering what it might have been like for Charles Keeling when he began to measure CO2 levels on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in 1958. Let us do a thought experiment and suggest that he was at that time a typical postgraduate students told by his professors to get his research done in 4 or at most 5 years and write his thesis. These would be the basic data he got if he was restricted to this framework:

Keeling would have had an interesting seasonal pattern of change that could be discussed and lead to the recommendation of having more CO2 monitoring stations around the world. And he might have thought that CO2 levels were increasing slightly but this trend would not be statistically significant, especially if he has been cut off after 4 years of work. In fact the US government closed the Mauna Loa observatory in 1964 to save money, but fortunately Keeling’s program was rescued after a few months of closure (Harris 2010).

Charles Keeling could in fact be a “patron saint” for aspiring ecology graduate students. In 1957 as a postdoc he worked on developing the best way to measure CO2 in the air by the use of an infrared gas analyzer, and in 1958 he had one of these instruments installed at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii (3394 m, 11,135 ft) to measure pristine air. By that time he had 3 published papers (Marx et al. 2017). By 1970 at age 42 his publication list had increased to a total of 22 papers and an accumulated total of about 50 citations to his research papers. It was not until 1995 that his citation rate began to exceed 100 citations per year, and after 1995 at age 67 his citation rate increased very much. So, if we can do a thought experiment, in the modern era he could never even apply for a postdoctoral fellowship, much less a permanent job. Marx et al. (2017) have an interesting discussion of why Keeling was undercited and unappreciated for so long on what is now considered one of the world’s most critical environmental issues.

What is the message for mere mortals? For postgraduate students, do not judge the importance of your research by its citation rate. Worry about your measurement methods. Do not conclude too much from short-term studies. For professors, let your bright students loose with guidance but without being a dictator. For granting committees and appointment committees, do not be fooled into thinking that citation rates are a sure metric of excellence. For theoretical ecologists, be concerned about the precision and accuracy of the data you build models about. And for everyone, be aware that good science was carried out before the year 2000.

And CO2 levels yesterday were 407 ppm while Nero is still fiddling.

Harris, D.C. (2010) Charles David Keeling and the story of atmospheric CO2 measurements. Analytical Chemistry, 82, 7865-7870. doi: 10.1021/ac1001492

Marx, W., Haunschild, R., French, B. & Bornmann, L. (2017) Slow reception and under-citedness in climate change research: A case study of Charles David Keeling, discoverer of the risk of global warming. Scientometrics, 112, 1079-1092. doi: 10.1007/s11192-017-2405-z

On Philanthropic Investment in Conservation – Part 2

Here is an optimistic thought for the day. After writing my previous blog on philanthropy and conservation, it occurred to me that a single scenario might focus the mind of ecologists and conservation biologists as we think about relevant research:

Suppose you are sitting in your office and someone comes in and tells you that they wish to donate one billion dollars to your research in ecology. What would you tell them you would like to do?

This is of course ridiculous but let us be optimistic and think it may happen. There are a lot of very rich people around the world and they will have to do something with all their money. Some of it will be wasted but some could do much good for the development of strong science. So let us pretend for the moment that this will happen sometime in the future.

We need to think clearly what this money entails. First, if we want to live off the interest and we expect 5% return on investment, we end up with $ 50 million to spend per year. What are we going to do with all this money? The two options would seem to be to buy land and maintain it for conservation, or to set up a foundation for conservation that would support graduate student and postdoctoral fellows. Let us check these options out with a broad brush.

The first option is based on the belief that habitat loss is the key process driving biodiversity decline so we should use part of the money for land purchase or marine rights to areas. But we note that land purchases are not very useful if the land is not managed and protected so that some group of people need to be in charge. So suppose we spend half immediately on land acquisition, and land costs are $100 per ha, we could purchase about 50,000 km2, an area approximately the size of Denmark, slightly smaller than Scotland, and about the size of West Virginia. Then we can employ about 250 people full time to do research or manage the protected landscape at an overall cost of $100 K per scientist including salary and operating research costs. This is an attractive option and the decision that would need to be made is what areas are most important to purchase for conservation in what part of the world.

The second option is to establish a permanent foundation for conservation that would be devoted to supporting graduates and postdoctoral fellows worldwide. I am not clear on the costs for a foundation to operate but let us assume $ 2 million a year for staff and operating costs. This would leave $ 48 million for operating costs, supporting 480 students or postdocs at $100,000 each per year or 320 students if you wished to give each an average $150,000 per year for research and salary. If these were spread out over the 196 countries on Earth, clearly there would be about 2 scientists per country. If we spread them out evenly over the 148 million km2 of land area over the whole Earth, we would require each student or scientist to be in charge of about 300,000 km2, an area about the size of Norway, or Poland or the Philippines. Clearly one would not operate in such a fashion, and would concentrate person-power in the areas of greatest need.

There is considerable literature discussing the issue of how philanthropy can augment conservation in the most effective manner, and a few papers are given here that further the discussion.

Where does this theoretical exercise leave us? Clearly there would be many other ways to utilize these hypothetical funds for conservation, but the point that shows clearly is that the funds needed to achieve conservation on a global scale are very large, and even a billion dollars disappears very quickly if we are attempting to achieve solid conservation outcomes. The costs of conservation are large and there is the need to recognize that government funding is critical, so that an additional billion dollars from a philanthropist will only add icing on the cake and not the whole cake.

Not that anyone I know would turn down a billion-dollar donation as too little.

Adams, W., and J. Hutton. 2007. People, parks and poverty: Political ecology and biodiversity conservation. Conservation and Society 5:147-183.

Diallo, R. 2015. Conservation philanthropy and the shadow of state power in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Conservation and Society 13:119-128. doi: 10.4103/0972-4923.164188

Ferraro, P. J., and S. K. Pattanayak. 2006. Money for Nothing? A call for empirical evaluation of biodiversity conservation investments. PLoS Biology 4:e105.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040105

Jones, C. 2012. Ecophilanthropy, neoliberal conservation, and the transformation of Chilean Patagonia’s Chacabuco Valley. Oceania 82:250-263.
doi: 10.1002/j.1834-4461.2012.tb00132.x

 

On Improving Canada’s Scientific Footprint – Breakthroughs versus insights

In Maclean’s Magazine on November 25, 2015 Professor Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada, wrote an article “Ten Steps to Make Canada a Leader in Science” (http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/ten-steps-to-make-canada-a-leader-in-science/ ). Some of the general points in this article are very good but some seem to support the view of science as big business and that leaves ecology and environmental science in the dust. We comment here on a few points of disagreement with Professor Smolin. The quotations are from the Maclean’s article.

  1. Choose carefully.

“Mainly invest in areas of pure science where there is a path to world leadership. This year’s Nobel prize shows that when we do this, we succeed big.” We suggest that the Nobel Prizes are possibly the worst example of scientific achievement that is currently available because of their disregard for the environment. This recommendation is at complete variance to how environmental sciences advance.

  1. Aim for breakthroughs.

“No “me-too” or catch-up science. Don’t hire the student of famous Prof. X at an elite American university just because of the proximity to greatness. Find our own path to great science by recruiting scientists who are forging their own paths to breakthroughs.” But the essence of science has always been replication. Long-term monitoring is a critical part of good ecology, as Henson (2014) points out for oceanographic research. But indeed we agree to the need to recruit excellent young scientists in all areas.

  1. Embrace risk.

“Learn from business that it takes high risk to get high payoff. Don’t waste money doing low-risk, low-payoff science. Treat science like venture capital.” That advice would remove most of the ecologists who obtain NSERC funding. It is one more economic view of science. Besides, most successful businesses are based on hard work, sound financial practices, and insights into the needs of their customers.

  1. Recruit and invest in young leaders-to-be.

“Be savvy and proactive about choosing them…. Resist supporting legacies and entitlements. Don’t waste money on people whose best work is behind them.” We agree. Spending money to fund a limited number of middle aged, white males in the Canadian Excellence in Research Chairs was the antithesis of this recommendation. See the “Folly of Big Science” by Vinay Prasad (2015). Predicting in advance who will be leaders will surely depend on diverse insights and is best evaluated by giving opportunities for success to many from which leaders will arise.

  1. Recruit internationally.

“Use graduate fellowships and postdoctoral positions as recruitment tools to bring the most ambitious and best-educated young scientists to Canada to begin their research here, and then target the most promising of these by creating mechanisms to ensure that their best opportunities to build their careers going forward are here.” This seems attractive but means Canadian scientists have little hope of obtaining jobs here, since we are < 0.1% of the world’s scientists. A better idea – how about Canada producing the “best-educated” young scientists?

  1. Resist incrementalism.

If you spread new money around widely, little new science gets done. Instead, double-down on strategic fields of research where the progress is clear and Canada can have an impact.“ Fortin and Currie (2013) show that spreading the money around is exactly the way to go since less gets wasted and no one can predict where the “breakthroughs” will happen.  This point also rests on one’s view of the world of the future and what “breakthroughs” will contribute to the sustainability of the earth.

  1. Empower ambitious, risk-taking young scientists.

Give them independence and the resources they need to develop their own ideas and directions. Postdocs are young leaders with their own ideas and research programs”. This is an excellent recommendation, but it does conflict with the recommendation of many universities around the world of bringing in old scientists to establish institutes and giving incentives for established senior scientists.

  1. Embrace diversity.

Target women and visible minorities. Let us build a Canadian scientific community that looks like Canada.” All agreed on this one.

  1. Speak the truth.

“Allow no proxies for success, no partial credit for “progress” that leaves unsolved problems unsolved. Don’t count publications or citations, count discoveries that have increased our knowledge about nature. We do research because we don’t know the answer; don’t force us to write grant proposals in which we have to pretend we do.” This confounds the scientists’ code of ethics with the requirements of bureaucracies like NSERC for accounting for the taxpayers’ dollars. Surely publications record the increased knowledge about nature recommended by Professor Smolin.

  1. Consider the way funding agencies do business.

“We scientists know that panels can discourage risk-taking, encourage me-too and catch-up science, and reinforce longstanding entitlements and legacies. Such a system may incentivize low-risk, incremental work and limit the kind of out-of-the-box ideas that….leads to real breakthroughs. So create ambitious programs, empower the program officers to pick out and incubate the brightest and most ambitious risk-takers, and reward them when the scientists they invest in make real discoveries.” What is the evidence that program officers in NSERC or NSF have the vision to pick winners? This is difficult advice for ecologists who are asked for opinions on support for research projects in fields that require long-term studies to produce increases in ecological understanding or better management of biodiversity. It does seem like a recipe for scientific charlatans.

The bottom line: We think that the good ideas in this article are overwhelmed by poor suggestions with regards to ecological research. We come from an ecological world faced with three critical problems that will determine the fate of the Earth – food security, biodiversity loss, and overpopulation. While we all like ‘breakthroughs’ that give us an IPhone 6S or an electric car, few of the discoveries that have increased our knowledge about nature would be considered a breakthrough. So do we say goodbye to taxonomic research, biodiversity monitoring, investigating climate change impacts on Canadian ecosystems, or investing in biological control of pests? Perhaps we can add the provocative word “breakthrough” to our ecological papers and media reports more frequently but our real goal is to acquire greater insights into achieving a sustainable world.

As a footnote to this discussion, Dev (2015) raises the issue of the unsolved major problems in biology. None of them involve environmental or ecological issues.

Dev, S.B. (2015) Unsolved problems in biology—The state of current thinking. Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, 117, 232-239.

Fortin, J.-M. & Currie, D.J. (2013) Big science vs. little science: How scientific impact scales with funding. PLoS ONE, 8, e65263.

Prasad, V. (2015) The folly of big science. New York Times. October 2, 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/03/opinion/the-folly-of-big-science-awards.html?_r=0 )

Henson, S.A. (2014) Slow science: the value of long ocean biogeochemistry records. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 372 (2025). doi: 10.1098/rsta.2013.0334.

 

Large Mammal Conservation

The conservation problem is largely focused on large things, birds and mammals, with a few pretty things like butterflies thrown in. What concerns me is the current distortion in the conservation knowledge base available for large animal conservation. I will talk largely about mammals but large birds are equally a problem.

The difficulty is this. It is nearly impossible to study large mammals because they are scarce on the ground, so census methods must be spatially extensive and thus very expensive. One needs a big budget to do this properly, and this effectively rules out university scientists unless they can collaborate with government biologists who have large budgets or private consortia who need the large mammals so they can shoot them. But even with a large budget, a large mammal ecologist cannot be very productive as measured in papers per year of research effort. So the universities in general have shied away from hiring young scientists who might be described as large mammal ecologists. This produces positive feedback in the job market so that few young scientists see this as a viable career.

All of this would be changed if governments were hiring large mammal ecologists. But they are not, with few exceptions. Governments at least in Canada and Australia have been shedding ecologists of all varieties while all the time professing how much they are doing for conservation of threatened species. The advantage of this approach for governments is that they shed high cost biologists, and cover their tracks with some hiring of public relations personnel who have no field costs and perhaps a few biologists who concentrate on small creatures and local problems. So we reach a stalemate when it comes to large mammal conservation. Why do we need polar bear scientists when all they do is make trouble? We can escape such trouble easily. Count the polar bears or the caribou every 5 years or so, so there is consequently much less information that scientists can put their fingers on. (Imagine if we counted the stock market once every 5 years.) The consequence is that in many areas we have large scale, long-term problems with few scientists and only small scale funding to find out what is happening in the field. For polar bears this seems to be partly alleviated by private funding from people who care, while the government shirks its duties for future generations.

For caribou in Canada the situation is worse because the problem is spread over more than half of Canada so the funding and person-power needed for conservation is much larger, and this is further compounded by the immediate conflict of caribou with industrial developments in oil, gas, and forestry. When dollars conflict with conservation needs, it is best not to bet on conservation winning. What good has a polar bear or a caribou done for you?

The potential consequence of all this is that we slowly lose populations of these large iconic species. If this loss is slow enough, no one seems to notice save a few concerned conservation biologists who do not own the newspapers and TV stations. And conservation ecologists grow pessimistic that we can save these large species that require much habitat and freedom from disturbance. The solutions seem to be two. First, build a big fence and keep them in a very large zoo (Packer et al. 2013). This will work for some species like caribou, as Kruger Park in South Africa illustrates so well with African large mammals (but some disagree, Creel et al. 2013). But the fence-solution will not work for polar bears, and our best response for their conservation may be to cross our fingers and hope, all the while trying to slow down the losses in the best way we can. A second solution is to decide that these large mammal conservation situations are not scientific but sociological, and progress can best be made by doing good sociological research to change the attitudes of humans about the value of biodiversity. If this is the solution, we do not need to worry that there are no biologists available to investigate the conservation issues of large mammals.

I think perhaps the bottom line is that it takes a spirited soul to aim for a career in large mammal conservation research and we hope that this happens and the conservation future for large mammals in Canada grows brighter.

Creel, S., 2013. Conserving large populations of lions – the argument for fences has holes. Ecology Letters 16 (5): 635-641. doi: 10.1111/ele.12145.

Packer, C., et al. 2013. Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence. Ecology Letters. 16: 1413-e3. doi: 10.1111/ele.12091.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 430.

The Conservative Agenda for Ecology

Many politicians that are conservative are true conservatives in the traditional meaning of the term. Many business people are conservative in the same way, and that is a good thing. But there exist in the world a set of conservatives that have a particularly destructive agenda based on a general belief that evidence, particularly scientific evidence, is not any more important as a basis for action than personal beliefs. Climate change is the example of the day, but there are many others from the utility of vaccinations for children, to items more to an ecologist’s interest like the value of biodiversity. In a sense this is a philosophical divide that is currently producing problems for ecologists in the countries I know most about, Canada and Australia, but possibly also in the USA and Britain.

The conservative political textbook says cut taxes and all will be well, especially for the rich and those in business, and then say ‘we have no money for ‘<fill in the blank here> ‘so we must cut funding to hospitals, schools, universities, and scientists’. The latest example I want to discuss is from the dismemberment of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia by the current conservative government.

CSIRO was sent up in the 1950s to do research for the betterment of the people of Australia. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was one of the world premier research organizations. If you do not believe this you can look at how many important papers, awards, and the occasional Nobel Prize came out of this organization. It had at this time perhaps 8500 employees in more than 25 Divisions. Divisions varied in size but in general they would have about 200-300 scientists and technicians. Divisions were run by a Chief who was a scientist and who decided the important directions for research in his or her area, whether it be horticulture, wildlife, energy technology, animal science, or mathematics and statistics. CSIRO itself was led by eminent scientists who provided some guidance to the Divisions but left the directions of science to the Chiefs and their scientists. It was a golden development for Australian science and a model for science that was appreciated all around the world.

This of course is dreamland in today’s world. So by the late 1980s the Australian federal government began determining scientific priorities for CSIRO. We know what science is important, the new leaders said, so do this. This would work well if it was not guided by politicians and MBAs who had no scientific training and knew nothing about science past or present. Piled on this were two neo-conservative philosophies. First, science is important only if it generates money for the economy. Coal mining triumphs wildlife research. Second, science in the public interest is not to be encouraged but cut. The public interest does not generate money. Why this change happened can be declared a mystery but it seemed to happen all around the western world in the same time frame. Perhaps it had something to do with scientific research that had the obvious message that one ought to do something about climate change or protecting biodiversity, things that would cost money and might curtail business practices.

Now with the current 2014 budget in Australia we have a clear statement of this approach to ecological science. The word from on high has come down within CSIRO that, because of cuts to their budget, one goal is as follows: “Reduce terrestrial biodiversity research (“reduced investment in terrestrial biodiversity with a particular focus on rationalising work currently conducted across the “Managing Species and Natural Ecosystems in a Changing Climate” theme and the “Building Resilient Australian Biodiversity Assets” theme in these Divisions”).Translated, this means about 20% of the staff involved in biodiversity research will be retrenched and work will continue in some areas at a reduced level. At a time when rapid climate change is starting, it boggles the mind that some people at some high levels think that supporting the coal and iron ore industry with government-funded research is more important than studies on biodiversity. (If you appreciate irony, this decision comes in a week when it is discovered that the largest coal company in Australia, mining coal on crown land, had profits of $16 billion last year and paid not one cent of tax.)

So perhaps all this illustrates that ecological research and all public interest research is rather low on the radar of importance in the political arena in comparison with subsidizing business. I should note that at the same time as these cuts are being implemented, CSIRO is also cutting agricultural research in Australia so biodiversity is not the only target. One could obtain similar statistics for the Canadian scene.

There is little any ecologist can do about this philosophy. If the public in general is getting more concerned about climate change, the simplest way to deal with this concern for a politician is to cut research in climate change so that no data are reported on the topic. The same can be said about biodiversity issues. There is too much bad news that the environmental sciences report, and the less information that is available to the public the better. This approach to the biosphere is not very encouraging for our grandchildren.

Perhaps our best approach is to infiltrate at the grass roots level in teaching, tweeting, voting, writing letters, and attending political meetings that permit some discussion of issues. Someday our political masters will realize that the quality of life is more important than the GDP, and we can being to worry more about the future of biodiversity in particular and science in general.

 

Krebs, C.J. 2013. “What good is a CSIRO division of wildlife research anyway?” In Science under Siege: Zoology under Threat, edited by Peter Banks, Daniel Lunney and Chris Dickman, pp. 5-8. Mosman, N.S.W.: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M.M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 355 pp. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4

Shaw, Christopher. 2013. “Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change: Public representations of the decision making process.” Global Environmental Change 23 (2):563-571. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.012.

Wilkinson, Todd. 1998. Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books. 364 pp. ISBN 1-55566-211-0

 

On Journal Referees

I have been an editor of enough ecological journals to know the problems of referees first hand. The start is to try to find a referee for a particular paper. I would guess now that more than two-thirds of scientists asked to referee a potential paper say they do not have time. This leads to another question of why no one has any time to do anything, but that is a digression. If one is fortunate you get 2 or 3 good referees.

The next problem comes when the reviews of the paper come back. Besides dealing with the timing of return of the reviews, there are four rules which ought to be enforced on all referees. First, review the potential paper as it is. Do not write a review saying this is what you should have written- that is not your job. Second, if the paper is good enough, be positive in making suggestions for improvement. If it is not good enough in your opinion, try to say so politely and suggest alternate journals. Perhaps the authors are aiming for a journal that is too prestigious. Third, do not say in so many words that the author should cite the following 4 papers of mine…. And fourth, do not make ad hominem attacks on the authors. If you do not like people from Texas, this is not the place to take it out on the particular authors who happen to live there.

Given the reviews, the managing editor for the paper ought to make a judgment. Some reviews do not follow the four rules above. A good editor discards these and puts a black mark on the file of that particular reviewer. I would not submit a referee’s review to the authors if it violated any of the above 4 rules. I have known and respected editors who operated this way in the past.

The difficulty now is that ecological journals are overrun. This is driven in part by the desire to maximize the number of papers one publishes in order to get a job, and in part by journals not wanting to publish longer papers. Journals do not either have the funding or the desire to grow in relation to the number of users. This typically means that papers are sent out for reviews with a note attached saying that we have to reject 80% or so of papers regardless of how good they are, a rather depressing order from above. When this level of automatic rejection is reached, the editor in chief has the power to reject any kinds of papers not in favour at the moment. I like models so let’s publish lots of model papers. Or I like data so let’s publish only a few model papers.

One reason journals are overrun is that many of the papers published in our best ecology journals are discussions of what we ought to be doing. They may be well written but they add nothing to the wisdom of our age if they simply repeat what has been in standard textbooks for the last 30 years. In days gone by, many of these papers I think might have been given as a review seminar, possibly at a meeting, but no one would have thought that they were worthy of publication. Clearly the editors of some of our journals think it is more important to talk about what to do rather than to do it.

I think without any empirical data that the quality of reviews of manuscripts has deteriorated as the number of papers published has increased. I often have to translate reviews for young scientists who are devastated by some casual remark in a review. “Forget that nonsense, deal with this point as it is important, ignore this insult to your supervisor, go have a nice glass of red wine and relax, ……”. One learns how to deal with poor reviews.

I have been reading Bertram Murray’s book “What Were They Thinking? Is Population Ecology a Science?” (2011), unfortunately published after he died in 2010. It is a long diatribe about reviews of some of his papers and it would be instructive for any young ecologist to read it. You can appreciate why Murray had trouble with some editors just from the subtitle of his book, “Is Population Ecology a Science?” It illustrates very well that even established ecologists have difficulty dealing with reviews they think are not fair. In defense of Murray, he was able to get many of his papers published, and he cites these in this book. One will not come away from this reading with much respect for ornithology journals.

I think if you can get one good, thoughtful review of your manuscript you should be delighted. And if you are rejected from your favourite journal, try another one. The walls of academia could be papered with letters of rejection for our most eminent ecologists, so you are in the company of good people.

Meanwhile if you are asked to referee a paper, do a good job and try to obey the four rules. Truth and justice do not always win out in any endeavour if you are trying to get a paper published. At least if you are a referee you can try to avoid these issues.

Barto, E. Kathryn, and Matthias C. Rillig. 2012. “Dissemination biases in ecology: effect sizes matter more than quality.” Oikos 121 (2):228-235. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2011.19401.x.

Ioannidis, John P. A. 2005. “Why most published research findings are false.” PLoS Medicine 2 (8):e124.

Medawar, P.B. 1963. “Is the scientific paper a fraud?” In The Threat and the Glory, edited by P.B. Medawar, 228-233. New York: Harper Collins.

Merrill, E. 2014. “Should we be publishing more null results?” Journal of Wildlife Management 78 (4):569-570. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.715.

Murray, Bertram G., Jr. 2011. What Were They Thinking? Is Population Ecology a Science? Infinity Publishing. 310 pp. ISBN 9780741463937

 

When Should One Retire from a University Appointment?

In the good old days universities had a hard retirement policy that once you reached age 65 you were retired whether you liked it or not. Then in the age of entitlement it was declared that this was discrimination on the basis of age and thus could not be allowed. Universities bemoaned the fact that they had no firm financial projections under the new policy, and many different policies were introduced partly to solve this problem. In some cases you could gradually go to half-time, and then at some age to quarter time, until you eventually did retire, but most of these policies were voluntary.

It is useful to look at the broad picture that these changes produced in the university community. If there was indeed some general plan of development in a particular discipline like zoology, committees could lay out a future hiring plan but it was usually chaos because the time frame was so uncertain. So in my experience most carefully thought out hiring plans went out the window and hiring became ad hoc with the accompanying ‘departmental drift’. So, as a hypothetical example, if a professor in entomology retired, he or she might get replaced by a young assistant professor in microbial genetics.

On a larger scale, we need to look carefully at the consequences of keeping older professors on the books commandeering relatively large salaries. There are no clear rules but in general one might recognize professors that are worn out at age 55 and ought to retire, others that are happy to stop at 65 and relax more, and others who ask to stay on indefinitely. Every case is an individual one. Some of the age 55 scientists are still vigorous and any concerned department ought to work to make their life easier so they can continue to work. Others of the same age should be encouraged to go. The same should occur at age 65. The worry I have most is about those over 65. I give no names but I can list brilliant scientists who continued to be paid and work until they were 75 or 80. I can also list scientists who were brilliant in their time but had passed the gate by 65 (or even 55) but insisted in taking up a position for many years after age 65. This is a tragedy for the individual, for the department, and in particular for young scientists looking for a university position but finding none because the money is tied up in professors well past their use-by-date. I would expect that the only possible solution to this issue is for the university to evaluate every professor over 55 with strict demands of performance if they wish to remain on the payroll and to do this on a 1 or 2 year timetable. No one likes doing such evaluations so perhaps the university would have to hire one of the many hard-nosed CEOs of companies that are seen to be effective at firing all their workers.

None of this is to say that any and all professors who have retired at age 55, 65, 75, or 85 should not be encouraged to continue research work, but they must do it on their retirement savings. In my youth I met a 98 year old Drosophila researcher who was continuing to do valuable research in his long retirement. In Canada the federal research agencies do not seem to care how old you are when they evaluate the quality of your research work and contributions to science, so they at least do not appear to discriminate in awarding research funds on the basis of age. Scientific journals do not ask you how old you are when you submit a potential scientific paper.

There has always been a paradigm that scientific advances are made entirely by young scientists, so that, as the joke goes, almost all mathematicians should be shot after age 30 (that is a joke….). In at least some of the ecological sciences this age paradigm is not correct, but nevertheless I think it is morally recumbent on older professors to realize that their time on the payroll should be limited in order to release funds for the aspiring young scientists who can rejuvenate university departments.

Should All Ecologists Become Social Scientists or Politicians?

Two items this week have stirred me to write about the state of ecology. The first was a talk by an eminent biologist, who must remain nameless, about how scientists should operate. All very good, we should be evidence-based, open to falsification of hypotheses, and we should work as best we can to counter media misinformation. He/she talked about the future of biology in optimistic terms and in the entire one hour talk the word ‘biodiversity’ occurred once and the word ‘environment’ once. So my conclusion was that to this eminent biologist ecology was not on the radar as anything very important. We should be principally concerned about improving the health and wealth of humanity, and increasing economic growth.

This got me to thinking about why ecology falls at the bottom of the totem pole of science so that even though we work hard to understand the functioning of nature, ecologists seem to have value only to ourselves rather than to society. Perhaps society as a whole appreciates us for light entertainment about birds and bees, but when ecologists investigate problems and offer solutions they seem to be sidelined rapidly. Perhaps this is because taking care of the biosphere will cost money, and while we happily spend money on cars and new airplanes and guns, we can afford little for the natural world. One possible explanation for this is that many people and most politicians believe that “Mother Nature will take care of herself” at no financial cost.

If this is even partly correct, we need to change society’s view. There are several ways to do this, perhaps most importantly via education, but a more direct way is for ecologists to become social scientists and perhaps politicians. My experience with this recommendation is not terribly good. Social scientists have in my experience accomplished little for all their work on the human foibles of our time. Perhaps going into politics would be useful for our science if anyone wishes to cross that Rubicon, but there are few role models that we can put up.

So we continue in a political world where few ecologists sit in high places to challenge the modern paradigm of economic growth fuelled by non-renewable resources, and many of our national leaders see no human footprint on climatic warming. Short-term thinking is one element of this puzzle for we ecologists who take a longer view of life on Earth, but it must really rankle our paleo-ecologists who take a very long term look at changes in the Earth’s environment.

The second item this week that has encapsulated all of this was the announcement from a developed country that a new institute with over 1000 scientists was to be set up to study molecular biology for the improvement of human health. Now this is a noble cause that I do not wish to cast aspersions on, but it occurred to me that this was possibly a number greater than the total number of ecologists working in Canada or Australia or New Zealand. The numbers are hard to document, but I have not seen anything like this kind of announcement for a new institute that would address any of our many ecological problems. There is money for many things but very little for ecology.

None of this is terribly new but I am puzzled why this is the case. We live in a world of inequality in which the rich squander the wealth of the Earth while the future of the planet seems of little concern. Luckily ecologists are a happy lot once they get a job because they can work in the laboratory or in the field on interesting problems and issues (if they can get the money). And to quote the latest Nature (March 13, 2014, p. 140) “If ecologists want to produce work useful to conservation, they might do better to spend their days sitting quietly in ecosystems with waterproof notebooks and hand lenses, writing everything down.” That will cost little money fortunately.

On the Need for Ecological Meetings

Perhaps I am the only ecologist in the world who is overwhelmed by the number of conferences that go on every year. I think we need to consider why we have so many meetings and consider some of the problems of the current model for ecological scientific communication. The problems that bring this to the fore for me are five:

  • Travel in its many forms increases greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Ecologists in particular are not supposed to be happy about that.
  • The number and frequency of meetings operate on a time scale completely inconsistent with having any new experimental data to report.
  • Large meetings operate with 6 or more concurrent sessions that cannot all be attended and there are so many people you cannot possibly talk to many you wish to meet.
  • Many of the talks at some meetings are poorly presented and a complete waste of one’s time.
  • Modern forms of electronic communication produce much more rapid and efficient transfer of scientific information than attending conferences.

I have of course left out the somewhat frivolous but true observation that really important people at meetings never go to any of the talks except their own.

The advantages of scientific meetings are many, and I am a believer in communication in person rather than via electronic media. So we must be careful here – I do not propose getting rid of all meetings. And I recognize that they are very important for young ecologists to help their careers develop.

So I think we have a problem and we need to think of possible solutions. One solution is to space meetings every 4 years instead of annually. Many societies do this already and do not seem to suffer. Even if we had an ESA meeting every second year we would have less stress. Another solution has been to divide up meetings into smaller groups, so the small mammal population ecologists meet as a unit, and the stream ecologists meet separately, and the carbon cycle ecologists meet on their own. This works to cut the size of meetings down and again they do not always need to hold meetings annually. Further reductions can occur by regional meetings, so the East Coast stream ecologists get together readily with minimal travel and so on. Much of this is already happening.

We have not yet used electronic forms of communication very effectively. Plenary lectures could be streamed on video and thus be available around the world for little cost and less CO2 emissions. I am hardly the one to tell you about modern communication but even I use Skype and other platforms to keep in touch with colleagues and ask questions.

There is a slightly frantic nature about ecological meeting e mails that reminds me of the Church in the good old days when every Saturday or Sunday you were supposed to attend for some reason never quite clear. If we are to continue to have large meetings often, we might at least have them in less developed countries that could use the economic stimulus that is clearly a large part of large scientific meetings. Which raises the issue of how much money should we spend on going to meetings versus doing some scientific work.

And my final complaint, having just witnessed the G20 Meeting in Australia, is that we should not adopt their model of meeting every year in very expensive places like Sydney and not having accomplished a single thing in recent memory except to say that they are a very important group.

10 Limitations on Progress in Ecology

Ecological science moves along slowly in its mission to understand how the Earth’s populations, communities, and ecosystems operate within the constraints of human impacts on the Biosphere. The question of the day is can we identify the factors currently limiting the rate of progress so that at least in principle we could speed up progress in our science. Here is my list.

1. A shortage of ecologists or more properly jobs for ecologists. In particular a scarcity of government agencies employing ecologists in secure jobs to work on stable, long-term environmental projects that are beyond the scope of university scientists. Many young ecologists of high quality are stalled in positions that are beneath their talents. We are in a situation similar to having highly trained medical doctors being used as hospital janitors. This is a massive failure on many fronts, regional and national, political and scientific. Many governments around the world think economists and lawyers are key while environmental scientists are superfluous.

2. The lack of proper funding from both government, private companies and private individuals. This is typified by the continual downsizing of government scientists working on natural resource problems – fisheries, wildlife, park management – and continuing political interference with scientific objectives. Private companies too often rely on taxpayers to fund their environmental investigations and do not view them as a part of their business model. Private citizens give money to medical research rather than to environmental programs largely based on the belief that of all the life on Earth, only the human component is important.

3. The deficiency of taxonomic expertise to define clearly the species that inhabit the Earth. The estimates vary but perhaps only 10% of the total biota can be given a Latin name and morphological description, leaving out for the moment all the bacteria and viruses. Equate this with having a batch of various shaped coins in your pocket with only a few of them giving the denomination. This problem has been identified for years with little action.

4. Given adequate taxonomy, the lack of adequate natural history data on most of the biota. This activity, so critical for all ecological science, was called “stamp collecting” and thus condemned to the lowest point on the scientific totem pole. The consequence of this is that we try to understand the Earth with data only on butterflies, some birds, and some large mammals.

5. A failure of ecologists to map out the critical questions facing natural populations, communities, and ecosystems on Earth. The roadmap of ecology is littered with wrecks of ideas once pushed to explain nearly everything, and we need a more nuanced map of what is a critical issue. There are a considerable number of fractures within the ecological discipline about what needs to be done, if people and money were available. This fosters the culture of I win = you lose in competition for money and jobs.

6. The confusion of mathematical models with reality. There is a strong disconnect between models and data that persists. Models rapidly proliferate, data are slow to accumulate, so we try to paper over the fragility of our understanding with mathematical wizardry, trying to be like physicists. Connecting model predictions with empirical data studies would go a long way to righting this problem but it is a tall order in a world that confuses the number of publications and h scores with important contributions.

7 The fact that too many ecologists do not adopt the scientific method of investigation, to carry out experiments with multiple alternative hypotheses with clear predictions. Arguments continue endlessly based on words (‘concepts’) that are so vaguely defined as to be meaningless operationally. If you need an example, think ‘stability’ or ‘diversity’. These vague words are then herded into pseudo-hypotheses to doubly confound the confusion over what the critical questions in ecology really are.

8. The need for ecologists to work in stable groups. Serious ecological problems demand expertise in many scientific specialities, and we need better mechanisms to foster and maintain such groups. The assessment of scientists on the basis of individual work is long out of date, the Nobel Prize is an anachronism, and we need strong groups concentrating on important issues for long term studies. At the moment many groups exist to do meta-analyses and fewer to do science.

9. Placing the technological horse in front of the ecological cart. Ecology like many sciences is often led by technology rather than by questions. The current DNA bandwagon is one example, but we should not get so confused to think that that most important questions in ecology are those that use the most technology. Jumping from one technological bandwagon to the next is a good recipe for minimizing progress.

10. The fractionation of ecology into subdisciplines and the assumption that the only important research work has been done since 2000. Aquatic ecologists do not talk to terrestrial ecologists, microbial ecologists live in their own special world, and avian ecologists do not talk to insect ecologists. The result is that the existing literature is too often wasted by investigators who have no idea that question XX has already been answered either in another subdiscipline or in existing literature from 50 years ago.

Not all of these limitations apply to every ecologist, and at best I would view them as a set of guideposts that need to be considered as we move further into the 21st century.

Krebs, C. J. 2006. Ecology after 100 years: progress and pseudo-progress. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 30:3-11.

Majer, J. D. 2012. Critical times: How has ecological research responded over the past 35 years? Austral Ecology 37:149-152.

Sutherland, W. J. et al. 2010. A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25:1-7.