It wasn’t hard to achieve gender balance.

If you aren't aware of this figure by now you should be.  Credit: Moss-Racusin et al. 2012.
If you aren’t aware of this figure by now you should be. Credit: Moss-Racusin et al. 2012.

A couple of weeks ago my colleagues and I submitted a session proposal to ESA (Paleoecological patterns, ecological processes, modeled scenarios: Crossing temporal scales to understand an uncertain future) for the 100th anniversary meeting in Baltimore. I’m very proud of our session proposal.  Along with a great topic (and one dear to my heart) we had a long list of potential speakers, but we had to whittle it down to eight for the actual submission.

The speaker list consists of four male and four female researchers, a mix of early career and established researchers from three continents. It wasn’t hard. We were aware of the problem of gender bias, we thought of people who’s work we respected, who have new and exciting viewpoints, and who we would like to see at ESA.  We didn’t try to shoehorn anybody in with false quotas, we didn’t pick people to force a balance.  We simply picked the best people.

Out of the people we invited only two turned us down.  While much has been said about higher rejection rates from female researchers (here, and here for the counterpoint), both of the people who turned us down were male, so, maybe we’re past that now?

This is the first time I’ve tried to organize a session and I’m very happy with the results (although I may have jinxed myself!).  I think the session will be excellent because we have an excellent speakers list and a great narrative thread through the session, but my point is: It was so easy, there ought to be very little excuse for a skewed gender balance.

PS.  Having now been self-congratulatory about gender I want to raise the fact that this speakers list does not address diversity in toto, which has been and continues to be an issue in ecology and the sciences in general.  Recognizing there’s a problem is the first step to overcoming our unconscious biases.

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Super size my ecology!

Well, I’ve finally made it into a news release for the University of Wisconsin:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, home of pioneering ecologists who studied lakes, forests, wetlands and prairies, is playing a key role in the next wave of ecological research: large teams of scientists confronting the dilemma of a changing climate on a shrinking planet.

The article summarizes work of two NSF Macrosystems funded projects, GLEON and PalEON (obviously, borrowing on the gold standard of Neon Inc.) and features a quote from me that sounds like something I might have said slightly tongue in cheek: “We’re pollen whisperers,” erm, yeah. . .

Figure 1.  That time that Science Hall was in a very famous movie.
Figure 1. That time that Science Hall was in a very famous movie.

Regardless, I like the news releases’ thread between the history of the University of Wisconsin and our modern work.  As put by Jack Williams:

“Reid Bryson was one of the first to look seriously at climate change, and John Kutzbach produced a groundbreaking set of studies identifying the key causes of past climate change. Thompson Webb, my advisor at Brown, got his Ph.D. here in Madison in 1971 and has been studying paleoclimate ever since.”

Working in Science Hall I’ve always felt well connected to the history of the University, even if I’m only here temporarily. Reid Bryson, John Curtis (Bray-Curtis anyone?), Tom Webb III, and many other people central to the intersection of climate and ecology, shared these halls at some point in the last century. The walls have stayed the same but the ideas have flowed on like pine pollen on a spring breeze.

Much of our work, and the work I’m quoted on (pollen quote aside), has been deeply influenced by David Mladenoff and his lab group who have been working with Public Land Survey data for Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest for some time now.  He’s been an invaluable collaborator, even if he’s not in Science Hall.

Anyway, back to prepping for our June Pollen/R course at UMaine. I’ll update soon with some R tricks that experienced users wish they had learned early on.

Macrosystems Ecology: The more we know the less we know.

Dynamic Ecology had a post recently asking why there wasn’t an Ecology Blogosphere. One of the answers was simply that as ecologists we often recognize the depth of knowledge of our peers and as such, are unlikely (or are unwilling) to comment in an area that we have little expertise. This is an important point. I often feel like the longer I stay in academia the more I am surprised when I can explain a concept outside my (fairly broad) subject area clearly and concisely.  It surprises me that I have depth of knowledge in a subject that I don’t directly study.

Of course, it makes sense.  We are constantly exposed to ideas outside our disciplines in seminars, papers, on blogs & twitter, and in general discussions, but at the same time we are also exposed to people with years of intense disciplinary knowledge, who understand the subtleties and implications of their arguments.  This is exciting and frightening.  The more we know about a subject, the more we know what we don’t know.  Plus, we’re trained to listen to other people.  We ‘grew up’ academically under the guidance of others, who often had to correct us, so when we get corrected out of our disciplines we are often likely to defer, rather than fight.

This speaks to a broader issue though, and one that is addressed in the latest issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.  The challenges of global change require us to come out of our disciplinary shells and to address challenges with a new approach, defined here as Macrosystems Ecology.  At large spatial and temporal scales – the kinds of scales at which we experience life – ecosystems cease being disciplinary.  Jim Heffernan and Pat Soranno, in the lead paper (Heffernan et al., 2014) detail three ecological systems that can’t be understood without cross-scale synthesis using multi-disciplinary teams.

Figure 1.  From Heffernan et al. (2014), multiple scales and disciplines interact to explain patterns of change in the Amazon basin.
Figure 1. From Heffernan et al. (2014), multiple scales and disciplines interact to explain patterns of change in the Amazon basin.

The Amazonian rain forest is a perfect example of a region that is imperiled by global change, and can benefit from a Macrosystems approach.  Climate change and anthropogenic land use drives vegetation change, but vegetation change also drives climate (and, ultimately, land use decisions). This is further compounded by teleconnections related to societal demand for agricultural products around the world and the regional political climate.  To understand and address ecological problems in this region then, we need to understand cross-scale phenomena in ecology, climatology, physical geography, human geography, economics and political science.

Macrosystems proposes a cross-scale effort, linking disciplines through common questions to examine how systems operate at regional to continental scales, and at multiple temporal scales.  These problems are necessarily complex, but by bringing together researchers in multiple disciplines we can begin to develop a more complete understanding of broad-scale ecological systems.

Interdisciplinary research is not something that many of us have trained for as ecologists (or biogeographers, or paleoecologists, or physical geographers. . . but that’s another post).  It is a complex, inter-personal interaction that requires understanding of the cultural norms within other disciplines.  Cheruvelil et al. (2014) do a great job of describing how to achieve and maintain high-functioning teams in large interdisciplinary projects, and Kendra also discusses this further in a post on her own academic blog.

Figure 2.  Interdisciplinary research requires effort in a number of different areas, and these efforts are not recognized under traditional reward structures.
Figure 2. From Goring et al., (2014). Interdisciplinary research requires effort in a number of different areas, and these efforts are not recognized under traditional reward structures.

In Goring et al. (2014) we discuss a peculiar issue that is posed by interdisciplinary research.  The reward system in academia is largely structured to favor disciplinary research.  We refer to this in our paper as a disciplinary silo.  You are in a department of X, you publish in the Journal of X, you go to the International Congress of X and you submit grant requests to the X Program of your funding agency.  All of these pathways are rewarded, and even though we often claim that teaching and broader outreach are important, they are important inasmuch as you need to not screw them up completely (a generalization, but one I’ve heard often enough).

As we move towards greater interdisciplinarity we begin to recognize that simply superimposing the traditional rewards structure onto interdisciplinary projects (Figure 2) leaves a lot to be desired.  This is particularly critical for early-career researchers.  We are asking these researchers (people like me) to collaborate broadly with researchers around the globe, to tackle complex issues in global change ecology, but, when it comes time to assess their research productivity we don’t account for the added burden that interdisciplinary research can require of a researcher.

Now, I admit, this is self-serving.  As an early career researcher, and member of a large interdisciplinary team (PalEON), much of what we propose in Goring et al. (2014) strongly reflects on my own personal experience.  Outreach activities, the complexities of dealing with multiple data sources, large multi-authored papers, posters and talks, and the coordination of researchers across disciplines are all realities for me, and for others in the project, but ultimately, we get evaluated on grants and papers.  The interdisciplinary model of research requires effort that never gets valuated by hiring or tenure committees.

That’s not to say that hiring committees don’t consider this complexity, and I know they’re not just looking for Nature and Science papers, but at the same time, there is a new landscape for researchers out there, and we’re trying to evaluate them with an old map.

In Goring et al. (2014) we propose a broader set of metrics against which to evaluate members of large interdisciplinary teams (or small teams, there’s no reason to be picky).  This list of new metrics (here) includes traditional metrics (numbers of papers, size of grants), but expands the value of co-authorship, recognizing that only one person is first in the authorship list, even if people make critical contributions; provides support for non-disciplinary outputs, like policy reports, dataset generation, non-disciplinary research products (white papers, books) and the creation of tools and teaching materials; and adds value to qualitative contributions, such as facilitation roles, helping people communicate or interact across disciplinary divides.

This was an exciting set of papers to be involved with, all arising from two meetings associated with the NSF Macrosystems Biology program (part of NSF BIO’s Emerging Frontiers program).  I was lucky enough to attend both meetings, the first in Boulder CO, the second in Washington DC.  As a post-doctoral researcher these are the kinds of meetings that are formative for early-career researchers, and clearly, I got a lot out of it.  The Macrosystems Biology program is funding some very exciting programs, and this Frontiers issue attempts to get to the heart of the Macrosystems approach.  It is the result of many hours and days of discussion, and many of the projects are already coming to fruition.  It is an exciting time to be an early-career researcher, hopefully you agree!