I’m not sure why, but something really caught me about this piece…
What would your favorite found-object sea-creature be?
I just saw this video from the Pawlik lab doing work done in the Aquarius habitat in the Caribbean. I just adore it. There’s something about the lighthearted sense of fund and enjoyment behind the soundtrack that syncs up with the work that’s being done that captures some of the essence of what subtidal work can be (even for those of us in colder temperate climes). Enjoy this research pastiche!
Does Synthesis Ecology exist? Is it a discipline? If so, what is it? If not, why not?
As a part of the Trends in Ecological Analysis and Synthesis symposium here at NCEAS, several postdocs past and present organized by Jennifer “Firestarter” Balch got together and sent this survey to the last 15 years of NCEAS postdocs. The survey asks what current and former NCEAS postdocs thought were the most important contributions in Synthesis Ecology and what they thought were the most exciting future directions in Synthesis Ecology.
And then a small storm erupted.
While Jennifer modified a definition of Synthesis Ecology from the NCEAS mission statement (“Synthesis Ecology is the integration and analysis of existing data, concepts, or theories to find emergent patterns and principles that address major fundamental questions in ecology and allied fields. “), even amongst the postdocs, no one could agree whether or not Synthesis Ecology existed as a Thing. Was it a discipline? Was it a technique? Would you feel comfortable calling yourself a Synthesis Ecologist? What is it?
Even amongst the authors on the analysis of the survey, there was little agreement. We sat down one morning, a group of current and former NCEAS postdocs, and tried to hash this issue out. Amusingly, the room was divided, largely along generational lines, as to whether it was or was not a field. We argued it around for a while, posing different definitions and finding little agreement.
Really, there are more questions and points of reflection than answers. Here are some relevant points that I pulled from our conversation. They’re what I latched on to, and are even argued amongst the participants in the group, so, no answers here.
- What is a Field Of Science? The definition I threw out that everyone seemed comfortable with was that a field is a unique way of asking and answering questions about the world. The confluence of Asking and Answering is key. A methodology is just a way of answering.
- Does a Field need to have a unique theory associated with it? Or not?
- By analogy, how is Genomics a field? Why is Genomics not just a technique or methodology within Genetics? Similarly, Geography has had this debate about Geographic Information Science and, indeed, has emerged as its own field. Also on the same line, Molecular Biology – a field we are all well familiar with has gone through the same set of questioning.
- One objection was that Synthesis Ecology doesn’t have a single field system – it is a collection of techniques that answer larger questions. And yet, is that not similar to Theoretical Ecology? How is one a discipline and the other not?
- If it is a field, a defining emergent characteristic MUST be the crossing of disciplinary boundaries – either within ecology or outside of ecology
So, I wish I could say I had an answer for you.
OK, that’s a cop-out – I do have my own answer (Not reflective of the group! In fact, I hope they have some pointed answers and counterpoints to this!). Yes, I do think Synthesis Ecology is a field. Synthesis Ecology is the field in ecology defined by the combination heterogeneous streams of data & concepts to ask and answer questions underpinned by either ecological theory and/or application that cannot be addressed by any single investigation or dataset.
OK, after pondering THAT and the above points and thinking about the pieces you’ve read over the last 15 years, I open this discussion to you: Is Synthesis Ecology in and of itself a field? And please, be polite!
Update: See also Karen McLeod’s excellent post, Beyond crunching data: The power of ideas
Are you excited about seeing the 125 hot science projects that got submitted to #SciFund2? Can’t wait the additional month for those projects to post themselves online? Want to fund some awesome science right now? Maybe you signed up and want to earn some pre-#SciFund karma?
Well fear not! The Science tag on Rockethub has been taking off! A few folk were so excited about crowdfunding their work that they couldn’t wait for #SciFund 2! So why not swing over and look at these three projects and warm up your crowd-funding chops before #SciFund 2.
First up we have a project studying stress response in baby kestrels. BABY ANIMALS! (stressed out!) It’s a great simple video with KESTREL CHICKS. Awwww. I admit, I am a sucker for baby animals. Why do you think I like trochophores so much?
Next up we have a project on oyster acidification research. For those in the -omics crowd, this project is going to look at the transcriptome of oysters exposed to acidification. Field science, experiments, global change. Pretty awesome.
Lastly, we have one that just caught my eye on Chameleon color change. It’s for a PhD student working with undergrads to look at how hormone expression relates to color change ability. It’s got a great slick video showing chameleon color change, behavior, and giving you an introduction to the researchers.
I’ve been pretty stoked about the This is What a Scientist Looks Like project on tumblr. So much so that I felt compelled to submit an (old) photo of me doing field work. I mean, when one things science, they often think labcoats and microscopes. When one thinks ecology, they often think hiking in a forest or working out on a sunny grassland. (note: these are impressions I’ve gotten to people when I say these words – not what I think myself, natch.)
So, why not throw in something of what a marine ecologist at work looks like. So here’s my shot:
Yeah, I admit, it’s kind of a marine ecology beefcake shot, and definitely falls into the ¿Quien es el mas macho? school of marine ecology, but I kinda love it (and thanks to Kristin Hultgren for taking it on our wacky marine ecology roadtrip).
But I was not prepared for what was to happen next. Namely, a good friend of mine getting hold of it and showing the picture for what it really is – me making my James Bond escape after blowing up the Evil Villan’s lair.
This is totally going to be the photo on the door of my lab one day.
I know, I know, I have been kinda lame about posting here lately. But that’s because my posting muscle has been focused on the new analyses for what makes a succesful #SciFund proposal. I’ve been posting them at the #SciFund blog under the Analysis tag – so check it out. There’s some fun stats, and you get to watch me be a social scientist for a minute. Viva la interdisciplinarity!
That’s right, folk, last time we had 49 scientists bring in ~1400 people to check out their hot science and fund it to the tune of $76,000. And that was when we had no idea what we were doing. And now it’s time for round 2! We’re going to have a little more community review, some training, and we have a whole boatload of lessons learned.
Friday’s NCEAS discussion about changing the future of scientific publishing was fascinating. We had a wide variety of views about the current system, what it’s adding to our papers, if the problems really are problems, and why we got here. But there was one thing that came up again and again, that even the most skeptical status quo folk in the crowd agreed was where the true value of the current journal system lies –
Editorial peer review.
Not a single person in the audience denied that their papers were not hugely improved by the peer review process, as well as the editor’s comments and revisions that came with it.
And that was it, really. Any other model you please was deemed a non-starter by many if it didn’t include editorial peer review. The one thing which generally we all do as part of service (except at higher EIC levels – usually). There was some other talk of niceties – professional layout, etc., but it was also pointed out that much of that we can now do ourselves on our desktop.
So that would seem to be the gauntlet thrown. If you want to change the system, the new system still has to involve strong peer review – guided by editors or guided by the crowd or whatnot was not discussed (but, interesting to ponder). Without it, solutions will be viewed with skepticism or even derision (gauging by reactions). But with it, there is room for a viable alternative. Food for thought.