Arguing for scientific socialism in ecology funding

26 06 2012

What makes an ecologist ‘successful’? How do you measure ‘success’? We’d all like to believe that success is measured by our results’ transformation of ecological theory and practice – in a conservation sense, this would ultimately mean our work’s ability to prevent (or at least, slow down) extinctions.

Alas, we’re not that good at quantifying such successes, and if you use the global metric of species threats, deforestation, pollution, invasive species and habitat degradation, we’ve failed utterly.

So instead, we measure scientific ‘success’ via peer-reviewed publications, and the citations (essentially, scientific cross-referencing) that arise from these. These are blunt instruments, to be sure, but they are really the only real metrics we have. If you’re not being cited, no one is reading your work; and if no one is reading you’re work, your cleverness goes unnoticed and you help nothing and no one.

A paper I just read in the latest issue of Oikos goes some way to examine what makes a ‘successful’ ecologist (i.e., in terms of publications, citations and funding), and there are some very interesting results.

What’s not surprising is that of the most highly cited ecologists (i.e., the top 1 %), most are men (93 %), American (65 %), old (mean ‘scientific’ age of 32 years), focussed (mean of 11 hours writing/week), run large labs (mean = 11), and are well-funded (mean = $500,000/year). Unless you are an old American man with too much time on your hands and a propensity to get other people to do the work for you, it sounds like you’re shit out of luck. Very difficult to change your nationality, and even more difficult (but not impossible) to change your gender.

Jokes aside, these trends belie some relatively surprising aspects of the publication rat race. Within that group of so-called ‘elites’, neither gender nor the amount of funding explained the number of publications produced, or the citations they engendered. The authors state:

“In spite of having orders of magnitude more funding, the most cited do not have any more likelihood – on average – of producing an individual paper that draws a higher citation rate than a similarly successful colleague who has only 1/1000th of the available funding.”

The principal message of this finding is that some form of equity in funding distribution is likely to provide better scientific returns than just dumping research money into the already funding-rich. The authors state:

“… after a certain point in funding level, channelling additional resources into the same large groups lead by elites does not result in demonstrable increases in impact. Redirection of some funds to other grantees at lower funding levels would however make a significant difference.”

So there you have it – being somewhat socialist in science is a good thing for a country’s research investment. In other words, give the early-career researchers a funding chance and you’re likely to produce a helluva lot more top-notch researchers that actually do some good for the planet. I think it would be interesting to do this analysis for Australia to ascertain how effective the Australian Research Council is at promoting its younger generation of scientists. My gut instinct is that it has got a good balance of funding options, but I imagine improvement is certainly possible.

A few other results also caught my eye. Most important was how cheap it really is to ensure top-notch science – the cost of producing 1 citation by the elite group of ecologists was only $0.0003. Imagine what would happen if we spent $0.01/citation! Budding ecologists would also do well to heed the finding that collaboration, both within and external to one’s lab, is an essential element for scientific success. Working in large groups gets you more papers, more citations, and ultimately, more funding.

Hopefully this means better on-the-ground action for conservation work too, but that’s not always guaranteed.

CJA Bradshaw



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26 06 2012
Before It's News

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