Citizens ask the expert in climate physics

24 11 2020

In the first of two consecutive interviews with climate-change experts, authors, editors and readers of the Spanish magazine Quercus have a chat with Ken Caldeira, a global-ecology researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science (Washington, USA). His responses attest that the climate system is complex, and that we need to be practical in dealing with the planet’s ongoing climate emergency.

PhD in atmospheric sciences and professor at Stanford University (USA), Ken Caldeira has pioneered the study of ocean acidification and its impact on coral reefs (1) and geoengineering solutions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere and reflecting solar radiation (2, 3). He has also been part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) and assessed zero-emissions scenarios (4, 5). To the right, Ken manoeuvers a drone while collecting aerial data from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (6). Source.

SARS-Covid-19 is impacting the world. In our home country, Spain, scientists argue that (i) previous budget cuts in public health have weakened our capacity to tackle the pandemic (7), and (ii) the expert panels providing advice to our government should be independent of political agendas in their membership and decisions (8). Nevertheless, the Spanish national and regional governments’ data lack the periodicity, coherence, and detail to harness an effective medical response (9). Sometimes it feels as if politics partly operate by neglecting the science needed to tackle challenges such as the covid pandemic or climate change.

Having said that, even if a country has cultivated and invested in the best science possible, people have difficulties coming to terms with the idea that scientists work with probabilities of alternative scenarios. As much as there are different ways of managing a pandemic, scientists differ about how to mitigate the ecological, economic, and health impacts of a high-carbon society.

Thus, a more and more common approach is to make collective assessments (elicitations) by weighing different points of view across experts — for instance, to establish links between climate change and armed conflict (10) or to evaluate the role of nuclear energy as we transition to a low-carbon energy-production model (11). The overarching goal is to quantify consensus based on different (evidence-based) opinions.

The questions we here ask Ken Caldeira could well have different answers if asked of other experts. Still, as Ken points out, it is urgent that (of the many options available) we use the immense and certainty-proof knowledge we have already about climate change to take actions that work.

Interview done 23 January 2020 

We italicise each question and the name of the person asking the question and cite one to three relevant publications per question. For expanding on Ken Caldeira’s views on climate change, see a sample of his public talks here and here and newspaper articles here and here.

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Collect and analyse your Altmetric data

17 11 2020

Last week I reported that I had finally delved into the world of R Shiny to create an app that calculates relative citation-based ranks for researchers.

I’m almost slightly embarrassed to say that Shiny was so addictive that I ended up making another app.

This new app takes any list of user-supplied digital object identifiers (doi) and fetches their Altmetric data for you.

Why might you be interested in a paper’s Altmetric data? Citations are only one measure of an article’s impact on the research community, whereas Altmetrics tend to indicate the penetration of the article’s findings to a much broader audience.

Altmetric is probably the leading way to gauge the ‘impact’ (attention) an article has commanded across all online sources, including news articles, tweets, Facebook entries, blogs, Wikipedia mentions and others.

And for those of us interested in influencing policy with our work, Altmetrics also collate citations arising from policy documents.

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The ε-index app: a fairer way to rank researchers with citation data

9 11 2020

Back in April I blogged about an idea I had to provide a more discipline-, gender-, and career stage-balanced way of ranking researchers using citation data.

Most of you are of course aware of the ubiquitous h-index, and its experience-corrected variant, the m-quotient (h-index ÷ years publishing), but I expect that you haven’t heard of the battery of other citation-based indices on offer that attempt to correct various flaws in the h-index. While many of them are major improvements, almost no one uses them.

Why aren’t they used? Most likely because they aren’t easy to calculate, or require trawling through both open-access and/or subscription-based databases to get the information necessary to calculate them.

Hence, the h-index still rules, despite its many flaws, like under-emphasising a researcher’s entire body of work, gender biases, and weighting towards people who have been at it longer. The h-index is also provided free of charge by Google Scholar, so it’s the easiest metric to default to.

So, how does one correct for at least some of these biases while still being able to calculate an index quickly? I think we have the answer.

Since that blog post back in April, a team of seven scientists and I from eight different science disciplines (archaeology, chemistry, ecology, evolution & development, geology, microbiology, ophthalmology, and palaeontology) refined the technique I reported back then, and have submitted a paper describing how what we call the ‘ε-index’ (epsilon index) performs.

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Giving the perfect seminar at a job interview

2 11 2020

Have a job interview coming up and have been invited to give a seminar to the committee/school/department/institute?

Here are some handy tips for giving the best interview-tailored seminar (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)


If you have not yet had the opportunity to be grilled (interviewed) for a new job, you might not appreciate the importance of giving the best seminar of your life to increase your chances of getting the job you want. Normally in most academic settings, a group of the most qualified candidates for an advertised position will be invited to give a seminar to the main group (department, school, or centre) for whom they could be eventually working if successful.

While all of the standard advice applies to this type of seminar too, there are some specific issues that the candidate must also ideally take into consideration. Unfortunately, many of these seminars are just awful, serving only to bathe the aspirants in an unflattering spotlight of incompetence.

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