School finishers and undergraduates ill-prepared for research careers

22 05 2014

bad mathsHaving been for years now at the pointy end of the educational pathway training the next generation of scientists, I’d like to share some of my observations regarding how well we’re doing. At least in Australia, my realistic assessment of science education is: not well at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but only now decided to put my thoughts into words as the train wreck of our current government lurches toward a future guaranteeing an even stupider society. Charging postgraduate students to do PhDs for the first time, encouraging a US-style system of wealth-based educational privilege, slashing education budgets and de-investing in science while promoting the belief in invisible spaghetti monsters from space, are all the latest in the Fiberal future nightmare that will change our motto to “Australia – the stupid country”.

As you can appreciate, I’m not filled with a lot of hope that the worrying trends I’ve observed over the past 10 years or so are going to get any better any time soon. To be fair though, the problems go beyond the latest stupidities of the Fiberal government.

My realisation that there was a problem has crystallised only recently as I began to notice that most of my lab members were not Australian. In fact, the percentage of Australian PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab usually hovers around 20%. Another sign of a problem was that even when we advertised for several well-paid postdoctoral positions, not a single Australian made the interview list (in fact, few Australians applied at all). I’ve also talked to many of my colleagues around Australia in the field of quantitative ecology, and many lament the same general trend.

Is it just poor mathematical training? Yes and no. Australian universities have generally lowered their entry-level requirements for basic maths, thereby perpetuating the already poor skill base of school leavers. Why? Bums (that pay) on seats. This means that people like me struggle to find Australian candidates that can do the quantitative research we need done. We are therefore forced to look overseas. Read the rest of this entry »

They always whinge about the maths

18 11 2010

If you don’t know what a differential equation is, you are not a scientist” – Hugh Possingham 2009

At the end of 2009 I highlighted a new book edited by good mates Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich, Conservation Biology for All, in which Barry Brook and I had written a chapter. Now, despite my vested interest, I thought (and still think) that it was one of the best books on conservation biology yet published, and the subsequent reviews appear to be validating my subjective opinion.

I’ve given snippets of the book’s contents, from Paul Ehrlich‘s editorial on the human population’s rising negative influences on biodiversity, to a more detailed synopsis of our chapter, The Conservation Biologist’s Toolbox, and I’ve reproduced a review printed in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The latest review by Nicole Gross-Camp of the University of East Anglia published in Ecology is no less flattering – in fact, it is the most flattering to date. So this is by no means a whinge about a whinge; rather, consider it an academic lament followed by a query. First, the review:

Reaching higher in conservation

If a book could receive a standing ovation—this one is a candidate. Sodhi and Ehrlich have created a comprehensive introduction to conservation biology that is accessible intellectually, and financially, to a broad audience—indeed it is Conservation biology for all. The book is divided into 16 chapters that can stand alone and are complementary when read in sequence. The authors make excellent use of cross citations of chapters, a useful and often overlooked feature in texts of this nature. In the introductory chapter, Sodhi and Ehrlich eloquently summarize the gravity of the conservation crisis and still retain an optimistic outlook that encourages the reader to continue. I particularly found their recognition of population growth, consumption, and ethics in the conservation arena refreshing and a step toward what will likely become the next major issues of discussion and research in the conservation field. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t torture your readers II

22 02 2009

The second instalment of “Don’t torture your readers” (an attempt to stimulate better writing in conservation science) follows with some more mistakes, bad grammar and personal pet peeves.

  • DECIMATE (as in ‘… the population was decimated following…’) – I’ve seen this one used way too often. It is usually invoked by the author to imply some devastating reduction in population size (somehow it sounds bad); for this reason alone, the emotive language should be avoided. However, ‘decimate’ has a specific meaning: to reduce by every ‘one in 10’ (hence the ‘deci’ prefix). If you really mean the population was reduced by 10 %, use ‘decimate’. If you are just stating the population was reduced, state by how much and avoid emotive and incorrect terms.
  • DRAMATIC(ALLY) (as in ‘… we observed a dramatic decline in…’) – another meaningless, emotive word that belongs in the theatre, not in scientific writing. Quantify your meaning instead of relying on subjective terms.
  • CRITICAL(LY) (as in ‘… highlights the critical importance of…’ – This term is generally meant to communicate some urgent need or absolute necessity. While most authors would like to think their chosen topic is ‘critical’, many neither define to whom or what the results are ‘critical’, or even what the lack thereof would entail. In some circumstances it is used to infer some sort of threshold beyond which another state dominates, so I question the need for ‘critical’ at all in conservation writing. If you are trying to inflate the importance of your work, ‘critical’ is the word to use; if you mean a threshold, then simply state so.
  • FEW versus LESS – I’m amazed this still stumps so many people. ‘Few’ should be used to define a small number of countable (discrete) items (e.g., individuals, quadrats, plots). ‘Less’ should be applied to a measurable, continuous variable (covariate) that cannot be easily discretised (e.g., water, biomass, carbon). If you ever see someone write ‘less individuals’, get out the big red pen.
  • DATA – While on the subject of quantification, the word ‘data’ should always be followed by plural forms of the verbs (e.g., ‘… the data are…’; ‘… the data were…’). A singular ‘datum’ is one measurement and requires the singular form. A ‘dataset’ is a single group of data, so it too can use the singular form. If you want to communicate that your sample size was too small (for your intended purposes), you need to write ‘too few data’.
  • MIGHT/CAN versus MAY – I’ve often got this one wrong too. ‘May’ implies doubt or permission, so it is most often better to use ‘can’ or ‘might’ (where appropriate) when you expressly mean ‘under certain circumstances’.
  • THAT versus WHICH – This is not an easy one, and for a full discussion, visit this link. In the most basic description of the difference, ‘that’ usually introduces essential information in a restrictive clause, whereas ‘which’ introduces additional information in a non-restrictive clause. Quoting from the link given above provides some more clarity:

“What is FASCINATING to me is that . . . one way to determine . . . the correct word . . . is to ask the question, ‘Does the clause clarify which of several possibilities is being referred to?’ If the answer is yes, then the correct word to use is that. If the answer is no, the correct word to use is which.”

Seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but it’s correct (hence the confusion).

CJA Bradshaw

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Don’t torture your readers

9 02 2009

This may seem a little off-topic for, but I thought it pertinent to communicate how bad English hampers the understanding, popularity and implementation of good conservation science. I’ve started a list of common errors, unnecessary jargon, bad phrasing, archaic usage and overly complex constructions that I often see in conservation writing. Many of these are personal preferences, but I try to justify my suggested alternative in each case. Some of these apply to general English writing, others to science only, and others just to conservation/ecological fields. My hope is that students and young researchers can use my advice to improve the clarity of their writing. This first list is only preliminary – later posts in this theme will appear as I record more examples.

  • CONDUCT (as in ‘… we conducted the experiment…’) – What is wrong with ‘do/did’? I have never seen a scientist ‘conduct’ anything, but I have seen a few good operas.
  • PERFORM – See ‘conduct’. While some scientists would probably be more effective Thespians, let’s keep the theatre out of science.
  • VERY (as in ‘… there are very few species…’ – ‘Very’ has no place in scientific writing – I defy anyone to quantify what it means (i.e., it has an entirely subjective interpretation).
  • QUITE – See ‘very’.
  • SITUATED (as in ‘… our study area was situated in…’) – Simplify to ‘is/was’. Much easier, isn’t it?
  • SIGNIFICANT (as in ‘…this result has significant implications for…’; ‘… significant scientific advances…’; ‘… the functional significance of…’; ‘… can play a significant role…’ – This is probably the most abused word in science today. All the former examples mean nothing and are entirely dependent on the subjective position of the reader. Used without a statistical meaning per se (but more on the abuses of ‘significance’ as an arbitrary statistical paradigm in a later post), ‘significant’ and her sisters (e.g., ‘significantly’, ‘significance’) have no more place in scientific writing than ‘very’. Students often invoke this word simply to sound more scientific. Rubbish.
  • TO BOLDLY GO (i.e., any split infinitive; I couldn’t resist using one of the more infamous split infinitives) – I believe the jury is out really on the acceptable use of split infinitives, and I may be losing the battle, but an infinitive (for those of you who are grammatically challenged, an ‘infinitive’ is the base form of the verb prior to conjugation) can never be split by an adverb in English. How many times have you seen ‘… to significantly affect…’, ‘… to adequately measure…’ or ‘… to properly test…’. Sorry, all wrong (should be ‘… to affect significantly…’, etc.)
  • 10m (as in ‘… transects were set every 10m along…’) – You cannot write ’10metres’, so why, oh why, do people insist on sticking unit abbreviations next to the number? It should be ’10 m’!
  • i.e./e.g. – These abbreviations, id est and exempli gratia, literally mean ‘that is’ and ‘for the sake of example’, respectively. They are two words abbreviated each, so a full stop is required after each letter. Absolute correctness normally dictates the addition of a comma after the final full stop, but many journals drop the comma for whatever reason.
  • cf.confer (compare). It is one word, so its abbreviation requires a single full stop after the ‘f’.
  • its/it’s – Why is it so difficult for people to understand this one (especially in Australia)? In almost every other circumstance, an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ indicates possession to a singular noun, as in ‘…the transect’s divisions’, ‘…the nearest neighbour’s value…’, etc. When the noun in question is plural, then the apostrophe sits nicely outside the terminal ‘s’ (e.g., ‘… the species’ attributes…’). This is a quasi-universal law EXCEPT for its/it’s. In this case ‘it’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’, so ‘its’ becomes the possessive form. So, you can write ‘…its burrow…’, but ‘…it’s burrow…’ is incorrect. Still confused? There’s a simple way to remember – whenever you see ‘it’s’ in front of something, say ‘it is’ to yourself and see if the phrase makes sense. If it doesn’t, then it should be ‘its’.
  • CONTRACTIONS (e.g., ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘it’s’) – These are colloquial forms and should never be used in a scientific manuscript.
  • IN ORDER TO (as in ‘… in order to compare the plots…’) – What’s wrong with just ‘to’? I have rarely seen a situation requiring ‘in order to’. Unnecessary verbiage.
  • HAS BEEN SHOWN TO (as in ‘… is a species that has been shown to demonstrate a…’). There is simply no need for this verbiage. Simply state ‘…is a species that demonstrates a…’ and then reference the statement properly at the end of the sentence.
  • ABBREVIATIONS, ACRONYMS AND INITIALISMS – Use sparingly, if at all. They are often discipline-specific and have no meaning outside relatively small circles.
  • UTILISE – Just write ‘use’. For some reason people believe ‘utilise’ sounds more technical. Rubbish.

CJA Bradshaw

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