The title of this post is more of a working hypothesis than an assertion. I put together a few observations I’ve made over the last month and this idea fell together.
Overall, there has been a steady decline in the pursuit of biological research involving long-term field research that relies upon a deep understanding of natural history. This is a well-recognized phenomenon among ecologists and evolutionary biologists. There are many potential causes, but here is one associated phenomenon:
A great variety of biological field stations throughout North and Central America have experienced a decline in research activity. At least, it seems to me, that many field stations have stagnated or shrunk, while the number of scientists has grown.
I’ve spent time in a variety of field stations, some with long histories that boast tremendous records of scientific productivity and discovery. The scientific progress at these sites was enabled by a culture of long-term scientists who have spent their careers working at particular locations in detail, and by bringing generations of students to work at these sites.
This doesn’t happen so much anymore. This was explained well by Chris Buddle of Arthropod Ecology.
What nearly all of these stations – with some notable exceptions – are missing is a set of senior researchers who are resident on site for long-term doing their field research. Nowadays, senior researchers don’t typically live at field stations for extended periods. Field stations are places where grad students, and maybe postdocs, work long-term. Undergraduates spend summers at field stations doing research and taking field courses, but at most field stations the faculty aren’t there for too long.
Without the consistent presence of senior researchers field stations do not serve as social and academic hubs like they have in the past. The emergent benefits from the field station as a thriving academic community, located in an active working site for field biologists, have diminished, if not fizzled.
Why has this happened? I think the answer is simple. Field biologists are no longer men whose spouses can stay at home with the kids all summer, or join them in the field to take care of the kids all summer. Decades ago, field stations that housed long-term senior researchers had trailing spouses who cared for all non-scientific matters, or had spouses who stayed at home and didn’t need to work for income.
All of us, regardless of gender, are now expected to support our families with a full combination of income, time, and direct parental care. I cannot be – nor do I want to be – the spouse that goes off to a field station while my spouse is required to tag along, or while my spouse stays at home. Either scenario requires me abdicating my responsibility as a parent. This summer, I’ve been away from my kid for almost a total of a month, over three trips, and that’s too much in my opinion. My situation isn’t different from many other biologists who are also parents, who have spouses who can’t drop everything during the field season.
I think my idea is reinforced, when considering the field stations that have maintained an active culture of long-term senior researchers. I haven’t worked there myself, but I’ve heard a lot about Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL), in southwestern Colorado. There is a large group of senior researchers who live on station full-time during the summer. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that nearly all of the senior researchers that work at RMBL have two parents that are both conducting research on site. So, there may be kids living on station, and these kids have two parents to juggle childcare together. Perhaps there are also senior researchers that have particularly flexible spouses or who are single. This seems to be a relatively unique scenario at RMBL, a special community that serves as home to two-career academic families over the summertime.
Another field station that has long-term senior researchers is Barro Colorado Island (BCI), part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. What makes BCI unique is that the Smithsonian employs many full-time research scientists whose job is to conduct research, often in BCI and the local environs. Other research stations don’t fully pay a big scientific staff to conduct research on site. However, it’s my understanding that the academic environment on BCI has atrophied a bit, with much of the community shifting to the little town of Gamboa, which hosts the launch site for the regular boat to BCI. Because working on BCI is pricier for long-term researchers, and Gamboa offers are more community for families, many researchers set up shop in town and may only occasionally visit BCI. Most of the senior researchers that live in Gamboa for longer periods are employed to work on site full-time. I suspect that senior researchers from universities abroad typically don’t work in Panama for longer periods, because of the same concerns about parenting.
If we want to promote long-term research in the field by senior scientists, then perhaps we could make sure that field biologists marry one another. Perhaps we could sterilize all field biologists.
I don’t have any practical recommendation about how to make sure that senior scientists spend more time in the field, which I do think would be good for science.
The field station where I work, La Selva Biological Station, constructed family housing more than 20 years ago, to accommodate scientists bringing their children. (I made use of this feature this summer for a couple weeks.) However, that can’t get me to live on station for the whole summer. While my kid could come along, my spouse isn’t going to drop her life to watch me at a field station all summer. I’m not going to take my kid away from my spouse for the whole summer and hire someone to care for him while I do science. The family housing can make me stay a little longer, but it can’t work for long periods.
The emergence of field stations in the United States happened during a time when most senior researchers were men who had spouses who handled the non-scientific aspects of their lives. Those times are gone. I don’t lament the change, but it does mean that field stations are less like to become long-term homes to senior scientists.
While I’d love to be at my field station all summer, I love my family infinitely more.
Am I less of a biologist by spending less than the whole summer in the field? Yes, I think that might be the case. However, my short visits to the field station make me more of a parent and more of a spouse. If there has to be a scientist/parent tradeoff, the parent side will always win out.
Note: I am writing this post while teaching a field course on Ants of the Southwest. Two of the course faculty are mothers, with their <2 year-old kids and non-ant spouses joining us on station. This bodes well.
Also, as an aside, here’s another prescription for helping improve the academic culture at field stations: shut off the damn internet between 8pm and 10pm. Lots of smart and interesting people hide with electronic devices when they could be interacting with one another.