Changing families are behind the decline of field station culture


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.

20 thoughts on “Changing families are behind the decline of field station culture

  1. RMBL also has a summer camp for kids that can help parents juggle their time.

  2. I’ve often wondered about the intrustion of wireless technology in field camps in general. Now, everyone has a laptop, some places have internet / mobile coverage. One of the main reasons I love extended field work is the disconnecting from email, internet, etc.

    But overall, I agree that changing social norms (and priorities) regarding childcare and work/family balance (which are good!) also likely play a role. I wonder if there’s a way to export the social interaction of field sites to the research lab / classroom (even in a small amount)?

  3. Nice post Terry! You nailed it– how field stations manage families have a huge impact on the type of research done there. I’d say about two-thirds of the scientists, including the long-term scientists, have spouses that are scientists working at RMBL. We’ve got the whole range of strategies happening, from two scientist families, to scientists onsite with their children without a spouse, to spouses that have followed along.

    I have noticed, independent of RMBL, that more people in the workforce have jobs that allow telecommuting. I think that trend offers some subset of spouses the opportunity to follow a scientist in the field, though that brings its own challenges.

    Come visit us sometime– with the family included! You can make your own field observations. There are about 15 kids running around from <1 year up to about 10.

  4. Of course you could always attempt the alternative (which I strongly favor): move to the place where you do your research. I know, I know, this is rarely possible but it is a life saver for the work life balance of a field ecologist, at least in my case. I also think the decline in field station work, and field work in general, also has to do with the trendiness and rise of molecular work as a dominant sub-field in ecology/pop. science.

    • Or the alternative, which is to do your research where you live (or within range of a daily commute). Not as fun as going to the tropics (as I know from personal experience) and more difficult to find a research niche for yourself (if you’re working in temperate systems in North America or Europe, and especially if you’re working with well-studied taxa), but cheaper and more easy. Everything involves trade-offs, and I’m glad that different researchers take different approaches (and often single researchers take different approaches at different stages of their careers/lives).

  5. Another alternative is to find a way to create field stations closer to your home range!

  6. Our near urban field station is relatively new (5+ years now), and I have to say is getting busier each year. The spring & summer season is maxed out with very young field biologists, all in their early 20’s, and who have faculty guiding them remotely because they need to be closer to their campuses with their families. Without our high speed Internet, and the nearly daily interaction between the field folk and their primary labs, the number of users and their duration would probably be shorter, the cost of travel for these groups would increase, and the desirability of our station would not be nearly as keen as it is now. I agree that all of us spend too much time on laptops, but that is often how we conduct our work (e.g. filtering through thousands of camera trap video frames is tedious). On the flip side, last night the entire station shared an invasive species feast (wild boar, turkey and bullfrog) and then a movie, with great conversation about successes and failures of invasive species control. I am trying to be hopeful, and adaptive, to the next generation of field biologists and their needs.

  7. Excellent and thoughtful post, Terry. Having lived in field stations pretty much most of my career, including raising two kids in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica at a new field station without electricity, running water, etc., I understand the effect that changing family dynamics and the associated costs of doing remote research are having on field stations. I’ve lived through many of these changes myself. Your post provides lots of food for thought, and we should keep this conversation going.
    I see three main things that limit the presence of long-term researchers at field stations: (1) Obtaining long-term (3-years or more) funding for projects is getting harder and harder to achieve. Grants are much more competitive and in many cases only cover partial time in the field for senior researchers. These, then, have to have other funding sources which mean other obligations, like teaching, or even second jobs. Very likely, spouses also need to work or want to work (and likely have their own professions) to contribute to the family economy; (2) Costs of living in most of these facilities continue to increase. We struggle at La Selva with rising costs of operations and the demand of higher levels of service (steady and better electricity, AC in offices, labs and other buildings, broadband access 24/7, reasonably priced but excellent balanced food for all kinds of diets, including vegetarians and vegans, affordable transportation, etc.) as well as facilities that accommodate families (with safe playgrounds, child-care services, social avenues for the children, etc.). Each of these is getting more expensive to get and more sophisticated too; and (3) lack of opportunities for spouses to be able to work (for pay) at or near the field stations, places for kids to attend school (including home-schooling), and appropriate social outlets (not just inside the station). Places like Monteverde, for example, have a unique history that allowed them to create a community that was fulfilling enough for scientist families to have them settle there for long periods of time, many of them permanently. Can these conditions be replicated elsewhere in Costa Rica or other countries? We actually talked about this at ATBC.
    I’d love to keep this conversation going.

  8. Independent of the reason, the decline of research at dedicated field stations is something that I have noticed in my relatively short tenure as a scientist. I have worked at two field stations, one in the northeast during my undergraduate, and one in south now as a graduate candidate. The differences between the two are plentiful. The northern station is an ~2 hour drive from the host university, meaning that those who work there have to live on station. Because of the climate, it only functions as a research station ~6 months out of the year, with the other months devoted to conferences and retreats. The station was struggling until about 5 years ago when the directorship changed to one of the professors who conducted research there. Since then, the station has flourished, not only as a research station, but also an educational station where hundreds of students take classes every summer. One key point that I never realized is that the director lives on station during the entire field season…with his family. This is directly related to your point and likely contributes to the station’s success.

    This is not the case at my current station. First, the study of ecology in my department is in a current state of decline, which translates to less people using the station. It is also only ~30 from the university, which in theory should be a good thing. Wrong. No one stays on site, essentially making it a “commuter station.” No one really has a vested interest in the station and it suffers because of that. And the few that do are mostly graduate students (myself included) who are just transients and shouldn’t waste their time and energy on such matters….

  9. Certainly true at the Hastings Reserve over the last 20 years. There, the positions of Resident Zoologist and Resident Botanist were deleted upon retirement of occupants, and funds saved went to balance the 35% cut faced by UC Berkeley, the parent institution. The long-term study of birds there is also dwindling as larger, adjacent private lands are bought up by very wealthy individuals and LLC’s with lawyers who want to limit liability, and so limit access. This access limit to reduce political liability is also seen in government approval of research permits….

  10. I’m sure your “kid” would be fine if you were gone for the summer, it’s not that much of a big deal.

    • I just asked him, and he really, really disagrees. Moreover, it would be beyond unfair to my spouse to leave her with months of solo parenting. I guess my values and priorities are different.

  11. Thanks for all the input, y’all. Clearly, the connectedness of field stations lets me leave students to do work on site, and I don’t think I’d be able to do that without consistent email access. I’m particularly interested in how field stations run, though I’ve never run one – and it seems they need to evolve a family-friendly model that allows PIs to be in consistent contact with students and techs, and/or allows whole families to exist on station for extended periods.

    Thanks for mentioning the Billick and Price book! I’ve been looking forward to getting to it. And I’ve really wanted to get to RMBL – and Mountain Lake. I just started spending time at SWRS and have loved it. And, I’m an 18-year old-timer at La Selva and that’s where nearly all of my work takes place. The one drawback about working there is that, when/if grant money dries up, I won’t be able to afford to continue long-term projects on site. It is an exceptional place in so many ways, and particularly the people.

  12. I spent all my childhood summers at RMBL, and my dad & stepmother both still do active research there — but it’s not JUST the lack of stay-at-home spouses that’s changed: there’s also been a change in the sensitivity (for lack of a better word) of the science itself — last time i was at RMBL, there were way more restrictions than when i was a kid (no pets allowed, lots of study sites you can’t walk through, etc.) — AND the very-young children were all being bussed into Crested Butte for day care, rather than allowed to roam around on their own like we did (even from a very young age, we kids spent big chunks of most days hanging out together, without adult supervision) — so there’s a HUGE change in how much latitude parents are willing to give their small children. so, i think a lot of factors are at play in the decline…

    • and, for what it’s worth, MANY of the families i remember from RMBL had two-scientist parents, both doing research at the Lab — there were a few non-scientist spouses, but i’d guess they were the exception more than the rule.

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