Summer is sometimes a contemplative time for me. It used to be long hours in the field would give me time to think but now it is just as often that I’m weeding my garden or some other summer activity. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about negative results.
I read an interesting piece from a computer science professor at Bucknell, who documented his path to discovering universities “in the middle” — where both research and teaching are valued.
A case of scientific dishonesty has hit close to home and got me thinking. This isn’t a post of the details of the case (you can read more here if you’re interested) or the players involved (I don’t know them more than to say hi in the hallway) or to comment this particular case since I don’t have any more information than what is publically available. So if you’re looking for insider gossip, the following is bound to disappoint. Instead this example has got me reflecting in general about scientific dishonesty and what I can do about it.
As scientists, we live for those lightbulb moments. I imagine we’re more likely to have these moments if we know more natural history, which lets us piece together fundamental facts about our natural world in a new way.
Many research strategies, developed inside large research institutions, don’t work well in small teaching-centered institutions.
One of these strategies, I suggest, is the use of a biological model system.
I’ve read a lot of research proposals and manuscripts. Some manuscripts were rejected, and some proposals didn’t fare so favorably in review. What have I learned from the ones on the lower end of the distribution?
Here’s an idea. It can’t explain everything, but it’s something to avoid.
Science is a community endeavor. Much of our knowledge is unwritten, and subsists in the hive mind of our collective social unit. Some of the cooler and bolder — and perhaps more important — ideas are the ones that might not make it to print. My fellow ecologists don’t publish most of what we know, as Mike Kaspari recently reminded us with a quote from Dan Janzen.
We rarely share our piles of negative results, or the little curiosities for which we can’t find the time. Getting a peer-reviewed paper out the door is a non-trivial amount of work, and just mentioning it in a conversation is easier. But, hey, I have a blog where I can mention this stuff.
So let me tell you about two things that I find rather weird, but haven’t put more resources into figuring out.
It’s not the time, it’s the people.
The popular conception is that scientists at teaching-focused institutions have lower research productivity primarily because they spend so much time teaching. I disagree.
My sabbatical officially started a few days ago. I was half-expecting a kind of weight to lift. But my brain isn’t letting me have any of that.
For the last year or so, I’ve been stockpiling things “for sabbatical.” Now, I’m looking at the weight of that list.
It’s been argued that in ecology, like politics, everything is local.
You can’t really understand ecological relationships in nature, unless you’re familiar with the organisms in their natural environment. Or maybe not. That’s probably not a constructive argument. My disposition is that good ecological questions are generated from being familiar with the life that organisms out of doors. But that’s not the only way to do ecology.
As often happens to me, I have a post idea banging around in my head (or sometimes started on the page) but before I fully flesh it out, some amazing scientists post about the idea even better than I was thinking. Sometimes that inspires me to finish my own post and put it up, others times I let it drop because what has been said feels like it fills the niche.
This week was no different. But reading the connected posts actually speaks to the topic itself so I’m inspired to write my own piece.
I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and what is novel in science. There are two great posts on creativity (Experimenting with Creativity) and novel ideas (Where do ideas come from and what counts as “novel”?). Both are worth the read.
My own inspiration started outside science with a gift of a colouring book this Christmas. I haven’t coloured in years and here was the opportunity to try again. Perhaps it would even allow me to create a kind of meditative peace to deal with all the unknowns of unemployment*. The book sat around for a few weeks (we had a puzzle to finish) but I eventually picked up the pencils and a picture and went for it. Is colouring in someone else’s lines creative? I’m sure it isn’t nearly as creative as drawing the original outline but the act of colouring is not without choices. Obviously what colour you use is a choice but also how to combine them, how hard to press, whether to use texture all affect the outcome. Here’s an example of the independent choices made by me and my six year old daughter for the same picture:
Science is full of ideas that people somehow accept to be true, just because people say it’s true. We’ve all heard wonderful just-so stories that are waiting to be dispelled by data.
Let me tell you about three myths.
The first myth was that gastric ulcers are caused by stress. All kinds of medical treatments were predicated on this notion. When a researcher figured out that gastric ulcers were caused by bacterial infection, it was considered so outlandish that he had to infect himself to convince the medical research community. (In 2005, the Nobel Prize was awarded for this finding.)
For the second myth, consider the three-toed sloth. For about a century, it’s been said they specialize on Cecropia leaves. One twist on the story is that that the trees are tastier to sloths because they have weaker chemical defenses, because the plants are defended by ants. Then, in the 1970s, two biologists radio-tracked sloths for a couple years in Panama and found that yes, they eat Cecropia, along with many other plant species. If you track them with radio collars, then you get to see that they are not Cecropia specialists.
The people who radio-tracked the sloths did not receive a Nobel Prize.
If you look at scientists in teaching-focused institutions who have robust research programs, there’s one thing they tend to have in common: They have active collaborations with researchers outside their own institution.
When people ask how I run my lab group, I don’t know how to respond. It boggles me because these perfectly normal questions often have assumptions baked into them, about my university, my students, and the kind of work that happens in my lab.
It’s only natural that folks might compare my “undergraduate research lab” to the template of major research institution lab, most of which also feature undergrads in substantial roles.
The way I run my research program, and the students involved, is probably different than you might imagine unless you’ve spent a bunch of time at an underfunded regional state university like mine.
The Ecological Society of America has wonderful program called SEEDS, which is designed to support and mentor underrepresented undergraduates who are pursuing careers in academic ecology*.
Let’s extend the metaphor of undergrads-as-seeds further.
A few months ago I got a Fitbit, which for those of you who haven’t heard of it is basically a step counter. I’d been thinking about getting one for a while to help me motivate my exercise and keep my work-life balance somewhat on track. Perhaps symptomatic of not managing the balance, it took me awhile to get around to deciding what to get and actually buying it. Luckily for me, in the mean time, my husband bought one as a present and now I get to obsess about how many steps I take in a day.
Have you thought of collecting real, publishable, data as a part of lab that you’ve taught? Specifically, is it workable to use a single lab activity, conducted over multiple sections over multiple years, to build a dataset to ask a pending research question?
There are different kinds of mystery. Subatomic particles are almost illogically tiny, so we can only figure out what’s happening with big machines, long-term data, ingenious experiments, and a bunch of logical inferences. Because science is hard, then there are some simple facts about the world that we don’t know. For instance, the cause of gravity. It’s a mystery, but we have a specific question that we’re trying to answer, even if we don’t know the direction from which the answer will emerge.
We are missing fundamental facts at the foundation of physics. As Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are known unknowns. We know that there are certain things that we don’t know about physics, and are working to know them.
Ecology has a different kind of mystery.
Faculty members get unannounced visits from book reps on a periodic basis. They offer free books, and sometimes bagels. Then, they have two outrageous requests: