Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Some interesting stuff in TREE

Just received an alert for the latest issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and I find there is an usually high number of interesting articles in it. Two of them I want to draw particular attention to.

The first article  is essentially an advertisement for crowdfunding of scientific research. Because of the ever-decreasing availability of public funds, researchers should think about more intensive public outreach followed by begging the public to throw some spare change their way, Kickstarter style. Or so the authors argue. While there are surely opportunities, especially if one has a flashy and charismatic idea, there are several problems that are avoided or barely alluded to in the article:
  • Is it really a good idea to have research funding distributed not based on scientific merit as judged by peer reviewers, but based on what the public finds interesting? Don't get me wrong, scientists always have to do something that is considered useful, be it by the taxpayer or by a private sponsor; my idea is not to let me do whatever takes my fancy without regard for the needs of society. But at least the taxpayer can be fairly sure that they have a layer of critical review between a scientist's project idea and the public money they want to use for it. In a crowdfunding world, how much money do you think will be wasted on "alternative medicine" frauds? Would the public be able to judge how promising or how ridiculous a particular scheme for the generation of renewable energy is? Peer review of grant proposals exists for a reason. Of course, one might argue that it is the sponsor's own decision if they want to waste their money, but...
  • ...this is also about the entire culture of funding and what it does to science. What would it mean for the job of a scientist if, instead of fighting for better public funding, science managers take the easier path of animating their staff to start crowdfunding initiatives? Should a scientist spend half their time in public relations, making YouTube videos and designing t-shirts as rewards for the sponsors instead of doing, you know, science? And ultimately, this is just another form of privatization. Instead of using taxes paid by all of society to fund projects of value to all of society, one would be using donations to fund projects of value to whoever happens to have enough money to afford a donation. As always in those cases, what about those who don't have that money?
  • Crowdfunding will also face the same problem as any other charity: in a time of crisis, the funds will quickly dry up as the public needs to reduce its expenses. A government does not have that problem to the same degree and can instead take a longer view, continuing to strategically fund services that are of long-term value.
  • Once large numbers of scientists try their hands at crowdfunding, as the authors apparently hope, competition will get fierce. It can reasonably be assumed that under those circumstances, uncharismatic research will not stand a chance, and the other problems listed above will only be compounded.
The other one is an opinion piece that argues against the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis (IDH). I am not an ecologist myself, but this is an idea that I learned during university and that always made intuitive sense to me: If a habitat experiences very frequent disturbances (fire, flood, etc.), all species that aren't adapted specifically to dealing with these disturbances, especially climax species with long generation times, will die out. If the disturbances are too rare, fast-growing and quickly reproducing but uncompetitive pioneer species will be driven to extinction by the more competitive climax species. Species richness of a habitat or area is then maximized at intermediate levels of disturbance because both sets of species can persist.

The paper makes two arguments, that there is little empirical evidence for IDH and that its theoretical foundations are wrong. Again, I am not an ecologist and find the second argument hard to follow, but the first one is of course already problematic enough.

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